On my honeymoon in Venice and Rome, I read Crosstalk, the latest novel from scintillating sci-fi writer Connie Willis. Like other Willis novels, this book uses a science fiction premise to season a screwball comedy. Here our heroine juggles romantic misadventures and the sudden, unwanted gift of telepathy. It's a rip-roaring read, with a thriller's pace and a colorful cast of characters constantly butting into the protagonist's life (and, eventually, mind). It was easier to laugh at Willis's satirical portrait of the oppressive omnipresence of communication technology when I was in a foreign land, cut off to some degree from text, email, and social media. Back in the States, the absurd miscommunication and over-communication that drive Crosstalk don't seem far-fetched at all. Maybe switch your phone onto airplane mode before reading Crosstalk. Otherwise, it might all seem troppo vero.
Watching the Chicago Cubs battle to their first World Series championship since 1908, I sensed my latent sentimental streak for the game’s early days returning, so I picked up a copy of Lawrence S. Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times. Many consider it the greatest American sports book ever written—or recorded, to be precise. It is an oral history.
In the 1960s, when many of professional baseball’s earliest heroes began passing away—starting with Ty Cobb in 1961—Ritter embarked on a five-year, 75,000-mile journey, criss-crossing the country in search of the stars of yesteryear. When he found them, he set his reel-to-reel tape player to “record” and let them speak about whatever came to mind—no specific questions about memorable games or off-field hijinks, no phony prodding about “how it felt” to knock in a pennant-winning RBI or strikeout against Walter Johnson. Just let them remember it the way it really was.
The result, as Thomas Lask wrote in the New York Times, is “an authentic piece of Americana,” and a monument to the spirit of the nation at the turn of the century. The men who gave up steady incomes and secure futures for the questionable life of a ballplayer were proud individualists. Most started playing professionally on one of the thousands of semi-pro clubs and company teams scattered across the country: steel mills and ice creameries offered $40 a month plus a job for good arms and hot bats, and every small town in the Midwest seemed to have its own amateur squad. Smokey Joe Wood even got his start wearing a wig and playing infield for the barnstorming Bloomer Girls outfit (he wasn't the team’s only male player, either).
In the days before multi-million-dollar salaries and 24-hour ESPN coverage, coaches and players weren’t afraid to follow their own rules, and colorful characters were in abundant supply. Speedy Hans Lobert once raced a horse around the basepaths at an exhibition game in Oxnard, California (he lost, narrowly). Wilbert “Uncle Robbie” Robinson, longtime manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers (then known as the Robins), once tried to catch a baseball dropped from an airplane as a publicity stunt at spring training—the pilots ran out of baseballs, and dropped a Florida grapefruit instead. Legendary (and highly superstitious) New York Giants manager John McGraw once brought a talentless but pertinacious Kansan named Charles Victory Faust onto the team because a fortune-teller had prophesied that Faust’s pitching would win the Giants the pennant. He travelled with the team and dressed down for every game—all without a contract—and though he never played, the Giants were tops in the National League in 1911. The following season, McGraw kept Faust around the dugout, and the Giants won another pennant. Finally, in 1913, McGraw sent Faust out to pitch an inning of limp “nothing-ball” against Cincinnati, and when three outs were later made before Faust’s chance to bat, the Reds stayed on the field for a fourth out. As Fred Snodgrass remembered it, “they slid him into second, third, and home.”
But those days are gone now. The number of unaffiliated professional teams has declined precipitously. Strict regulations govern every aspect of the game and those who play it, with violations punishable by hundred-thousand dollar fines and top-down bureaucratic discipline. Most star players are money-obsessed and self-absorbed.
Davy Jones, journeyman third baseman for the Cubs and Tigers, remembers the grand old game’s early days like this:
The players were more colorful, you know, drawn from every walk of life, and the whole thing was sort of chaotic most of the time, not highly organized in every detail like it is nowadays. ... Back at the turn of the century, you know, we didn't have the mass communication and mass transportation that exist nowadays. We didn't have as much schooling, either. As a result, people were more unique then, more unusual, more different from each other. Now people are more or less alike, company men, security minded, conformity—that sort of stuff. In everything, not just baseball.
The state of the national pastime reflects the state of the Union. It’s time to bring back the spitball.