Many of the most devoted baseball fans I know are also heavy readers; they take it for granted that one of the rituals attendant on the opening of a new season is to read or re-read two or three baseball books. If you are of that tribe, let me suggest that you take up a book that—although not explicitly about the game—turns out to be extraordinarily illuminating if you read it with baseball in mind: The Field of Nonsense, by Elizabeth Sewell, first published in 1952 and reissued in 2015 by the Dalkey Archive Press. Sewell’s close readings of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, and her exploration of the literature of “nonsense” more generally, shed light on the allure of baseball from a new angle.
Consider, for example, the start of Sewell’s fourth chapter, “Word Play and Dialectic”:
We had better hazard a definition of a Game at this point, and work onwards from there:—
A GAME: the active manipulation, serving no useful purpose, of a certain object or class of objects, concrete or mental, within a limited field of space and time and according to fixed rules, with the aim of producing a given result despite the opposition of chance and/or opponents.
You may protest that to think of baseball in connection with Nonsense is to trivialize the game, which of course involves great skill and which is manifestly purposeful. Sewell will set you straight, if you give her a chance: “the game of Nonsense takes the side of order and plays against disorder in the mind,” as she repeatedly affirms. This helps us make sense of the extreme reaction of many fans to recently proposed rule changes, which threaten “the side of order” to a degree that those in the baseball hierarchy seem unable to grasp, desperate as they are to boost the game’s shrinking audience.
If you are still on the fence, consider the opening of Sewell’s magnificent seventh chapter, “Seven Maids with Seven Mops”:
We have seen how Nonsense employs series (particularly the basic series of natural numbers), sometimes simply, sometimes two or three at a time, allowing different series to run along side by side but always preserving the conditions necessary for serial order, the integrity of the units and an arrangement turning on some form of “before” and “after.”
Can any longtime baseball fan read this without experiencing the shock of recognition?
Alas, along with Nonsense as explored by Sewell, taking us in unexpected directions (on her next to last page, we hear of “an old poem” in which “Christ is heard entreating His true love to the dance”; Sewell adds that “Mr. C.S. Lewis likens the trinity to a dance in which all souls must share”), there is lowercase nonsense on every hand, not least in Major League Baseball.
Like many fans of my generation (I was born in 1948), I grew up listening to baseball on the radio; starting in 1958, that meant listening to Dodger games as called by Vin Scully, perhaps the best ever at his trade. Since 1994, I’ve listened to the Cubs games, most of them called by the excellent Pat Hughes. Alas, in recent years, the team’s management has been so hungry to squeeze every conceivable advertising dollar out of every inning that the precious flow of the game as related by Pat and his current partner in the booth, former player Ron Coomer, is constantly interrupted. “That double is brought to you by X”; “that base on balls is brought to you by Y”; that brings me to ZZZ. The spell is broken. And baseball on TV? Routinely there are three broadcasters in the booth at the same time, chattering away, pontificating (don’t get me started on A-Rod), endlessly regurgitating the numbers yielded by “analytics,” which enhance the game only if used judiciously.
Finally, as the new season begins, don’t fail to read a delicious piece by Matthew Walther: “Baseball Is Dying. The Government Should Take Over.”
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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