My Short and Happy Life as a Baseball Fanatic

Young Boys In Baseball Team
Young Boys In Baseball Team

As a child, I was a baseball fanatic.

This fanaticism did not reflect any athletic ability on my part. Far from it! Growing up, like Bernie Sanders, in a lower middle class area of Brooklyn during the 1940s, I was often pressed into joining baseball games with the other boys in my neighborhood. But I was a terrible fielder, as well as a mediocre hitter. Stationed at my usual post in right field, I almost invariably missed the few fly balls or ground balls that headed my way. Also, when I finally caught up with them, I often managed no more than an inaccurate throw to the frantic infielders. When local kids chose up sides before the game, the organizers usually made me one of their last selections. Who can blame them?

Even so, when it came to baseball as a spectator sport, I was a fanatic. Although I attended only a few big league games -- mostly those of the New York Yankees, for whom I rooted -- I listened to them on the radio and, after my family acquired a television set, on television. I also avidly read articles in the newspapers about specific games, about the players, and about the more general subject of baseball.

But this was only the tip of the iceberg. I read books about the baseball heroes of the past, including Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig. I devoured fiction about baseball players -- for example, the novels of John R. Tunis -- and was deeply stirred. For hours, I sat with my friends (and sometimes my father), playing a baseball board game on the floor of my family's small apartment.

Also, like many other boys in my neighborhood, I collected baseball cards, then conveniently packaged with flat slabs of bubble gum. Each was devoted to a particular player and sported his picture. We traded the cards and, also, gathered on the outdoor sidewalks to flip them toward the walls of our apartment houses. The winner of each round was the boy who could land his card closest to the house, and with this victory he acquired the cards of his competitors that had fallen short. Occasionally, one of the participants would manage to flip a card that actually ended up leaning against the house (a "leaner"), which, given its proximity to the building, was this game's equivalent of drawing a royal straight flush.

Even more remarkable, on a regular basis I carefully followed and memorized a blizzard of statistics -- published in the newspapers -- for each player. This included his singles, doubles, triples, home runs, RBIs, and batting average. How could a child manage -- indeed, enjoy! -- all this quantification? Admittedly, I was a very good student and did quite well in school. But I am certain that my plunge into the mathematics of baseball had less to do with native ability than with the allure of following the game.

Naturally, with this wealth of knowledge at my command, I frequently commented on how baseball should be played. Now was the time to call on relief pitcher X! Batter Y should be brought in as a pinch-hitter! Why was Z not in today's line-up? Sometimes, by falling short of my wisdom, baseball managers could be quite exasperating. Amused by my presumed expertise, my father suggested that I write to Casey Stengel, then the acclaimed manager of the Yankees, and offer him my advice. So, at the age of thirteen, I sent him a letter along those lines. In response, Casey assured me that "your personal interest in our starting line-up is greatly appreciated."

The question remains, though, as to why I was such a fanatic. On the surface, at least, my absorption in the sport was an enormous waste of time. So why did I bother with it? One reason, I think, for my devotion to baseball as a spectator sport is that so many boys in my neighborhood were obsessed with it and, therefore, anything less on my part would have isolated me from my peers. After all, in the 1940s and 1950s, New York City was awash in a frenzied spirit of competition among fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Giants, and the New York Yankees. Another reason is that the Yankees were an extraordinarily successful team in those years and, also, had many wonderful players one could celebrate, including Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Phil Rizzuto.

Perhaps most important -- at least to me -- was that baseball as a spectator sport was a form of escapism. For a number of reasons, my childhood was not a particularly happy one. Therefore, following baseball removed me from the depressing aspects of my immediate environment and placed me in an entirely different world -- a world of excitement, heroism, and glamor.

This theory is reinforced by the fact that, only a few years later, when my environment changed, I dropped baseball entirely. The reason was that, in the fall of 1958, at the age of seventeen, I began attending Columbia College. And, suddenly, there seemed much better things to do than follow baseball. They included expanding my mind, broadening my social life, and changing the world. In this context, I no longer felt much interest in baseball, and forgot all about it.

Now, some six decades later -- amid corporate greed, war, poverty and hate-spewing demagogues -- I still feel the need to escape occasionally into a world of fantasy. But I meet that need by reading novels or watching good films. Other people, I realize, prefer following baseball. And who is to say that that activity is any worse a way to escape, every now and then, from the terrible reality of human suffering? In fact, as I recall from my childhood, following baseball can be a lot of fun.

Lawrence Wittner (http://www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What's Going On at UAardvark?