BASEBALL: THE NATIONAL PASTIME

BASEBALL: THE NATIONAL PASTIME by Mari Wallace

Take me out to the ball game!
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks.
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team.
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out
At the old ball game.

I probably learned that song when I was still in single digits.  I loved baseball for years and it’s still the only American sport that has rules I understand and can explain.  My big brother was a fan of the New York Yankees and because I hero-worshipped him, I became a fan, too.  I can still visualise the photos he had on his bedroom wall of all of the Yankee players.  And remember his collection of baseball cards – kept in his hide-away (beneath a removable wooden floor board).

My English husband sneers about baseball, dismissing it by calling it rounders.  Although baseball is certainly derived from rounders, a game which English immigrants took with them when they made the arduous journey to America, it is also different in many ways which would bore you to hear.  Suffice it to say that it was dubbed the ‘national pastime’ in the mid-19th century, and it has thrived since the time of the industrial revolution through the Cold War to the present time. In trying to differentiate between rounders and baseball, one writer quipped, “No matter how you dress it up, baseball really is just rounders on steroids.”  Here in the U.K., people traditionally stop playing rounders when they leave primary school whereas on the North American continent, baseball is a multi-billion dollar industry.  I think I’ve made my point.

In the U.S., there are 30 teams in Major League Baseball – 15 are in what’s called the American League and 15 are in the National League.   At the end of the baseball season, the top team from each league (having won ‘the pennant’) plays the other in the ‘World Series’ which is a ludicrous title because it’s just in the US!   However, baseball is, in fact, played all over the world.  In Canada, it is the second favourite sport, after ice hockey.  In the Americas it is particularly popular in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rica, Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela.  It’s played all over Asia, with Taiwan as its hub.  Italy and the Netherlands are dominant countries in the European Baseball Federation, with Spain and Belgium following closely. 

Over the years, baseball has provided the inspiration for many films. Both ‘The Natural’ (1984) – starring Robert Redford –  and ‘Field of Dreams’ (1989) – starring Kevin Costner – were nominated for Best Film category for the Oscars in their respective years.  Another baseball film of note is ‘Bull Durham’ (1988 – Kevin Costner again –  and most recently ‘Moneyball’ (2011) – starring Brad Pitt. 

A wonderful musical, ‘Damn Yankees’, is still being performed regularly. Premiering on Broadway in 1955, it’s a delightful tale about the lowest-ranking baseball team, the Washington Senators, attempting to unseat the New York Yankees, who always win the ‘pennant’.   I saw the film version when it came out in 1958 and have loved it ever since.  Some of the songs have enjoyed wide popularity, particularly ‘You’ve Gotta Have Heart’ and ‘Whatever Lola Wants’. 

The poem, ‘Casey at the Bat’ – written by Ernest Thayer in 188 – is one that all American school children know:  I can still quote the opening lines: ‘The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville 9 that day./ The score was four to two with but one inning left to play.’

My personal baseball hero was Mickey Mantle who played for the Yankees from 1951-1968.  He is still regarded as one of the best players ever and by many as the greatest switch-hitter – meaning he could bat either right or left handed – in the history of baseball.  He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974, and was selected for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1999.   My little town of Pleasantville was all a-buzz with the news that Mickey Mantle was coming to do some sort of film or commercial on our sports field.  With my parents’ blessing, I played hookey from school so I could be there and shake Mickey’s hand – which I did.

If you’ve not heard of Mickey Mantle, perhaps you’ll have heard of Babe Ruth whose baseball career began in 1915 and ended in 1935.  He started out with the Boston Red Sox but it was with the New York Yankees that he attained his fame, having helped them win seven American League pennants and four World Series titles.  A candy bar was ‘invented’ in his honour – the Baby Ruth – which still exists today. 

Another star player with the Yankees was Joe DiMaggio (who was briefly married to Marilyn Monroe).  Who can forget those Paul Simon lyrics, ‘Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you’ from the film, ‘The Graduate’.  Simon used DiMaggio to represent heroes of the past.  Ironically, Simon was very much a Mickey Mantle fan but Mantle’s name just didn’t have the right rhythm for the song.

A sad baseball connection is with Lou Gehrig, a Hall of Famer who also played for the New York Yankees – in the 1930s.  He was diagnosed with Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis – which we know as Motor Neurone Disease.  Because of this, Americans always refer to ALS or MND as Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

When I was ten or so, my dad managed to get tickets to a Yankees game in their stadium in the Bronx (a borough of New York City).  It was the only time I got to see them play ‘in the flesh’ but the memory lives on.  My Aunt Celia stands out among my relatives for her devotion to the Yankees.  She went to games quite frequently, always rooting vigorously for the Yankees.  On one occasion, she got so excited that she began to repeatedly hit the man seated in front of her with her rolled up programme.  I don’t know what his reaction was but I imagine it consisted of some choice four-letter words.

I shall end my paean to baseball with an apt quote from Yogi Berra, who played with the Yankees for 18 seasons and is regarded as one of the greatest catchers in baseball history.  ‘Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.’

By Mari Wallace