Some still call it the National Pastime, though everyone knows the time of pastimes is long past.
I’d say that tired description hardly does the game justice, because at some down-deep level, baseball is something closer to the National Religion. That idea came to me after spending a few hours poring over a favorite book of mine, a fat, 500-plus-page compilation called “Baseball’s Greatest Quotations” by Paul Dickson. It’s become a catechism of the game for me.
Like other religions, baseball has seen better days. It’s under siege, even on the sports pages. Where once a worshipper could read next-morning newspaper accounts of blazing fastballs, impossible saves and home run blasts, the sporting news today reads more like the financial pages. Or the police blotter.
It’s no less dispiriting for the faithful who finance pilgrimages to baseball’s storied cathedrals, only to find that the pews with the best sight lines have been leased for the next 100 years to corporate grandees. And let’s not mention how these pilgrims must fork over six bucks for a single cup of baseball’s holy water, body-temperature beer.
But while baseball awaits its Luther, someone who, lacking a real oaken door, can nail baseball’s corporate indulgences to a Facebook wall and make them stick, the game goes on, despite it all.
Do I sound like a true believer? A defender of the faith? I’m not. I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s and hated playing baseball more than long division. More even than mowing the lawn.
But baseball was the faith of my father and his father before him, although both men saved room in their hard-working lives for the more traditional forms of worship.
Over the years, I’ve argued, wrestled with and finally turned my back on both religions, but I know I’ll never completely say goodbye to either. Nor do I really want to. Both are too tightly entangled – for good and ill -- in a remembered time that gives me great pleasure, not to mention something to write about.
Which is why “Baseball’s Greatest Quotations” is sitting, Gideon-like, beside me on a hotel bed stand as I write these words during a weekend vacation. Relieved of all possibility of being ignominiously struck out, chosen last or beaned by one of Tommy Corcoran’s famous fastballs, no longer forced to learn humiliating life lessons by shagging grounders or losing pop flies in an unforgiving summer sun, in short, no longer having to practice the religion all the other guys loved so much, I find it among my most relaxing pleasures to revel in the words of baseball’s most notorious, most-favored and most forgotten characters.
An extremely partial and necessarily random list of these characters, whose nicknames even Damon Runyon couldn’t improve upon, would include Jim “Baby Cakes” Palmer, Kenny “The Incredible Heap” Kaiser, “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry, “Say Hey” Willie Mays and Enos “Country” Slaughter.
These names are but the wispiest helix of baseball’s indestructible DNA, as evidenced by the book’s subtitle: “From Walt Whitman to Dizzy Dean, Garrison Keillor to Woody Allen, a treasury of more than 5,000 quotations plus historical lore, notes and illustrations.”
The book is a century-spanning sampler of mots both bon and bad, requiring neither background nor familiarity with the quotees nor with the particulars of the game. Its appeal is, quite simply, nostalgic, harkening back to the storied “simpler times” that all nostalgia encompasses. And you don’t have to have lived in those times to realize they existed, and to delight in them.
You want simplicity? Here’s the great DiMaggio, looking back on his first days in the majors:“I can remember a reporter asking for a quote. I didn’t know what a quote was. I thought it was some kind of a soft drink.”
From such innocence is born heavenly inspiration: remember, the gifted rube who said those words went on to marry Marilyn Monroe.
You want some more? Here are a very few of the choicest bits:“You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.” – author Roger Kahn
“No, why should I?” – pitcher Don Larsen, when asked if he ever got tired of speaking about his perfect game.
“Finley is a self-made man who worships his creator” – sportswriter Jim Murray, describing Kansas City (and Oakland) A’s owner Charlie Finley.
“If the Mets can win the World Series, the United States can get out of Vietnam” – New York Met Tom Seaver, circa 1969.
I could go on, but, as the great A. J. Liebling would have said, it would explode me.
The ultimate baseball quote belongs to Philip Roth (whose most under-rated and funniest work, “The Great American Novel” is a baseball saga, natch). I hesitate to quote him here, for fear of allowing his summary to do in 53 words what I’ve labored here to do in 976. But, in the interests of brevity and as a gift to anyone who’s shown enough faith to read this far, I offer up Roth’s description of what baseball meant him to as a kid growing up in New Jersey, a gem plucked by Dickson from the pages of The New York Times, circa 1973:
“ . . .baseball – with its lore and legends, its cultural power, its seasonal associations, its native authenticity, its simple rules and transparent strategies, its longeurs and thrills, its spaciousness, its suspensefulness, its heroics, its nuances, its lingo, its ‘characters,’ its peculiarly hypnotic tedium, its mythic transformation of the immediate – was the literature of my boyhood.”
“Literature of my boyhood.” Wish I’d said that. But I’ll stick with my religious metaphor and recommend Dickson’s book to true believers, and old apostates everywhere.
And, don’t forget, if memories of that centerfield sun get to be too much for you, quench that thirst it with an ice-cold can of “Quote” – the drink of champions! (Or try our new diet version, “UnQuote” It’ll leave you speechless!)
This review originally appeared, in a better-edited version, in talking writing.com.