About ten years ago, when the Chicago White Sox seemed to be sliding toward oblivion, Pop artist Claes Oldenburg offered a helping hand.
"What I was proposing," says Oldenburg, who grew up rooting for the rival Chicago Cubs, "was to close Comiskey Park and turn it into a monument. I would have filled the stands with plaster spectators and put plaster players in the field -- all of them frozen in a great, climactic moment. Nothing would be movable except the groundskeeper, Jimmy Yancey, who would have walked around and kept the grass in shape."
Baseball as High Art? Maybe the city fathers should have taken him up on it. It might even have worked in Washington, where the Senators, 10 years dead, are only a bittersweet memory. Not that there's no baseball, though. This Friday night at 7:30, you can choose between two Industrial League games: Mercury Van Lines vs. Minnick's Heating & Air Conditioning at Wheaton Regional Park (on Orebaugh Avenue near Arcola Street) and the Washington Black Sox vs. the Printers Union at Cosca Park (on Thrift Road, about a mile south of Clinton).
There's something to be said for a good, clean idea -- especially one that has endured, virtually unchallenged, for a hundred-plus years, drawing more than 43 million adherents in the last year alone, and luring millions more outdoors to test its truth for themselves. Baseball, it develops, is grist for many mills.
As for the basics, just think of the Alexandria Dukes at Four Mile Run Park, chasing down doubles for 500 fans; or Scotty Silver, a 52-year-old suburban father of five, hanging on for dear life to first base as he manages Minnick's Industrial League club; or Jim Moeller, coach for the last quarter-century at Fairfax High, weaning his players on Redman chaw ("If you're man enough," he taunts). Now that's all in fun.
But there are also those, like Oldenburg, who take off on fancier flights, who can spot from high above the fray all manner of pith and portent. "The organization of baseball is quite formalized," the artist allows. "It's rather static in appearance, which also makes it sculptural." Oldenburg finally built, for Chicago's Social Security Administration, a 101-foot, latticed-steel "Batcolumn." For somebody's lawn in Connecticut, he bronzed an outsized catcher's mitt. He says he likes the shapes.
Christian Messenger, a professor of English Literature at the University of Illinois, likes baseball as process. "There's such a timeless, endless quality to it," he says.
The baseball continuum merits at least subplot status for Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis: the wizened fisherman, in Old Man and the Sea, admonishing his apprentice, "Have faith in the Yankees my son;" or Babitt, in the book of the same name, believing baseball, like the Republican Party and the contents of his pockets, to be of "eternal importance."
For Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud, it's the stuff whole novels are made of. In Roth's The Great American Novel, an aging sportswriter, Word Smith, is obsessed by visions of a lost league -- wiped from the record books if not from his enfeebled memory. Malamud's The Natural, meanwhile, treats the career of a rising young star who gets shot by a fan, while his saga gets duly buried under a mound of mythology and Freud.
Baseball seems to lend itself to such ruminations, which tend either to sink into a swamp of solemnity or else float away like a bubble on the breeze:
"Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball" -- from historian Jacques Barzun, who adds, "The game has paralleled the transformation of this country into the headlong, anxious, commercially-minded place that it is."
"It is hard to imagine a democratic republic without baseball for the instruction of its citizens" -- this from pundit Michael Novak.
"It has no clock, no ties and no Liberal intrusions into the organic progression" -- from conservative columnist George Will, who says baseball is thus tailor-made for the Reagan Era, though William F. Buckley Jr. notes, "There used to be two leagues, I know that, but now I think there are more, right?"
If only Buckley, Will and crew had been around the other night, when agriculture department staffer Karen Stuck, who chased minor league fouls in her South Dakota youth, decided she'd teach a seminar. "Baseball for the Uninitiated," she called it. She'd made the arrangements, rented a schoolroom and waited. She waited a long time.
He was a bookish chap, lugging a battered briefcase, and sporting both a Dodgers' cap and a button reading "Brooklyn." Tugging at his already loosened tie, he settled on one of 15 chairs Stuck had placed around the room.
Finally, a few minutes apart, two students wandered in. The first looked bewildered, maybe a little nervous, but the other -- it was clear -- meant business.
He dug into his briefcase. Out came a mimeographed baseball newsletter; out came two tattered baseball scrapbooks; out came a pile of baseball snapshots. Shyly flashing a smile, and muttering something about a baseball museum at home, he passed them around.
"Thank you," Karen Stuck said to Ron Gabriel, founder-in-chief of the Brooklyn Dodgers Fan Club. Somehow, though, she sounded a bit grim.
"Some people, of course, think I should be teaching a course on baseball rather than taking one," Gabriel mused later. "I just get personal satisfaction from observing others learning about the game."
Gabriel, a General Services Administration manager with a doctorate in statistics, proved that he knew quite a lot of them that night. Though he did take notes and allow Stuck to talk -- "Baseball is a very stable, slow-changing game," he let her say -- he also dispensed nuggets for the edification of all. Apropos a lesson on the function of home plate, he jumped in, "Over 80 percent of the top hitters have been left-handers.Just think of Ruth, Gehrig, Musial, Williams, Brett and Cobb, and you'll see what I mean.
"Hmmmm," Stuck said, backing slowly into a wall. "That's, uh, interesting." The silence that ensued spoke volumes.
Gabriel, who says his memorabilia-crammed home in Bethesda is nothing if not "Cooperstown South," was just a kid in Flatbush when the Dodgers abandoned Ebbets Field. Ever since, he has lived his life preserving their sainted memory.
"After the Dodgers left Brooklyn, the borough lost its personality, lost its spirit," he laments. "I remember that whenever there was a game, you could walk down any street and it would be like one continuous radio show coming out of the sky. The Dodgers were a unifying force among and within all the families of Brooklyn." There's still some hurt in his voice, a palpable sense of betrayal. "For me," he says and trails off. "For me, when the Dodgers left, it was just like having a close relative die."
And, a world apart from Brooklyn, there is Melanie Davenport, of the 11th-century Davenports. English every inch, to the escutcheon on her ring, she was standing the other day amid a scattering of middle-aged men on the West Ellipse, where the Georgetown Hoyas matched hits with George Washington University's Colonials. While the men were the picture of passion, young Davenport was a cloud of confusion.
"What's going on here?" she demanded -- almost accused. "The bowler keeps chucking the ball, but the batsman doesn't even attempt to hit it. Another thing: they're out there in the field for five minutes and then they all come in: it makes no sense whatever. . ."
Maybe Melanie Davenport will one day understand. It's likelier, though, that Brooklynites will venerate the Queen. A serious business this: When Gary Goldman, managing editor of The Sporting Goods Dealer, a magazine that tracks sports participation nationwide, suggests that "baseball is one of America's pastimes," George Will snorts, "The man's obviously a Communist."
So it goes with baseball -- concerning which some vignettes: NEIGHBORHOOD "There used to be five teams inside of 10 blocks in this neighborhood," Doffy Jones says in his Northeast Washington parlor. "Now you can't hardly find five teams from here all the way to Northwest."
For Jones, duke of Deanwood as well as owner-manager of the Washington Black Sox, life's a mix of fond memories and painful facts. At 65, his house stuffed with the booty of triumphs past -- "I've got 300 trophies here somewhere" -- he's witnessed a downslide for baseball and an upswing for meanness in the streets.
The game touches bottom, things fall apart: the two, he believes, go hand in glove.
"There's no discipline anymore," he complains. "Look at the kids today -- smoking pot, using drugs. Very bad. Very bad." He shakes his head. "Kids 10 and 12 years old, kids who could be good athletes!" Rueful smile. "But I guess you can't plant apples and expect to get pears."
Jones built a successful trucking business in Washington and his very own ballpark in Lothian, Maryland. One was the means to the other. At the age of 12, more than half a century ago, he founded what would better become the most game-winning club in the Washington Industrial League, playing up and down the East Coast, facing some of the best opponents baseball could muster anywhere. The team's still here, and Jones is still running it. Now when folks speak of him, the tone approaches awe.
"I'm a great admirer of his," says Jinks Morton, Sugar Ray Leonard's manager, who played outfield for the Black Sox 10 years ago. "He struggled for years and years. Quite a man."
Lounging on his sofa in an undershirt, the arms sinewed, the presence commanding, Jones recalls his youth. "When I was coming up as a kid, I would get whipped every Sunday with my father's strap just to watch some ballclub play," he says. "My mama didn't want me messing around with no baseball. I knew I was gonna get whipped, but I did it anyway. Finally, after all those weeks of whippings, she said, 'Doffy, you're a good child, so you don't have to lie and cheat and steal around no more about this baseball business.' Well, that was music to my ears." He bursts into gales of laughter.
"A few years ago, it was really a joy to have a ballclub. You knew all your players would be there, the fellas would come to practice and pay attention and listen. But it gets tougher every year. You don't get the participation like you used to. You don't get the crowds like you used to. The parents are not getting behind their kids and giving them direction. There's so much trouble in the streets."
From the coffee table in front of him, he retrieves a yellowing framed photograph -- a group shot of the 1929 Black Sox. The 13-year-old Jones, his face a mask of determination, is kneeling in the foreground with his mit, and all are wearing uniforms he had bought and paid for himself.He slowly scans the picture. "He's dead . . . he's dead . . . this one's dead," he says, pointing out his teammates. "They were good ballplayers." A grin. "They were real good ballplayers." YOUNG PROFESSIONAL Little League was never like this, it dawned on Joel Olenick as he careened through northern Mexico with the Mineros of Cananea.
"I never learned Spanish as well as I should have," the 25-year-old Montgomery County native says sheepishly. "All I really knew is that they were yelling something at me from the stands -- probably dirty names. They really like their baseball."
A varsity infielder for George Washington University, Olenick spent a season with the Alexandria Dukes and then two more with the Mineros (which translates to "Miners") in the Mexican Summer League.
"Cananea is right on the border with Arizona -- sort of a quiet, sleepy village," he says. "But some of those Mexican border towns are pretty crazy."
All that's in the past, though.
"Unfortunately, I'm not gonna be able to play anymore even though I still like it," Olenick says. "I've decided to go to law school. TRICKS OF THE TRADE Jim Deponai, a 31-year-old government worker who coaches the Boundary Associates club in the Industrial League, says he likes to work with equipment.
"In baseball," he says, "you sometimes do some subversive things to get the edge. Even in the 1890s, baseball players were considered a pretty unsavory bunch, though I don't think that carries over today."
Nevertheless, Deponai says he's developed an extension strap for a glove "so it won't slip around," has drilled holes in bats to make them lighter, and has counseled his pitchers to use petroleum jelly on their gloves and turn up the grommets of their lacing to scuff up the ball. "Uncool," Deponai concedes, "but I haven't been challenged yet."
To fight off tension on the bench, meanwhile, Deponai plays a game called "Spit."
"Blowing bubbles, of course, is far too liberal. We can't have that," he says. "So we use chewing tobacco. To play 'Spit,' you try to hit the colored, cutaway part of your opponent's sock with tobacco juice. If the spitter hits the white part of the sock, then the person spat upon gets a free spit on the bench."
To keep players on the bench mentally alert, and by way of psychological warfare, Deponai suggests "riding" players in the field. Sample shouts: "Pizza face!"; "Your face looks like a bag of melted caramels!", and "Surfer boy!" -- all yelled in glorious repetition.
In the meantime, Bill Harris enjoys ritual. Says Harris, 30, assistant coach and history teacher at Fairfax High School, "We try to dress in the same manner after we win a game until we lose one -- either polish our shoes, or don't polish our shoes, maybe not wash those socks for a month, or become attached to a lucky tie. Myself, I like to chew on these waxy black teeth you can get at candy stores at Halloween." MYTH It's opening day in Baltimore. The field flowers out into the sunlight and smacks against the stands -- a shimmering of grass-green and Dayglo orange.
A chap in a bird suit romps with a honeyblond gymnast on the dugout roof. A score of photographers have gathered in a semi-circle, gone down on one knee and aimed lenses at the dugout. A fellow in French-cut duds, a mountain of peanut shells in his lap, stops chewing and cranes his neck. Next comes commotion, as ushers and security guards clear the first row of paying customers. Finally, a hush.
It's Edward Bennett Williams, owner incarnate: portly and properous. The collective murmur that follows, of course, is for Joltin' Joe DiMaggio.
Baseball Incarnate, lean as a greyhound, he waves slightly as he ascends to the box. His lips don't move, even when Williams pats him jovially on the back; he merely crinkles his eyes: economy of motion. Respectful applause, ceaseless clicking of shutters. He holds up the baseball. He smiles slightly, and the tan shows his teeth to good advantage. He tosses the ball with a graceful flick of the wrist.
"Mr. Coffee," someone breathes.
where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.