My father used to call the World Series the World Serious. A joke of course, but he was being, well, serious too. Since the first playoff between the Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1903, the Fall Classic has played a central role in our national life and culture. “To be an American,” writes Tyler Kepner, who covers baseball for the New York Times, “was to have at least a passing familiarity with the World Series.” Kepner cites a 1961 episode of a popular TV series, “The Twilight Zone.” A state trooper, trying to discern which patron of a diner is actually a Martian, asks one suspect: Who won the last World Series? The assumption was that any real human “could easily answer” correctly. (It was the Pirates, by the way.)
In his book “The Grandest Stage: A History of the World Series,” Kepner concedes that today, the Super Bowl has eclipsed the Series as “our sporting fixation” and that “football wins every poll when fans are asked to name their favorite sport.” But baseball, he argues, “is a fundamentally different product” than football, “an everyday companion for seven months, not a once-a-week spectacle for five.” The Super Bowl is a single game lasting perhaps four hours. A fling, a one-night stand, with rappers bellowing under strobe lights for 20 minutes at halftime. The series can go seven games consuming about 25 hours. It’s more like a romance, requiring a commitment. With no strobe lights. As my dad said, it’s serious, and old-fashioned in the best possible way.
I have one beef with Kepner. He focuses almost entirely on the games and the players, and not enough on the fans and their communities. Baseball is not just about who played on the field but who watched from the stands. Not just about homers but hometowns, about cheers and loyalties as well as champs and losses. What was it like, for instance, to grow up in Chicago, rooting for a Cubs team that had not captured a title since 1908? And how did it feel when they finally won in 2016, and fans visited the graves of their ancestors who had never lived to see that blessed day, bearing tokens and amulets of victory?
Still, this book is full of lively incidents and insights, and one question it tries to answer is: Why do certain stars shine brightest on the grandest stage? Like football’s Tom Brady (seven Super Bowl victories) and basketball’s Steph Curry (four NBA titles), baseball has players like Reggie Jackson, nicknamed “Mr. October,” who played in five World Series for the Oakland A’s and the New York Yankees, hitting .357 with 10 homers and 24 runs batted in. Three of those dingers came on successive pitches on Oct. 18, 1977, the greatest offensive performance in 117 years (two series have been missed since 1903). “I started believing in the headlines,” Jackson told Kepner, “I started believing what was written and almost relied on it.” David Ortiz, the fabled “Big Papi,” who hit .455 while leading the Red Sox to three titles, has a pithier explanation for success: “Some people got it, some people don’t.”
The best teams usually win a 162-game regular season, but in a short playoff, Lady Luck gets a turn at bat. In Game 7 of the 2019 Series, the Washington Nationals were trailing the Houston Astros 2 to 1 in the seventh inning. Astros pitcher Zack Greinke was sailing along when manager A.J. Hinch decided to replace him with reliever Will Harris. The Nationals’ Howie Kendrick flicked Harris’s second pitch down the right field line, barely clearing the wall and clanking off the foul pole, fair by inches, one of the shortest home runs in series history, but it put the Nationals ahead for good. As Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs first baseman in 2016, put it, “It not only takes a great team to win a championship, it takes a little good fortune.”
For every hero like Kendrick there is a goat like Harris (and his manager Hinch). The intensity of the series amplifies both roles, creating narratives that can transcend sports and enter the larger culture. In Game 3 of the 1932 series at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, the Yankees’ Babe Ruth gestured with an upraised finger toward the Cubs pitcher, Charlie Root, and walloped his next pitch for a home run. Legend has it that Ruth “called” his home run, one of the most memorable moments in baseball history. Except Root insists Ruth was saying that while he had two strikes against him, “he still had one coming.” On his death bed Root told his daughter, “I gave my life to baseball, and I’ll be remembered for something that never happened.”
Bill Buckner is remembered for something that definitely did happen. In the sixth game of the 1986 series, with the Red Sox on the brink of winning their first title since 1918, Mookie Wilson of the Mets hit a little dribbler down the first base line. It went through Buckner’s legs, the Mets survived, and then they won the seventh game. “That little ground ball never stopped rolling, following Buckner to the great beyond,” writes Kepner.
But there is a footnote. Over the years, his misplay gave Buckner “a measure of celebrity beyond baseball, a kind of cultural resonance few athletes ever achieve,” observes Kepner. The writer Larry David devised an episode of his HBO show, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” in which Buckner is walking through Manhattan and sees a woman clutching a baby in the fifth-floor window of a burning building. When she drops the child, Buckner dives to “snatch the baby in midair.” David, an avid Yankees fan, tears up recalling that episode: “I did want to redeem him.”
Baseball is a game of legend and loss, myth and memory, all magnified by the World Serious. Buckner flubbed the ball but caught the baby. And the crowd cheered.
Steven V. Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. His latest book is “Cokie: A Life Well-Lived.”
The Grandest Stage
A History of the World Series
By Tyler Kepner
Doubleday. 310 pp. $30
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