Saturday, July 24, 2021

Quote of the Day (Stephen Jay Gould, on the Stability Underlying ‘The Mythology of Baseball’)

“Nothing nourishes the mythology of baseball more than the stability that allows us to grasp the accomplishments of past legends because they played the same games under the same rules. I don’t know how to read the records of early basketball heroes who played in the age of the two-handed dribble and the center jump after each basket (and no slam dunks). But when Roger Maris chased and surpassed the greatest of all records in 1961, Babe Ruth’s 1927 mark of sixty home runs in a season, the whole nation watched during a summer of fascination—and understood. Moreover, although baseball is a team sport, all its actions can be dissected into components of personal contest (batter against pitcher, runner against fielder)—and individual performance therefore obtains an irreducible and measurable meaning. By contrast, achievements in other sports have no separable status, and myths about personal heroes cannot take similar root. Wilt Chamberlain once scored one hundred points in a basketball game—but only because his teammates decided to try the peculiar strategy, a grand joke really, of letting him take all the shots. (Does this theme of personal contest and achievement also help to explain why such a brutal activity as boxing also enjoys a substantial literature?)"—American geologist, biologist, historian of science—and lifelong baseball fan—Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002), “Dreams That Money Can Buy,” The New York Review of Books, Nov. 5, 1992

Unless it was under a different title, I did not see this piece in Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, the posthumous collection of baseball essays by Stephen Jay Gould. The above paragraph is a good example of the author’s clear, even lively writing style and deep knowledge of his subject.

But its romanticism—a term that Gould did little to disclaim—may have already sounded dated by the time of his death, because of the use of the designated hitter in the American League and, we know now, the widespread prevalence of steroids in the 1990s and early ‘oughts.

Many fans like me have been watching other trends of the last two decades with concern bordering on disgust, including work-stoppage threats, batters’ lack of shame over strikeouts, defensive shifts, and the stress on strikeouts that may be taxing pitchers’ arms.

But in the last two seasons, COVID-19 has introduced new elements into games, such as placing men on second base during extra innings. To use an example that Gould might have appreciated: Under these conditions, how, then, can Gerrit Cole be compared with, say, Christy Mathewson?

More so than ever, I think, because of such changes, player statistics can only be compared with their immediate contemporaries rather than those in the past.

(Speaking of baseball “mythology”: the image accompanying this post shows Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs in the 1984 film The Natural. Though the movie adaptation changed quite a bit from Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel, the Hobbs character drew on elements of Babe Ruth, Bob Feller, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ted Williams, Sal Maglie, and Eddie Waitkus, a Philadelphia Phillies first baseman shot and wounded in a hotel by a crazed female fan.)

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