Two Seattle boys playing baseball, from the mid-1970sFlickr: Seattle Municipal Archives

Baseball has always been exotic to me. Sure, I was forced through 16 soggy years of rounders at school, but as with Coke and Pepsi, similar just doesn’t cut it. That distant transatlantic sport has something special about it, with its funny outfits, elongated bats and utter Americanness.

“Baseball provides a chance to purify our otherwise cluttered emotions”

From the perspective of an outsider looking in, it’s hard to fully understand a culture’s love for their national sport – though it’s easy to be beguiled by it all the same. For the English, no testament to our sport will ever match the spirited opening of Lord Denning’s famous, and fittingly pompous, dissent in the 1977 court case Miller v Jackson. Upon the question of whether a cricket club should be forced to relocate as its balls were regularly flying into a neighbouring property's garden, he stated that “the young men will turn to other things instead of cricket. The whole village will be much the poorer.” It’s crime or cricket for the youth of England, apparently.

To experience America’s fervour for its beloved baseball first-hand, look no further than Tough Poet Press’s 2017 reissue of Marvin Cohen’s Baseball as Metaphysics. What Cohen accomplishes in 30 short essays is to distil this passion into words that anyone, from any background, can engage with, drilling to the core of what makes baseball so enduring a staple of American life. But the book’s real draw is much broader than that. One of the hallmarks of great writing is being able to elucidate the universal, whilst focusing on the specific. Here Cohen tells us about life, human strife, human fraternity, through the lens of baseball.

Throughout the work it becomes obvious that, much like cricket for Lord Denning, baseball for Cohen has the power to transform lives and give purpose to idle hands. In one of the early essays, he speaks of the peaks and troughs of baseball fans – pridefully playing in schoolyards, before realising, crushingly, that they are not going to “make it” in the big league. “Baseball is built into a lifetime,” writes Cohen, “whereas the kid has a current hero to ‘look up to’, the old timer venerates the past ‘great ones’ in the Golden Age.” Like any great hobby, baseball gives structure to one’s life. It provides certainty, order. For Cohen, the sport is a “dramatic objectification” of an “otherwise untidy ragbag of our cluttered emotions”. The highs and lows of a baseball game are unmistakable, as clear as Bahamian seawater. As such, baseball provides a chance to purify our otherwise murky feelings.

This probably sounds a bit lofty, especially to anyone who doesn’t particularly care for sport. But if you run with it, you’ll begin to see the game of baseball as an extended metaphor for the game of life. Cohen speaks of man’s quest for control through the body of laws of baseball, man’s want to humanise its playthings through the meticulous design of its ball, man’s inherent appreciation of art through the series of improvisational movements that baseball requires, akin to dance or ballet. You can read this book with no knowledge of baseball, and leave having only taken insights into human nature. You shouldn’t – because the points are all the more powerful when grounded in Cohen’s appreciation for the sport -but to its great credit, Baseball as Metaphysics can be enjoyed in many ways.


READ MORE

Mountain View

Book Review: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Even though the book was originally released 43 years ago, many elements of it are even more poignant today. Cohen makes the point that in the 1970s, the precise depiction of baseball games on TV led to a dulling of the imagination of fans: slowly the players began losing their mystique. I wonder how he feels today about the infographics, the CGI physics, the instant replays. With the proliferation of home computers, sports video games of all kinds have become increasingly popular. There’s something sad about knowing that players who were once the names of legend, can now be collected in virtual space – the myths of their craft crunched into pixelated statistics for anyone to gawk at. Some might say that being able to move an avatar of Babe Ruth with a joystick is directly putting the audience in his shoes. But the mass of polygons doesn’t make up for the rush of wind on the back of one’s neck, the polyphony of cheers from adoring fans, the sight of a real human. A human just like you or me.

And that’s precisely what’s so successful about Cohen’s work: that it balances a genuine explanation of baseball’s appeal with a careful preservation of its mystery. The title alone, Baseball as Metaphysics, clues you in that this is not a book of statistics, historical accounts and ticket sales. For Cohen, baseball is a conduit for something more primordial. Of course, many elements of this book are completely distinct to baseball. Unlike football or cricket, the ‘extra-inning clause’ of baseball means that its games are rarely ever draws. More often than not they are won by one side and lost by the other: yet another way in which baseball gives certainty to a discordant world. Despite this, many of the points Cohen makes could equally apply to other sports. Humans are social creatures – there is something deep at the base of all sports which engages this urge.

Maybe this is why Lord Denning was so rueful of the challenge to a small village cricket club. At heart, despite the broad gulf of cultural difference between them, he and Cohen see the same thing in their respective national sports: a microcosm of art, purpose, kinship and order

Sponsored links