My Favorite Baseball Photograph

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Turn back to page 86 and you will be there as the local Dartmouth College nine plays Harvard on the green at Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1882.

Looking like an early plan for our national capital, this remarkable photograph is baseball for me —an intersection of community, time, location, and hope. I imagine the photographer sticking his bulky machine out the window of a college building to record this moment in much the same way a daydreaming student might be wafted out and down to the play going on a million miles from his classroom.

“It’s our game . . . America’s game,” Walt Whitman wrote. “It has the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere; it belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our Constitution’s laws; is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.”

I couldn’t agree more. The story of baseball is the story of our country. No other narrative, it seems to me, more accurately takes the measure of the complicated Republic that the Civil War defined than does this deceptively simple game.

“Baseball,” the poet Donald Hall told us in a filmed interview for our series, “because of its continuity over the space of America and the time of America, is a place where memory gathers.” In the course of making our film we quickly developed an abiding conviction that the game of baseball offered a unique prism through which one could see refracted much more than the history of games won and lost, teams rising and falling, rookies arriving and veterans saying farewell. The game is a repository of age-old American verities, of standards against which we continually measure ourselves, and yet at the same time a mirror of the present moment in our modern culture, including all our most contemporary failings.

But we are hardly prepared for the complex emotions the game also summons up, emotions that lie just beneath the powerful social metaphor the game obviously is. The accumulated stories and biographies, life lessons and tragedies, dramatic moments and classic confrontations begin to suggest even more compelling themes: time, memory, family, home.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has remarked that we suffer today from “too much pluribus and not enough unum .” Few things survive in these cynical days to remind us of the Union from which so many of our personal and collective blessings flow, and it is hard not to wonder, in an age when the present moment consumes and overshadows all else—our bright past and our dim unknown future—what finally does endure? What encodes and stores the genetic material of our civilization, passing down to the next generation the best of us, what we hope will mutate into betterness for our children and our posterity?

Baseball provides one answer. I can think of nothing in our daily life that offers more of the comfort of continuity, the generational connection of belonging to a vast and complicated American family, the powerful sense of home, the freedom from time’s constraints, and the great gift of accumulated memory than does our National Pastime. And to me, this photograph says it all. And more. I wonder what the score is.