April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
Like most authentic folk creations, baseball is deeply and obscurely rooted in the past and its moment of origin is cloaked in legend. There are innumerable threads that go back to the beginning of things, but nobody can follow them all the way. This is partly because they lead to a thousand cow pastures and smalltown parks where no records were kept, and partly because anyone who tries to follow them must sooner or later run into the shadowy figure of General Abner Doubledav.
General Doubleday is the Santa Claus of baseball. He actually existed. a West Point graduate and career soldier who won two brevets for bravery during the Civil War and wound up as a major general of volunteers: but his actual connection with the game of baseball is somewhat like Santa Claus’s connection with Christmas, indecipherable but unbreakable. According to legend. Doubleday as a young officer invented the game, or at least put it together on a framework left over from the informal Lnglish game of rounders, and if you do not believe it there is a massive shrine at Coopcrstown. New York, where he is supposed to have laid out the original diamond and thrown out the first ball. Skeptics have spent years trying to prove that the whole story is a myth, but that makes no difference: by this time baseball is General Doubleday’s game and that is that.
It is also America’s game, and although it is rapidly taking on a new guise it still gives us about as close a link with a vanished past as we are likely to get.
For one thing, it is played very much the same as it was played before the beginning of the twentieth century. The ball is livelier, the crowds are bigger, and they play at night under the floodlights now. but otherwise nothing much has changed. Above all. baseball’s little rituals are the same: possibly this game was invented by the Mcdes and the Persians. Go to a Little League game some day and watch the lads whip the ball around the infield, between plays: they follow exactly the same routine the professionals followed when Grandpa was a boy—the same one they follow today, for that matter.
Inescapably, the game smells of the country town and the vacant lot. There is an elusive but unmistakable air of the hillbilly about it. and along with it a tinge of rowdyism: a tobacco-chewing, swaggering, to-hell-with-you attitude that goes back to the grass roots when back-street and smalltown America was tinged the same way. Baseball has never acquired a veneer.
Therein it differs from the other great American game, football, which has a veneer two yards thick. Football had it from the beginning; it was born in the prep schools and the Ivy League and it was and remains definitely a game in which the better sort could take an interest, whereas baseball had a much more plebian background. Football came down from above; baseball came up from underneath.
And that, after all. is part of its appeal. Most of America came up from underneath, and we have not forgotten our origins. Here is the sport that puts us in touch again. It is profane, vaguely uncouth, given to surges of hot emotionalism; but it may be significant that with all of this it is football, the elitists’ game, that is the game of applied and unadorned violence. Baseball stresses the uncanny skill of the individual player, and its characteristic vignettes are moments of quick, graceful, incredible movement—one limber young man triumphing alone over his own physical limitations and doing the apparently impossible, not because he weighs jßo pounds stripped down to muscle and bone but because he has developed quickness of hand. eye. and foot beyond the limits set for the rest of us.
In one respect, of course, this game has changed mightily. After years of obscurantism it has welcomed the blacks and the Latins, and between them they have saved its life and immenselv broadened its base. Unless television, that mysterious power that changes everything it touches, warps it too badly out of shape, what lies ahead of the Great American Game ought to be even better than what lies behind it.