When Baseball Was Number One - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
When Baseball Was Number One

Baseball and Memory: Winning, Losing, and the Remembrance of Things Past
By Lee Congdon
St. Augustine’s Press, 140 pages, $25)

Baseball, the fifties, and young American boys (not to mention millions of American men and more than few women) were made for each other.

For me the dreamy and much-maligned fifties began and were more than half done before girls, college, adults dreams (this was before the sixties when so many young people decided they didn’t want to become adults), and even the local draft board began to complicate my life beyond the power of Willie Mays and Stan Musial to smooth things out. At this simple point in my life, and that of my pals of the time, acquiring a complete set of Topps baseball cards, purchased with lawn-mowing and paper-route money, would excite us almost to the degree a loosened bra-strap would a little later on.

The NFL was in its 34th season in 1953, but hardly anyone during the Eisenhower years was paying much attention. Pro football’s popularity would only take off in the sixties, when it began to seriously challenge baseball for the title of “national pastime.”

College football had its fans in the fifties, but mostly among folks who had gone to college, which certainly didn’t describe the moms and dads in my blue-collar neighborhood in Tampa. I made it to senior high school without knowing how football was played. If any of my pals even had a football, I don’t remember it. I had seen footballs, of course, but had little truck with them. They bounced funny. 

The first season of the NBA was 1950, and before the decade was over Red Auerbach and his Boston Celtics were winning championships and inventing interesting things like the fast break with some exceptional athletes with names like Cousy, Sharman, and Russell. But for every American who could pick Bob Cousy out of a lineup, a hundred knew who Ted Williams was and, love him or hate him, followed his on-field exploits.

The only sport other than baseball that claimed a large audience in post-war but pre-hippy America was boxing. First on radio and then on television, Friday night fights on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports (Look sharp, feel sharp, be sharp) was a popular weekly event.

In those pre-Camelot days baseball was number one on all scorecards. I’m referring, of course, to the less attractive Camelot with all the Harvard grads. (Lancelot may not have existed, but he was still a lot more appealing than the real McGeorge Bundy, and don’t even get me started on Bob McNamara.) If any boy at Woodrow Wilson Junior High School in Tampa, where I attended 1954-57, had any ambition other than to be a major league baseball player, he kept it to himself.

Retired history professor Lee Congdon takes a break from scholarly books on heavy subjects such as philosophy, east European politics, and on figures like George Kennan and Georg Lukács (neither of whom could likely tell the difference between the hit and run and the straight steal) to produce a short but delightful memoir and historical reflection on baseball and its importance to American history and memory. Readers, especially those who love the Grand Old Game, can be glad. Professor Congdon is one of those rare dons who can write with clarity, grace, and humor. He can even deliver an opinion without packing it around with half a page of caveats and qualifications.

As is the way with professors, Congdon flogs a hypothesis in this book. One about memory, how it’s important to community and our sense of ourselves, and how baseball helps to promote it. I’m not sure Congdon makes his intellectual case, or even states it clearly in this book. But his nostalgic overview of the game, its high and low moments, its cultural importance to his generation, is so charming that readers will forgive him.

Unlike most scholarly works, Congdon doesn’t hesitate to state his baseball and historical crochets. Informed, conservative crochets, which deserve attention, not entirely because they are so consistent with my own.

Congdon takes readers through the game’s many magic moments, from Shoeless Joe Jackson through Reggie Jackson and beyond — Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world,” the autumn day a mediocre pitcher named Larsen was perfect, “The Catch” by Willie Mays, Bill Mazeroski putting an end to the mighty Yankee’s hopes and Casey Stengel’s tenure with the pinstripes in 1960….

Congdon also traces later melancholy times when the First Church of Baseball has been defiled by drugs, outlandish salaries and attendant ticket and concession prices, steroids, the designated hitter, noisy ball yards where fans must endure obnoxious “music” and constant commercial pitches at volume levels OSHA would never allow in industrial spaces. Congdon and I both have a message for the nice lady who used to play the organ between innings: “Come back, Dear. All is forgiven.”

For all these things, baseball on the field remains much the same. The game retains the power to move those of us with the necessary attention span and the ability to attend details it requires to unlock baseball’s considerable subtleties, grace, and manifold pleasures. But attention span is something our quick-cut, techno-world has leeched out of many of us. More and more American youngsters now, who have any time left over from computer games for competitive sports at all, prefer the greater flash and dash of basketball and football.

Baseball lifers like me who are looking down the barrel of our Biblical three score years and ten, or can still see 70 in the rear view mirror (an awkward age), can particularly enjoy Congdon’s treatment of the fifties, baseball’s golden age, and pretty golden in other ways as well.

Baseball was golden in the fifties because so much attention was focused on this sport during a time when the nation truly had a national culture. Americans of all ages and most backgrounds listened to the same music, went to the same movies, wore similar clothes. Now most of our pursuits are stratified by age, race, ethnic background, or interests.

It was much easier keeping up with the fortunes of only 16 Major League teams in the fifties, all in the Northeast or Midwest. (In the fifties the South’s teams were the Washington Senators or the St. Louis Cardinals. I guess one out of two ain’t bad.) And a smaller America had less trouble stocking these 16 teams with real talent than we have today with 30 “major league” teams. The list of very watchable stars of the fifties goes on and on. Consider the names: Berra, Mantle, Musial, Snider, Mays, Williams, Campanella, Banks, Aaron, Roberts, Slaughter, Kaline, Clemente, Minoso, Fox, Robinson (three times — Jackie, Frank, and Brooks), Doby, Wynn, Spahn, et al. (Apologies to worthies I have left off this list.)

Whether or not Congdon has proved his point about baseball and memory and how it helps inoculate us against those who would revise history for their own purposes, his book has certainly activated some great memories for this fan whose baseball memory covers a span from a fading Joe DiMaggio to a rookie Desmond Jennings (of the Rays — look him up; he’s going to be a good one).

My guess is if deceased baseball fans are ever studied by medical scientists, it will be discovered that the largest lobe of their brains is that for baseball memories. Before making this contribution to science, I recommend these folks read Congdon’s fine baseball book.

Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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