Persistence Of The American Pastime

Bob Gibson
Tonight, feeling in the spirit of spring and at a loss for something to watch over dinner I decided to revisit the Ken Burns’s Baseball. I evaluated my mood and chose my favorite “inning,” the one covering the 1960s.In a world of upheaval, the game finds itself evolving quickly, transforming in a few short years from the black-and-white clips of game 7 of the World Series in Pittsburgh, to a game of color and closeups that resembles what we see on television today. The old urban ballparks are demolished and replaced by concrete stadiums with expansive parking lots. The Player’s Union is born as players, in a struggle for emancipation from the Reserve Clause mirror the efforts of the Civil Rights movement in the quest for freedom.

As the war in Vietnam escalates and violence breaks out in cities across the country, football rises in popularity. In 1967 the first Super Bowl delivers short spurts of simulated warfare to living rooms across the country. It is viewed by more people than any game of that year’s World Series. Burns presents us with and era in which refuge from everyday turmoil cannot be found even in a pastoral, summer game. The National Pastime seems threatened and its traditionalists wonder whether it is possible for Americans to escape from the explosive, fast-paced world to the serenity of ballpark.

These traditionalists—represented here by Baseball’s usual talking heads of Doris Kearns-Goodwin, George Will, Roger Angell, Bob Costas. Gerald Early, Studs Terkel, et al—are even more magnificent in extolling the beauty and virtue of the game in the context of 60s then they are in the series’ other installments. We are told of the absence of time in baseball, how the other team can never kill the clock and has no option but to keep giving the other guys a chance, and even if you’re dying, you know you can live forever as long as you keep hitting. We hear an African American writer describe his emotional response to the ritual of the Star Spangled Banner before a game and how baseball was the only thing that made him feel connected to his country. Later, he describes the empowered feeling that drove him to march and to fight for civil rights. His rationale was that they had to prove that they would do whatever it took to achieve justice.

There is a part that describes the drama of inaction during a game. The excitement of baseball is rooted in the mind of the viewer; it happens in the endless seconds between pitches where a player digs in the dirt with his cleat, adjusts his cap, waggles the bat. While these things are happening, endless possibilities run through your mind as you watch. You play out every possible scenario before it happens so that when something finally does actually happen, it’s like a dream fulfilled. Sometimes, during these moments a hush can fall over the entire ballpark for just a few moments and you know that everyone there is going through this deeply intellectual process. It is this sequence that draws the viewer to the game in a way that nothing else can. The results can be explosive.

This is how I understand the sixties. Endless anticipation of huge things to come, revolution and the personification of tremendous sacrifices and powerful wills exacted on a collective target. People always say there was something in the air, the vibrations of the time—those vibrations are the same as the anticipation you find in any baseball game coupled with the payoff or the devastation everyone knew would come. It was a time of people proving they’d do anything to get what they wanted.

That baseball is still alive and well only proves that there is a place for ideas to be born in America. It is proof that we still believe big things can happen if we can only imagine them.

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