Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ken Burns' Baseball and a Memory of the Mick

This week I finished Ken Burns' epic documentary Baseball which is a masterful re-telling of the history of baseball from its roots to the present. But it is more than about baseball. Burns chose to use Baseball to tell America's story, a story filled with mythology and with many unpleasant realities we sometimes close our eyes to in order to enjoy the dream. One of those darker shadows in our history is race relations, and Burns handles this with such finesse while unflinchingly keeping it in our consciousness that we have a problem here.

Joseph Campbell once wrote, “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.” Baseball has been a very public dream in America. We love these heroes, the gods who descended Olympus to be with us for a few seasons.

I grew up watching the Cleveland Indians in the fifties, glory years of the Yankees, our arch-adversary. Mickey Mantle was in his prime then, and when we moved to New Jersey in 1964 I had the privilege seeing the Mick play in Yankee Stadium as well. My biggest thrill was Bat Day in the mid-1960s, a game in which Mantle did not start but watched most of the game from the dugout. In the bottom of the eighth, with the Yankees down 2-1 and the bases loaded, Mickey Mantle was called in to pinch hit. The entire stadium was on its feet holding their bats skyward screaming for their hero to come through. The voltage was so high in that electrified crowd that would couldn't imagine it going higher. Suddenly the pitch and a swing and that most beautiful sound in the world (no doubt drowned out that afternoon by the noise, but I can imagine it because it is the most beautiful sound in the world, a bat striking a ball). The ball shot out like a cannon burst in a line drive deep into left field, striking the grass and bounding on one hop over the wall, a ground rule double. The two runners who scored put the Yanks up by one, and an inning later that's how it ended. Every person there was satiated. They had feasted on the Mick, and the Mick did them good.

Mantle is the subject matter of Jane Leavy's The Last Boy, an audio book I started reading yesterday and which promises to be good. Mantle, like many American heroes, is a flawed man. His time in history was a period of innocence in which the sportswriters knew he was a man different from his iconic image. In those days the sportswriters could lose their jobs for writing some of the things they knew, Leavy notes. And today sportswriter might lose their jobs for not writing about what they knew. We live in a different time, a time of innocence lost.

When I was a kid you bought baseball cards for the players you loved and for the noise they made in the spokes of your bicycle. During the baseball card craze of the early nineties, kids bought cards looking for the ones with potential, sometimes throwing the rest straight into the garbage. Sometimes throwing them all straight into the can.

Ansel Adams said, “Myths and creeds are heroic struggles to comprehend the truth in the world.” Perhaps this is what Jane Leavy and Ken Burns are trying to do when they examine the mythological heroes and legends of our history, trying themselves to understand something about themselves because they are themselves one of us.

Food for thought as you await the next pitch.

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