MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

April 1, 2014: Baseball Stories: The Given Day

[With Opening Day upon us, another series on AmericanStudying our national pasttime. This year, I’ll be highlighting individual baseball stories and thinking about what broader American contexts they can help us analyze. And this weekend I’ll highlight some other great writers and works who do the same!]

On Babe Ruth, symbolism, and race in America.
There’s no doubt that sports can bring out the worst as well as the best in us, and that sports fandom does so with particular force. But even those of us who have experienced hateful sports rivalries are likely to be shocked when we read about the death threats (among other horrific attacks) that Hank Aaron faced as he approached and then passed Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. This wasn’t Jackie Robinson, breaking baseball’s color barrier and changing a still-segregated society nearly thirty years earlier; this was simply a very talented baseball player finishing a very successful baseball career, one that had landed him at the top of the record books. And yet something about the combination of his race and identity with those of the iconic legend he was eclipsing led to some of the ugliest expressions of which we Americans and humans are capable.
The moment and those expressions tell us a great deal about racism in America, and it would likely be a mistake to focus our analyses on any other side to those histories. But at the same time, I do believe that if Aaron had been approaching a Lou Gehrig record, or a Joe DiMaggio record, or a Ty Cobb record, or any other legendary player, the responses might not have been quite so vitriolic. There’s just something about the Babe in the collective consciousness of a number of American sports fans, or rather a few related somethings: his literally and figuratively larger than life status, the way in which he was already a myth of sorts before he became one after his career was done; his concurrent representation of an earlier era in baseball and sports and America, one that likely couldn’t help but feel to many fans contrasted with the world of professional sports in Aaron’s 1970s; and, yes, the way in which each of those histories was made possible in large part because Ruth played in a segregated league, competing with only a portion of his era’s best ballplayers.
It’s with all of those different sides to Ruth, his era, and history in play that Dennis Lehane creates a series of bravura sequences interspersed with the main narratives througout his early 20th century historical novel The Given Day (2008). One of Lehane’s two co-protagonists is an African American ballplayer named Luther Laurence, and Lehane opens his novel with a set-piece in which Ruth and some of his fellow professional players (en route from one 1918 World Series site to the other) encounter Luther and other African American players, leading to a pickup game that is at once color-blind and yet ultimately as segregated as the rest of society. Ruth reappears in a few additional set-pieces later in the novel, always bringing with him the same uneasy combination of baseball and society, mythic ideals and gritty realities. Some reviewers critiqued the Ruth sections as tangential to the book’s main narratives, which is true enough—but they make great use of the Ruth mythos, illustrating one more time how much this larger than life figure can say and do in our national conversations and stories.
Next baseball story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other baseball stories you’d highlight?

3 comments:

  1. Loved this book! It is one that I recommend to students both in the classroom and on my channel (classroom). Ruth's role in the larger story, and the entire advent of the Negro league is a great bookmark for the story. The book opens on a bored Ruth stuck on a dead train when hearing that crack of the bat runs out to ask in his man-child voice "can I play too". Never mind that it was a professional game, never mind that everyone on the field was black... it was baseball. Unfortunately the game turns to shite when Ruth's teammates (racist teammates) show up and decide it's time to ruin something beautiful. The game acts as a great intro for the book as the rest of the story revolves around an Irish Catholic family in Boston watching the riot, the strike, and the flood, but more than that the books acknowledges the abuse of power in the hands of the few affecting the lives of many.
    So glad you are writing about my FAVOURITE Denis Lehane story!

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  2. Happy April Fool's Day 2014, everybody!

    Hey... this is the internet we're talking about here.

    I can say anything I want

    Roland A. Gibson, Jr.
    FSU IDIS Major

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  3. Thanks Anne! Agreed on all counts, especially about the use to which Lehane puts that opening and Ruth throughout.

    As for you, Roland--c'mon, this is a serious scholarly blog and I won't put up with ... ah, who am I kidding? Happy April Fool's to you as well!

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