Thursday, March 29, 2018
March 29, 2018: Baseball Stories: South Street
[For this year’s Opening Day series, I’ll be highlighting individual baseball stories and AmericanStudying their contexts and meanings. Play ball!]
On pessimism, optimism, realism, and baseball.
David Bradley’s debut novel South Street (1975) is many things, often at the same time: a tragicomic farce of urban life; a romance; a crime novel; a biting satire; a raucous celebration. It opens with one of the most well-executed set-pieces you’ll ever read, features numerous unique and memorable characters, portrays its slice of Philadelphia with hyperbole and yet (to my mind) authenticity, and made me laugh out loud on more than a few occasions while keeping me in genuine suspense about the resolution of its central plotlines. Which is to say, there are lots of very good reasons to read this under-rated American novel, and lots of concurrent ways to AmericanStudy it. But among them is the unique and telling use to which it puts the Philadelphia Phillies games that serve as a near-constant backdrop in the South Street bar that’s the novel’s central setting.
On one level, the baseball games are literally and figuratively another of the novel’s jokes—the Phillies are always losing, and every new arrival to the bar simply inquires by how much they happen to be losing on this particular night. On the one night when they’re actually, miraculously ahead, the heavens refuse to cooperate, the game gets rained out, and the prospective victory is lost. Yet if these perennial losers would seem to validate the characters’ (and novel’s) most cynical and pessimistic views of their world and future, there’s a complication: the bar owner, Leo, keeps turning the games on, optimistically insistent that this time might be different. That dance, between pessimism and optimism, no joy in Mudville and Mighty Casey’s eternal possibilities, “dem bums” and “there’s always next year!,” is at the heart of much sports fandom, it seems to me—and much of American history, culture, and identity besides.
So does Bradley’s novel simply vacillate between the poles, just as it does between comedy and tragedy, humor and pathos, farce and slice of life? Not exactly, although it does make all those moves and more. I would also argue that in his portrayal of those hapless yet somehow still hopeful Phillies, Bradley has created a powerfully realistic image—not just of sports fandom, or of human nature, but of the African American community and its conflicted, contradictory, but sustained and crucial relationship to the nation. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written frequently and eloquently about the defining presence of racism and white supremacy in the American story, and how much such forces have made America a losing game for its African American citizens. Yet, undeniably and inspiringly, the vast majority of African Americans have long refused—and continue to refuse—to give in to the pessimism, have found ways to maintain an optimism about America and the future that is mirrored in Leo’s nightly return to the Phillies. There’s always next year, indeed.
Last baseball story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other baseball stories you’d highlight?