[For this year’s Super Bowl week series, I wanted to write about some of our great works of sports literature. Leading up to a special Guest Post from an FSU English Studies alum & budding sports journalist!]
On the baseball book that serves as a professional inspiration for this AmericanStudier.
I first read Daniel Okrent’s Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game (1985) as a kid, and the book—in which Okrent uses a single June 1982 game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Baltimore Orioles to tell literally hundreds of different baseball stories—has stuck with me ever since. Partly that’s because I love baseball, and in particular the way in which the game’s slower pace allows for an awareness of all the stories and histories and statistics (among other things) that are in play in every moment; I don’t know of any work that captures that side to the sport as well as Okrent’s book, and so I’d say it’s a must-read for any baseball fan. But it’s also because Okrent’s book serves as a model for what I’d call two central goals of all public scholarship and writing, and certainly of mine (here and elsewhere).
For one thing, Okrent knows that the best histories, however much they connect to huge communal and social and cultural issues, are made most compelling when they’re also and centrally connected to individual stories. That’s one main reason why I focused on individual lives and personal narratives in my second book; why my third included at length the stories of Yung Wing and his Chinese Educational Mission students; and why even as my subsequent books have focused more on overarching ideas and histories, I’ve tried to ground each in such stories. Each time Okrent pauses in the game’s action to narrate another individual story and identity (I particularly remember the one about Baltimore’s Lenn Sakata, but they’re all compelling), I suppose it might seem digressive or like delayed gratification; but to me, those individual stories not only complement the unfolding communal drama but greatly enhance it, making clear all of the lives and histories on which each and every such moment depend.
And for another thing, Okrent creates that sense of drama. Granted, a baseball game, like any sporting event with a winner and loser, is inherently dramatic (although some might disagree about baseball!). But I think there’s still a broader lesson for public scholars, particularly after a few decades in which the idea of writing as narrative or story has tended to be supplanted by theoretical and academic modes that entirely resist those goals. What Okrent demonstrates, on the other hand, is that writers can be nuanced and analytical and yet still create narratives and stories, and deeply dramatic and compelling ones at that. American history is full of such stories (Yung Wing’s and the CEM students’ being two of my personal favorites, which is why I’ll be returning to them again in my next book; but of course they are two of many), waiting to be re-told and communicated to American audiences. They’re not simple, and our work with them shouldn’t be. But if they’re worth telling ,they’re worth telling to as broad and deep an audience as possible—and Okrent gives us great guidance in how to do so.
Guest Post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other sports literature or writing you’d highlight?