[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!]
America, and the Civil War.
knowledgeable baseball historians than I have long debated the sport’s origins, and specifically the role that famous “inventor” Abner Doubleday did or did not play in creating our national pasttime (or even whether
said national pasttime was in fact invented in a different nation, one from which we had recently declared independence no less!). It’s an interesting
and important debate, one that touches on not only 19th century
history, the development of mythological narratives in communities and nations,
and how culture moves and changes across international borders, but also on the
ongoing role that sports plays in our collective consciousness and
imaginations. But to my mind, it’s also deeply meaningful that the invention of
baseball has long been tied to Doubleday, a man otherwise most famous as a decorated Union officer during the Civil War.
supposed and contested invention of the sport took place well before the war, in Cooperstown
(NY) in 1839. But I would argue that
many of our collective narratives of baseball’s earliest days are closely tied
to the Civil War, to images of soldiers playing sandlot games during the
downtime between battles and campaigns. In part remembering the war in that way
offers a peaceful alternative to the war’s most dominant images, a way to imagine
and contemplate Civil War soldiers that doesn’t focus solely on the conflict
and violence and loss that so defined the war years. But on the other hand, the
images of Civil War baseball games could be read as a direct (if of course
bloodless) complement to the war’s battles—in which, similarly, “teams” that
might well have been friendly or even related off of the diamond became bitter
adversaries once they stepped onto that field, one from which only one side
could emerge victorious (there are no ties in baseball, as the saying famously goes).
Both sides to
baseball and the Civil War are captured in the best historical novel about that
subject (and one of the best baseball novels period), Thomas Dyja’s Play for a Kingdom (1998). Dyja’s novel imagines a chance 1864 encounter
between Union and Confederate soldiers engaged in the bloody battle of
Spotsylvania, an encounter that turns into a series of baseball games contested
alongside (and, gradually, intertwined with) the battle itself. Dyja nicely
illustrates how the games serve not only as a distraction from the battle, but
also and just as crucially as a parallel to it, one in which shifting
relationships and allegiances, as well as the soldier’s individual
personalities and perspectives, cannot ultimately lessen the harder and more
absolute truths of war. Whatever its other starting points, baseball—like
America—was created anew during the Civil War, and Dyja’s novel helps us
contemplate those complex and vital points of origin.
PS. What do you
think? Other sports literature or writing you’d highlight?