Baseball and the soul of America

Baseball is back. What does this mean for America?

Whatever else it means, it means that we Americans, as a nation and a people, are once again given the chance to pluck the mystic chords of memory, to draw from the well of story and grace, and renew our acquaintance with the better angels of our nature.

Baseball is the expression of our genius for living and for ordering our lives together:

Supposing for the time being, and for the sake of argument, that the edifice of Western philosophy does have an American inflection (if the idea of a talking edifice seems strange, remember that edification is one of the reasons for speech, and that, in the philosophical context invoked by Cavell, education—the goal of philosophy—is a matter of “building up” before or as much as it is a matter of “leading out”), it becomes reasonable to wonder what philosophy might sound like in America. By way of suggestion, and as a way further into the problem, consider the following lines from Terence Mann, the character James Earl Jones played in Field of Dreams, a film based on the W.P. Kinsella novel, Shoeless Joe:

Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. it’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. and they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. america has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh, people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.

The idea of there being one constant through all the years is one of the most problematic ideas, with which philosophy has wrestled since its inception, indeed in the thinking of which philosophy may be said to be born. The thickness of memory, and the movement toward something, say a future, under the impetus of something past, in the hope of finding it there (though transformed utterly, as though an army of steamrollers had passed over it), when taken with baseball’s power to remind what was good and communicate, let us say, name a hope for what could be good again, may call to mind the magnificent phenomenology of memory St. Augustine gives in Book X of the Confessions. One may no more be made to hear it, than could Ray Kinsella make his brother-in-law see the game being played a few feet away. Can a game provide the peace that is lacking in the human heart? If it is the right game, perhaps the game called contemplation of wisdom, some to whom the name of philosopher has been granted have thought so.

There is a further text of baseball from another Kinsella story, one that instances a way of thinking that, if not exactly the kind of thinking that is philosophy, is at least concerned with concepts that are the stock-in-trade of accepted philosophy:

“Why not baseball?” my father would say. “Name me a more perfect game! Name me a game with more possibilities for magic, wizardry, voodoo, hoodoo, enchantment, obsession, possession. There’s always time for daydreaming, time to create your own illusions at the ballpark. i bet there isn’t a magician anywhere who doesn’t love baseball. Take the layout. No mere mortal could have dreamed up the dimensions of a baseball field. No man could be that perfect. abner Doubleday, if he did indeed invent the game, must have received divine guidance “and the field runs to infinity,” he would shout, gesturing wildly. “You ever think of that, Gid? There’s no limit to how far a man might possibly hit a ball, and there’s no limit to how far a fleet outfielder might run to retrieve it. The foul lines run on forever, forever diverging. There’s no place in America that’s not part of a major-league ballfield: the meanest ghetto, the highest point of land, the Great lakes, the Colorado River. hell, there’s no place in the world that’s not part of a baseball field.

On the side of philosophy, the quoted text contains an explicit discussion of dreaming and wakefulness, which have been themes of philosophy since Heraclitus; then there is the limitlessness of the field, which names quite literally the apeiron, and the convergence of time and always that might name the transformed condition of our world, into the history of which the eschaton irrupts; lastly, a reader may receive the invocation of hell, not as mere profanity, but as an admonition: the ballfield, and therefore America, and therefore the world (the whole of which is contained in an American ballfield) is a place in which we are playing out matters of eternal life and eternal death.

Baseball is a serious game.

Of course, no reader need necessarily see these things, and any reader may experience something akin to outrage at the suggestion that baseball, which is so obviously an entertainment, ought even for a second be considered as somehow in relation to the giants of Western thought. Perhaps no sane person would dare to suggest that W. P. Kinsella’s baseball story should be treated as though it were philosophy. Even so, the text of the game may be taken to show that there is in america, in American practices, an inchoate awareness of the flux of time and infinity within the weave of the world, which could be theorized.

Anyway, there’s plenty more about baseball and about America in The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood, so get on over to Amazon, or order direct from the publisher, Wipf & Stock, or go out and support your local bookseller.

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