Publication Date

September 6, 2023

Perspectives Section

From the President

Thematic

Cultural, Premodern

Edward Muir

Every summer evening, I play catch with the 12-year-old child in my life and dread the days when school imprisons us both at a computer. As the light fades in the early autumn, I always fear baseball’s imminent disappearance, but memories persist of the leathery pop of a ball striking hard in the pocket of a glove. Those memories of the sights

and sounds of baseball keep me connected to my own living senses as I enter the musty halls of history.

One of my best memories of the game came from another time of year. In the spring of 1985, I was on research leave in Venice—a sparkling place, but not one known as a baseball town. I was part of a group of American and Canadian scholars who, as the days grew warmer, began to pine for what we missed the most about North America, which was the day for pitchers and catchers to report, spring training games, and then opening day, which is often raining and cold.

In Italy that spring, however, our cohort of researchers tingled with anticipation of warm sunny days and outdoor games. Our group included fans of the Phillies, the Expos, and the Dodgers, and there was an art historian who later gave up a good job in Oklahoma to return to the home of the Mets. Then there was a lost academic couple, a sociologist and an artist, who had given up their jobs in Canada in an attempt to find a psychological refuge in Venice. They arrived complete with their bicycles, which in a canal city without streets made no sense, but that blunder might have been a clue to their desperation to escape something. There was another art historian who had rented an apartment built on top of a house. She and her husband had a marvelous view of Verrocchio’s equestrian statue in the campo below, but the unit had no insulation. They, more than any of us, were keen for spring warmth, especially after a winter when the frigid winds blew from the Alps. What drew us together as a group was a mutual love of Renaissance art, baseball, and the tangled histories of both. Art is everywhere in Venice, but where to find a game in a country that plays soccer but not baseball?

Renaissance painters attempted to depict the eternal, and baseball had until this past year no time clocks.

By chance, one of us spotted a notice in the local paper. An amateur baseball game was scheduled on a Saturday between two teams from small towns on the mainland, Mestre versus San Donà di Piave. So we took a morning train to San Donà. We somehow found the unnamed playing field, which was just that—a field. It had been plowed for centuries and retained traces of old furrows that bestowed ground balls with an unpredictability that would have made even Derek Jeter look foolish. Besides our North American contingent, the only other fans seemed to be onlookers who did not understand that a catchable infield pop fly was not something to cheer. The players were skilled athletes who were looking for some fun, but they lacked the instilled history of baseball, those little moves with which kids from Japan to the United States to the Dominican Republic encode their muscles by adolescence.

The historical concordance between Renaissance art and baseball is not as absurd as it may seem to those who do not contemplate the aesthetics of either. Both rely on precise geometry: the classical golden mean in compositions on canvas and what the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, a scholar of Renaissance literature and Major League Baseball commissioner, called the “fearful symmetry” of the baseball diamond. They both have a sense of the infinite space, as in art the linear perspective takes the eye to the horizon, and in baseball a home run breaks the bounds of space, taking the ball over the wall into infinity. Both fancy the possibilities of freedom from the bonds of time. In their overwhelmingly religious subjects, Renaissance painters attempted to depict the eternal, and baseball had, until this past year, no time clocks. In the perfect game contemplated by the gods, no one will ever get on base as both pitchers throw a “perfect game,” which means the game would never end, conveying mundane temporality toward transcendence. To casual fans, that boring idea sends them to find a beer. To true lovers of the game, that possibility is thrilling in the abstract, even if they would prefer to wait until paradise for the actual experience. I know. I was once at a game between the Dodgers and the Astros that lasted for 24 innings.

Several scholars of the Renaissance have connected these two history-bound endeavors. In “Quattrocento Baseball,” the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik compared, on the one hand, the humble Montreal Expos with the Sienese painters of the 14th century whose old-fashioned images of saints looked holy and, on the other, the big-city Toronto Blue Jays with those fancy-pants Florentines whose new-style linear perspective made saints look realistic. Gopnik, who studied art history at New York University, conjured baseball’s sense of historical time: “Each inning alters irrevocably the meaning of every inning that has preceded it: Henry Aaron’s first at-bat in 1974, as he approaches Babe Ruth’s record, suddenly lends an entirely new meaning, an unlooked-for centrality, to some nearly forgotten Aaron home run back in 1959. The significance of every action in the game depends entirely on its place within a history, on our recognition of it as one possibility, one choice, within a series of alternatives. The batter swings freely the way the painter paints, but the swing itself is bound about by the ghosts of every other swing. . . . Just as painting, then, seems able to be better grasped by a historical than a purely critical imagination, so baseball’s most inspired observers are essentially historians, and do their best work at a distance.” By working at a distance, historians grasp the meaning of the particulars, significances born of contexts in time, and like painting compared to baseball, all history is comparative.

Giamatti, lifelong Boston Red Sox fan and professor of comparative literature, rose from president of Yale University to be president of the National League and then commissioner of Major League Baseball. As he put it, “There are a lot of people who know me who can’t understand for the life of them why I would go to work on something as unserious as baseball. If they only knew.” Despite his specialty in the European Renaissance, Giamatti saw baseball as quintessentially American—“baseball fits America”—even as it took hold in the Caribbean and Central America. As he evoked the American characteristics of baseball, he noted what baseball owed to the same sources of the European Renaissance: “One cannot underestimate the power, whether derived from biblical images or classical, of the image of the enclosed green space (reified as well in such variety, from the same sources and with the same impact, on our campuses) on the American mind.”

The thrill of history, like the baseball game, comes from following the fits and starts.

In “Baseball as Narrative,” Giamatti quoted from the Marianne Moore poem “Baseball and Writing”:

Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing.
You can never tell with either
how it will go
or what you will do.

Historical writing, however, differs from fiction when you read it; if a piece of history has a clear thesis, you know where it is going. Researching history in contrast to reading history, however, is more like baseball. When you begin, you do not know where the research will take you. In that sense, real history is quite unlike the propaganda that masquerades as history. Propaganda begins with the end and then tries to convince you that the end was inevitable. Good history begins with a sense of the ignorance of historical actors about the outcome of their actions. The thrill of history, like the baseball game, comes from following the fits and starts, the sudden shifts of fortune, the unexpected errors, the individual bums and heroes, and the repeated tension created by the action.

With Dante, Spenser, and Shakespeare echoing in his head, Giamatti produced the greatest elegy to a baseball season: “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most it stops.” As many of us face the tasks of the academic year, may we keep the green fields and the sound of a child catching a ball alive in our minds.

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Edward Muir
Edward Muir

Northwestern University