This article first appeared in Talking Writing on June 9, 2011.
By Jeremiah Horrigan
Some still call it the National Pastime, but I’d say baseball is something closer to the National Religion. That revelation came to me after a few hours spent poring over a summertime favorite of mine: a 500-plus-page tome called “Baseball’s Greatest Quotations,” by Paul Dickson. It’s become a catechism of the game for me — a pain-free, smile-inducing way to rediscover a love of baseball I hardly knew I had.
Like other religions, baseball has seen better days. It’s under siege, even on the sports pages, which sometimes read more like the financial pages these days. Or the police blotter, with headlines about grand juries, not grand slams.
Make a pilgrimage to one of baseball’s storied cathedrals, and you’ll find that corporate grandees have paid far more than most of us can earn in a lifetime to secure the pews with the best sight lines. And then there’s the six bucks you’ll pay for a cup of baseball’s holy water: body-temperature beer.
Do I sound like a believer? A defender of the faith? I’m not. I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s and hated playing baseball more than doing long division. More even than mowing the grass.
But baseball was the faith of my father and his father before him, although both men saved room in their hard-working lives for the more traditional forms of worship.
Over the years, I’ve argued with and turned my back on both types of religion, but I know I’ll never completely say goodbye to either. Nor do I really want to. Both are too tightly entangled — for good and ill — in a remembered time that gives me great pleasure.
Which is why “Baseball’s Greatest Quotations” is sitting, Gideon-like, beside me on a hotel nightstand as I write these words during a weekend vacation. No longer in danger of being struck out, chosen last, or beaned by one of Tommy Corcoran’s famous fastballs; no longer forced to learn humiliating life lessons by shagging grounders or losing pop flies in the hot summer sun; in short, no longer having to practice the religion all the other guys loved so much, I find one of my greatest summertime pleasures to be this: reveling in the words of baseball’s most notorious characters.
An extremely partial and necessarily random list of these characters — whose nicknames even Damon Runyon couldn’t improve upon — would include Jim “Baby Cakes” Palmer, Kenny “The Incredible Heap” Kaiser, “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry, “Say Hey” Willie Mays, and Enos “Country” Slaughter.
These names are but the wispiest helix of baseball’s indestructible DNA, as evidenced by the book’s subtitle: “From Walt Whitman to Dizzy Dean, Garrison Keillor to Woody Allen, a treasury of more than 5,000 quotations plus historical lore, notes, and illustrations.”
The book is a century-spanning sampler of mots both bon and not-so-bon, requiring no great familiarity with the quotees or the particulars of the game. Its appeal is, quite simply, nostalgic, hearkening back to the storied “simpler times” that all nostalgia encompasses. And you needn’t have lived in those times to delight in them.
You want simplicity? Here’s the great DiMaggio, looking back on his first days in the majors: “I can remember a reporter asking for a quote. I didn’t know what a quote was. I thought it was some kind of a soft drink.”
Keep in mind that the gifted rube who said those words went on to marry Marilyn Monroe.
You want some more? Here are a very few of the choicest bits:
- “You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.” — author Roger Kahn.
- “No, why should I?” — pitcher Don Larsen, when asked if he ever got tired of speaking about his World Series perfect game.
- “Finley is a self-made man who worships his creator.” — sportswriter Jim Murray, describing A’s club owner Charlie Finley.
- “If the Mets can win the World Series, the United States can get out of Vietnam.” — New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver, circa 1969.
I could go on, but, as the great A. J. Liebling would have said, it would explode me.
The ultimate baseball quote belongs to Philip Roth (whose best and funniest work, “The Great American Novel”, is a baseball saga, natch). Here’s his description of what baseball meant to him as a kid growing up in New Jersey, a gem plucked by Dickson from the pages of The New York Times, circa 1973: “… baseball — with its lore and legends, its cultural power, its seasonal associations, its native authenticity, its simple rules and transparent strategies, its longeurs and thrills, its spaciousness, its suspensefulness, its heroics, its nuances, its lingo, its ‘characters,’ its peculiarly hypnotic tedium, its mythic transformation of the immediate — was the literature of my boyhood.
“Literature of my boyhood.” Wish I’d said that. But I’ll stick with my religious metaphor and recommend Dickson’s book to true believers and old apostates everywhere.
And, don’t forget, if memories of that centerfield sun get to be too much for you, quench that thirst with an ice-cold can of Quote — the drink of champions!
- Baseball’s Greatest Quotations, by Paul Dickson, published by HarperResource, January 1991 (revised edition published by Collins Reference, September 2008).