Karl Lindholm: Safe at home
“Like to talk a little bit about baseball … and football,” George Carlin informs us at the beginning of his famous routine comparing the two sports.
It’s quite brilliant (and not a single cuss word, rare for him). You can find it easily on YouTube.
Carlin’s descriptions of baseball are rendered with a light falsetto; football on the other hand requires a somber and ominous tone.
“Baseball,” he chirps, “is a 19th century pastoral game. Football,” he intones, “is a 20th century technological struggle.”
“Football is played in any kind of weather — rain, sleet, snow, hail, mud … the struggle will continue.
“In baseball, if it rains, we don’t come out to play — ‘It’s raining, I can’t come out to play! It’s raining out!’”
The bit goes on in this vein, with a number of clever juxtapositions. He ends by describing the different objectives of the sports, offering first an extended pronouncement of football’s war-like essence:
“The quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, … with short bullet passes and long bombs, marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack …
“In baseball, the object is to go home, and to be safe, to be safe at home. I hope I’ll be safe at home, safe at home,” he repeats sweetly as he dances off the stage.
I start every baseball class I teach at Middlebury College with this four-and-a-half minute video, because it offers such insight into the unusual and unconventional beauty of the game — and with such humor.
I then ask the class to read work by A. Bartlett Giamatti, the commissioner of Major League Baseball in 1989, who, alas, died in office at age 51 after only 154 days in the job, and eight days after he suspended the dastardly Pete Rose for life.
A Renaissance literature scholar, Giamatti was the president of Yale University before he ascended to his baseball role. For those of us who have an academic interest in baseball, Giamatti is our hero and we continue to mourn his passing.
I love assigning Giamatti, so students can read such eloquent writing on sports. In “Baseball and the American Character,” he joins George Carlin in celebrating “home,” baseball’s central metaphor.
“For what is baseball,” he writes, “and indeed so much of the American experience, about but looking for home? Nostos, the desire to return home, gives us a nation of immigrants always migrating in search of home …
“So much does our game tell us about who we wanted to be and who we are, … as we gather together around a green place called home.”
In another essay, “Baseball and Narrative,” Giamatti discusses baseball in terms of Homer’s epic “The Odyssey,” and “the hunger for home.” The trip around the bases is a great Odyssean adventure, full of pitfalls:
“(If) the attempt, long in planning and execution, works, then the reunion and all it means is total — the runner is a returned hero, and the teammates are for an instant all true family.”
I have written but three short stories in my life that found their way into print (all three appeared in journals lightly read and now long gone). The first one (1985) was in a periodical called the National Pastime, and was titled “Safe at Home.” I considered that a most original title at the time, as it was well before I first heard Carlin’s exegesis.
It tells the story a ballplayer turned coach, struggling to recover from alcoholism and lead a modest life of meaning. One of his players is in need of a father figure, so his coach provides that surrogacy. The boy, his catcher and best player, ends up going to high school and living with the coach — safe at home.
Last month, January, I taught my favorite class during Middlebury College’s Winter Term, “Segregation in America: Baseball and Race.” It’s essentially a course on baseball’s Negro leagues.
We learn of the great players and teams from the 60 years of baseball’s segregation (1887-1947) and make connections into the America, black and white, of that time.
In the last week of the course, we examine in all its complexity the breakthrough of Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers in 1947. We make good use of Ken Burns’ brilliant “Baseball” video documentary from 1994.
Our final class was on Jan. 31, which happened to be Jackie Robinson’s 100th birthday. We watched Burns’ treatment of Jackie’s last days. At the World Series in 1972, Jackie, just 53, but suffering from diabetes and heart disease, threw out the first pitch, and took the occasion to exhort baseball to integrate further by hiring black managers as well as players.
He died just 10 days later.
Burns powerfully documents that last appearance on a ball field and the memorial service just a short time later. Jackie’s wife, Rachel, his partner and support in all his travails and glories, reflected on the end of his life: “At the funeral,” she said, “Jesse Jackson did the eulogy and he said, ‘Jackie Robinson stole home and he’s safe.’”
She was given a photograph, “a blow-up,” of Jackie stealing home, which she said she “carried from room to room. Looking at it, I knew he was safe. Home has so many meanings, for people like us. Family and home was the central basis for our lives.
“Nobody could hurt him again — he couldn’t hear the name-calling, only the cheers. I could let him rest in peace.”
Safe at home.
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