The Greatest Game
by Zac Cunningham
Critics scoff that it is old-fashioned and too slow for the modern era of computers and fast food. Those critics claim that the "faster paced" and "more physically challenging" games of football and basketball have replaced it as our national pastime. Yet as each spring melts the snows and nurtures the flowers, a stirring creeps across our nation. As the first robins return from the South, young boys and old men begin to daydream of standing on the emerald green field of a palace-like stadium with Louisville Slugger in hand prepared to play America’s greatest game, the game of baseball.
Baseball is great for many reasons, reasons that are as numerous and as varied as the fans of the game. Baseball is great because in its history one finds the history of our magnificent country. As far back as the 1700s, American children played a hybrid of the British games, cricket and rounders. The first settlers often called this hybrid "base." As pioneers moved west, base moved with them. On their return from the Pacific Ocean, Louisiana Purchase explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark taught a tribe of Nez Perce’ Indians how to play base. By the mid-1800s, base was being called baseball. With the new name, the game’s popularity grew as millions of immigrants flooded the sprawling eastern cities. Eventually these immigrants formed the first ball club and developed many of the basic rules of modern baseball. During the Civil War both Union and Confederate soldiers played—sometimes against each other—on bloody battlefields named Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shiloh. After the war, the game became a business mirroring the growth of US Steel, Standard Oil, and the other gargantuan monopolies of the Industrial Age. It suffered labor strife and gambling scandals just like many of the businesses and political institutions of the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the 1920s, many people said that baseball was dead but thanks to a dirt-poor bartender’s son named Babe Ruth, the game survived to sustain a weary and fearful people fighting world wars and economic famine. On April 15, 1947, the archaic dinosaur of the all white team was slayed by Jackie Robinson just as the Civil Rights movement was beginning to sweep the South and battle the grievous injustices of Jim Crow. At the dawn of a new millennium, baseball provides stability and a connection to our past. Baseball is great because in its history we see our own.
Another reason for the greatness of baseball is its uniqueness and beauty. The game is played on luscious green fields—accented with rich bronze dirt and crisp white lines—bathed in the bright mid-summer sunshine. Its beauty comes from players’ bodies stretching, diving and twisting like accomplished dancers. Baseball’s movements are elegant and graceful. A perfect example of baseball’s beauty is the sweeping, fluid-like swing of homerun king Mark McGwire or Red Sox great Ted Williams. The intense base running and then headfirst slide of Pete Rose is another example of baseball’s splendor. The game is unique in many ways. It is the only game in which the defense controls the ball and the offense must avoid it in order to score. Baseball is the only game where the teams are not governed by a clock. It is a game of geometry. From Anchorage to Miami, every field measures ninety feet from base to base and sixty feet, six inches from pitcher’s mound to home plate. It is governed by the strictest rules and features the most meticulous system of record keeping. However, the game is played in alleys, streets, pastures, and hollows. It is played with two or three bases that are often just trees or tin cans. It has been adapted to hundreds of sandlots across the nation.
The third reason for baseball’s greatness is that it brings people, especially families, together. Whenever my family meets in the summer, baseball is often involved. While we visit with each other on the porch or in the swing, a radio is most likely tuned to the play-by-play of a Cincinnati Reds game. Whether someone plays catch or a full-fledged game is undertaken, baseball will likely play a part in today’s reunion. Many of my best memories involve a baseball game and a family member. I vividly recall a hot, muggy late summer night in 1995, when my father and I sat on the couch and watched Cal Ripken, Jr. play in his 2,131st consecutive game surpassing the celebrated Lou Gehrig. I still have a toy Cincinnati Reds batting helmet from a trip to Riverfront Stadium. I remember the hot dogs, the heat, and the fun of a trip to Cincinnati’s Riverfront Park with Uncle Bruce and Jonathan. I remember the old-fashioned pageantry and the smell of barbecued ribs on a trip with Uncle Brice to Baltimore’s Camden Yards. I also remember the rain, the lightning, and the flooded dugouts. I formed a new baseball memory this past June. Poppy Hart and I spent an evening at the campsite straining to hear 700 WLW and the Reds through the static degrading the AM radio signal. In Mike Lupica’s book Summer of ’98 he describes a car trip with his father that was interrupted by an important moment in a ball game on the radio. His father pulled to the side of the road. "You can’t watch the game and watch the road at the same time," he’d say. "But we’re not watching the game," the young Lupica would say. "Sure we are," his father replied. Poppy and I sat on the riverbank in Meigs County, fireflies sparkling around us, watching the ballgame in Cincinnati. Baseball brings us together. Entire cities can become united behind their team as it fights for a post-season pennant. Baseball has the power to transcend our various cultural differences and make us one, make us America. As Dagwood Bumstead said, "Baseball, my son, is the cornerstone of civilization."
A story circulates on the Internet that tells of a young boy who is playing ball alone. Each time he tosses the ball into the air he says, "I’m the greatest hitter in the world." He swings at his first toss and yells, "strike one!" He swings again. "Strike two!" he cries. The boy tries once more and misses again. He quietly sighs, "strike three" and then stands there for a moment. Finally a huge smile breaks across his face and he shouts to the sky, "I’m the greatest pitcher in the world!!" The greatest reason that baseball is the greatest game is that it makes us—as individuals and as communities—FEEL GREAT. Baseball supplies dreams of heroism for millions of Americans, young and old, each night. Baseball, like America, has problems and blemishes but because of the people who revere it the game is indeed the greatest, just like America. Perhaps Broadcaster Bob Costas describes this best, "Baseball is a human enterprise; therefore, by definition it’s imperfect, it’s flawed, it doesn’t embody, perfectly, everything that is worthwhile about our country or about our culture, but it comes closer than most things in American life."