Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Mudville Heritage

Two or three decades ago, I read a very enjoyable book titled The Old Ball Game, by the euphoniously named Tristram Potter Coffin. It turns out that Mr. Coffin was unhappy with the original publisher's choice of title. He wanted to call it The Mudville Heritage: Baseball in Folklore and Fiction. So he is no doubt delighted that his preferred title graces the cover of a new edition of his little gem of a book, recently published by Rvive Books (http://www.rvive.com/).

A now-retired English professor whose field was folklore, Coffin fashioned a disarming and thought-provoking examination of the game we love as an expression of American cultural preoccupations. Why is baseball important to us? How does it reflect our national identity and express the characteristics our society reveres? Why have certain baseball figures commanded more acclaim than others? And how have our storytellers helped us define what is obviously so vital about this game? These are some of the questions explored by Coffin, with very entertaining results.

Though he covers the whole range of baseball history, Coffin's writing is definitely a product of his time. Published in 1971, at a time when baseball's pre-eminence was first threatened by other sports, it asserts baseball's place as the national game. Moreover, written in the wake of the social and racial tensions of the 1960s, he assesses the increasing presence of non-whites in the game, including the remarkable prediction that "As the Blacks improve their situation, there will be fewer American Negroes, and eventually, perhaps, the game will be dominated by the Latins and the Japanese."

After several early chapters covering folklorish topics such as the infusion of baseball talk into the nation's popular language, the role of superstition, the significance of signs, and the differences between baseball players and traditional folklore figures like cowboys and seafarers, Coffin hits his stride in discussing how specific baseball people have exemplified vital American archetypes. He begins with the three types of legendary heroes of folklore. The prowess heroes, "like Ajax and Achilles in The Iliad. . .will rise from sheer brawn, and they will take advantage of their superior size, speed, and resistance to pain to accomplish their ends." The trickster "represents the principle of pure unbridled energy, directed into human shape and impelled by primal human needs." Thirdly, ethical heroes "arise in the secular parts of life, particularly in law and politics where they establish their codes of conduct." Do I have to tell you the baseball epitomes of these types? Coffin discusses them in fascinating detail: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Kenesaw Landis (whose parallels to "the hanging judge," Roy Bean, are alarming).

Coffin's discussion of American types extends well beyond those larger-than-life figures, and displays a savvy instinct for choosing the most telling examples. Thus we are treated to views outside the norm of what we usually read today about the likes of Branch Rickey, Bill Veeck, Dizzy Dean, Satchel Paige, and many others. Particularly illuminating is his treatment of Paige, the single African-American--as of the late 1960s, when Coffin was writing--to achieve the status of legend by overcoming the biases which relegated members of his race to secondary and stereotyped status. Paige did it largely through self-promotion, however, and Coffin wondered how long it might take society to allow a black player to be elevated to such status by the white press. Has it happened in the past forty years? Not necessarily. Hank Aaron became a legend long after his playing career ended. The only candidate for a larger-than-life image while active that I can think of is Rickey Henderson.

The last third of The Mudville Heritage is devoted to the rich history of baseball fiction. Coffin is both thorough and opinionated. There is a hefty section on the Frank Merriwell tales of Gilbert Patten (writing as Burt L. Standish), including a long, quoted passage showing Merriwell's baseball derring-do, which highlights Coffin's coverage of the gee-whiz literary tradition that prevailed until Ring Lardner broke the mold with stories that showed the weaknesses that make ballplayers as human as the rest of us. Coffin's extended portrait of Lardner is incisive and poignant: the man who brings joy to his readers but not to himself, the writer who is so adept at his own popular style that it inhibits him from pushing his talent into more rarefied realms of enduring literature.

There's an excellent discussion of why "Casey At the Bat" was an isolated example of a hero's failure. Coffin falters, however, by blasting Ernest Thayer for following up with "Casey's Revenge," in which the slugger comes through in trite Merriwell fashion. The latter poem does indeed counter the original, but it wasn't penned by Thayer and therefore need not have rankled Coffin so much.

Coffin is rather skeptical about the chances that more modern baseball novels (as of 1970) might be considered candidates for literary immortality. He admires the baseball passages written by Thomas Wolfe and James T. Farrell, but neither published a baseball novel per se. Mirroring the larger concerns of fiction writers, "an elusive dream has begun to take shape," Coffin notes, "a dream of using this national pastime to write the great national novel." He isn't impressed by the results, attesting that "it is tedious to sort through the literary heaps left from this pursuit." He has kind words for the Mark Harris novels and Heywood Broun's The Sun Field (also republished by Rvive), but gives Bernard Malamud a hard time for The Natural (bravo!--for my money it's the worst well-known baseball novel ever). He applauds the effort to fashion "the great American novel" from baseball (a few years later, Philip Roth published a baseball novel with that title but it didn't live up to its promise either).

I wonder how Coffin feels now, forty years later. Baseball fiction has flourished during these decades, both in and out of the mainstream. I would suggest Darryl Brock's If I Never Get Back as a novel he might anoint as fulfilling both the promise of great literature and the role of baseball in determining the American character. In any case, I recommend The Mudville Heritage for its own deeply personal and highly readable exploration of the game that has captivated and defined this nation for the past century and a half.

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