Stephen Jay Gould, world-renowned paleontologist, died at the age of sixty on May 20, 2002, the day I turned fifty. I never met the man, and have no idea what we might have had in common other than what can be inferred through his writings. One thing that is abundantly clear was Gould’s love for baseball from a fan’s perspective – a passion that I share as you may have gathered through some of these blogs.
I thought that I had read every one of Gould’s books, and in several of them there are hints if not declarations of his addiction to baseball spectatorship and analysis. But it was only recently that I came across a posthumously published collection of his essays on baseball, Triumph and Tragedy In Mudville: A Lifelong Passion For Baseball. How fitting it was to discover this book during our annual sojourn to the Arizona Fall League last month, and the copy that I ordered was waiting for me back at the office when I returned to Fair Lawn last week. Naturally it’s been my morning read at Starbucks for the past few days, wanting to savor it rather than giving it the Evelyn Wood speed-reading finger.
First the Foreword by David Halberstam, a brilliant author in his own right who was tragically killed in a car accident several years after the book was published. Halberstam writes that late in life Gould taught a class at Harvard with fellow professor Alan Dershowitz, a close friend who often attended Red Sox games with him. Dershowitz once pulled out a cell phone to take a call, and incurred the wrath of Gould, who was not at games to socialize but to take it all in. He appreciated the human elements of the game, as do I, in concert with one of Ted Williams’ basic truths of both baseball and life: “God gets you to the plate, but from then on, you’re on your own”. What you put into it, how hard you work, how much passion you bring to it, and how you study to improve yourself are crucial aspects of how one succeeds in any enterprise – and baseball was no exception.
Among my favorite vignettes in the book is the one on Babe Pinelli, the umpire who rung up pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell on strikes for the 27th out of Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series.
Mitchell groused that the pitch was outside by a foot, but to Gould the actual location of the pitch wasn’t the key. He writes: “A man may not take a close pitch with so much on the line. Context matters. Truth is a circumstance, not a spot.”
Remember the transistor radio that would tuck into your shirt pocket, and the earphone that you could run up your sleeve to sneak in an important sporting even like that during class? When one of Gould’s classmates whispered to him that Larsen had just pitched a perfect game 5, Gould cheered loudly and threw his jacket high in the air. He surmised that the 10 points that his teacher deducted from his final grade in that class probably cost him his admission to Harvard as an undergraduate (he attended Antioch College instead) —- but, he claims, he never experienced a moment of regret.
In another vignette, Gould relates how he switched to rooting for the Red Sox after relocating to Boston just enough to feel the town’s pair over being a perennial bride left at the post-season’s altar. Not as much pain as the Cubs who had never won it all (no longer applicable!) or the Phillies whose two World Series flags hardly offset all those years of painfully lousy teams. Perhaps as a lifelong Yankees fan you might think that Gould would pull for the New York Team in the 1986 World Series, when the Mets faced the Red Sox. Gould nips that notion in the bud: “Maybe you thought I would switch caps for the Series and start chanting ‘Let’s Go, Mets’. Not on your life. I’m a loyal New Yorker, to be sure, but the Mets are nothing to me… They didn’t exist when I was a kid, and loyalties are shaped by those early years of splendor in the grass and the glory in the flower.”