“I think about baseball when I wake up in the morning. I think about it all day and I dream about it at night. The only time I don’t think about it is when I’m playing it.”
- Carl Yastrzemski
“What is the answer?” Gertrude Stein reportedly asked as she lay dying in the American Hospital at Neuilly in 1946. When her longtime companion Alice B. Toklas offered no reply, Stein uttered her final words: “In that case, what is the question?”
Known for her repetitive and “automatic” - some might say monotonous - style of writing (“there is no there there” when describing the city of Oakland); her extensive collection of paintings by Cezanne, Degas, Gaugin, Picasso, and Matisse; and her coining of the famous term Lost Generation, it would seem that Stein the expatriate intellectual would have no bearing whatsoever on the subject of baseball, America's game.
“You are all a génération perdue.” Speaking directly to close friend and fellow expatriate Ernest Hemingway at his Notre-Dame-des-Champs residence, Stein was in fact quoting a disgruntled French garage mechanic whom she overheard voicing frustration to an inept apprentice: “All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation. You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death . . . .”
Stein raised two very fine questions on her deathbed, though both were met with a telling silence.
David Wright might put it another way, as he did recently for the benefit of ESPNNewYork.com: "I understand we've struggled. I understand that there are a lot of questions surrounding a lot of different things. I can't answer very many of those."
When you cannot provide a decent answer, or if answers often seem futile and superfluous, it's important that there be good questions. The question itself often holds the greater intellectual pleasure and promise.
Rhetorical questions have long been a purposeful mode of human discourse: the query stands alone, fully sufficient as it articulates an idea, states an opinion, or seeks to convey a truth. No answer is expected, perhaps because explanations sometimes fail to get at the heart of human experience, including the thing we call baseball.
I’ve been asked some baseball questions in my day – mostly by children like my young nieces who joined me at a Cape League game one evening, the smallest sitting on my lap: How long does it take that guy to warm up? What do you think the coach is saying to him? How come some of those K’s are going backwards? - that’s dumb! Why is one of our guys talking to a player on the other team? Is it halftime now?
I’ve raised many more questions about the game than I’ve answered. How come Mariano Rivera gets to wear Jackie Robinson’s retired number? And speaking of Rivera, isn’t it kind of ironic, religiously speaking, that Rivera blew a save on Easter Day?
I’ve always had questions about baseball – always have and always will. “You and your sister ask good questions,” an important baseball person once said to us. There’s a certain challenge in generating a good question that leads to lively conversation. It's fun, and the ensuing give-and-take often feels a lot like joy.
Matthew Silverman poses 27 questions in his newly-published Baseball Miscellany, the odd number representative of batters who must be retired in order for a ballgame to end.
When does the game end? I was asked that question a couple weeks ago at my son’s varsity baseball game while sitting beside two female exchange students from Botswana. They voiced their curiosities in perfect English with exquisite accents. Can they use more than one pitcher? When does the other team get a turn? Why are there so many players sitting on the bench? What time will it be over? Imagine the many ways - beyond a simple yes or no - in which these fundamentals might be addressed. Our exchanges were so much fun. There’s a distinct enjoyment in contemplating a question's value or meaning before one rushes to respond.
That's the impression one might have upon paging through Matthew Silverman’s miscellany. Out of the thousands of questions the author might have conjured, why these: What is a sandlot? Why is there a seventh-inning stretch? Why do managers wear uniforms? And why are some of these questions worded as they are: “Who invented baseball?” In posing this particular question, the author presumably knows its underlying assumption is flawed. There's a witty subtext within many of his inquiries, which in turn yields intelligent, entertaining explanations.
Invenire – (Lat: “to come upon”). No one discovered or came upon baseball in the way that Ponce de Leon bumped up against a mass of land and named it Puerto Rico, for example. No one invented baseball in the way that Thomas Edison contributed to our world a fully formed object called the light bulb. Baseball evolved; the answer is complicated, and Silverman addresses the subject convincingly.
Baseball Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Baseball is no Dummie’s Guide to the game, even though its cover playfully features fan favorites like Phillie Phanatic and a Home Run Apple. The book’s answers to baseball questions are intelligent and engaging. In fact, you may learn more history than you care to know.
What's especially delightful is that there’s not a “right” answer to every question. While making your way through Silverman's 27-chapter quiz, you might respond as I did, initially: I know the answer to this question, it’s so obvious, but wait a minute. Maybe I don’t. The book moves beyond quick trivia and easy answers toward more sophisticated explanations, brief lessons in history, entertaining anecdotes, and educative stories within the larger story.
In a few instances, however, I'm not so sure that every question merits a lengthy explanation. For example: What is a shortstop? I don't particularly want to hear a dictionary definition or history lesson. I just like the word. It sounds good; it makes sense. Shortstop. It’s onomatopoetic. If you’ve watched or played the game, you know viscerally what a shortstop is. If you’ve seen Aparicio or Nomar or Jeter or Harrelson or your own kid practicing his moves in the back yard, you just know. It's a compressed, compound word busting with energy. You don’t need an encyclopedia.
And yet . . . you might find yourself returning to Silverman's guide a few days later (as I did), because you really are curious to know his answer.
What is a Met?
Now, that without a doubt is my favorite moment in the book. Imagine the multiplicity of ways in which this witty question might be interpreted, whether by sports historians or ordinary fans, considering the history of the franchise, 1962-present. The author, a prolific writer on all topics Mets, presents the idea satirically in four succinct monosyllables, equal stresses on each word. Its diminutive, almost dismissive simplicity is significant.
The clever question made me laugh. Superimposed upon an endearing full-page image of a cheerful Mr. Met and his oversized baseball head, Silverman's apt words afforded me a little moment of happiness on a day when I really needed to laugh, especially about baseball things, the Mets included.
This is an attractive book. My copy is made of something called paper, its colorful sheets bound in thread. When you open the book, it stays open; you don’t even have to crack the binding. It’s friendly that way. No need to put it away during takeoff and landing.
Do you remember how you once turned to a story’s illustrations when you were a child, neglecting the narrative at first? It’s refreshing to encounter an aesthetically pleasing object reminiscent of childhood pleasures while simultaneously enjoying useful and arcane content. Baseball Miscellany need not be read chronologically, nor even cover to cover. You can open up to any page and the content is engaging, just as when you tune into a ballgame on radio or television, or show up at the ballpark in the middle of the action and you’re almost instantly involved.
The miscellany is generously loaded with illustrations (though one would have hoped for better portraits of Rachel Robinson visiting Cooperstown and Frank Robinson in his Indians jersey). Pictures include wistful black-and-white portraits of Eddie Cicotte, Ernie Banks, Cy Young, Joe DiMaggio, and more playful color images of characters like Tommy Lasorda riding around Dodgertown in a golf cart.
Just as in a ballgame many things are happening at once at any given time, so in Baseball Miscellany each page offers an eclectic array of visuals and narrative. Engaging quotations artfully framed, self-contained anecdotes, snapshots of familiar gear, curious artifacts such as the original sheet music for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” lend the narrative authenticity as it spins satisfying answers to 27 questions and provides countless other glimpses into the game.
The book’s major flaw, in my view, is its ending. It has no ending. Admittedly, the genre of miscellany requires no beginning-middle-end unity of design, but one still wishes for a satisfying form of closure, perhaps a witty flourish of a finish. Instead, an anticlimactic final sentence gives the attendance figure for a game that followed the disastrous Ten-Cent Beer Night at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium in 1974: 8,101. Silverman leaves us with this whimper of a number as we put the book aside.
Reading is so often a solitary activity, but sometimes it's best when shared. Children come immediately to mind, and perhaps they are part of the audience that Skyhorse Publishing envisioned when mentioning educational, corporate, and fund-raising discounts on the book's copyright page.
I picture kids sitting side by side on the sofa on a rainy day, reading aloud and quizzing each other, or quietly studying words and pictures, just as they might do with an inviting volume of I Spy. From time to time they call out to adults to see if they know the answers to good baseball questions. I hear laughter, and all the things that bring a home to life.
I imagine my daughter and her cousin – all grown up and in their twenties now, sharing a baseball miscellany on a chilly evening after the game gets called due to fog, sitting close together near the fireplace, the same way they once sat and gazed at a book full of spring training photographs and sighed, “Ahhh . . . I want to be there right now!” Or I walk past the bunkroom where all the kids have gathered well past midnight. They’re home from college during summer vacation, taking turns reading aloud just for fun, the way they once did with Harry Potter, and sometimes still do.
Maybe I’ll be the one sharing this book with my sister. We're in a hotel room, staying up late and enjoying a couple Sierra Nevadas after the Red Sox vs. Mariners game. More likely, it’s she and her husband winding down for the night, sharing “the baseball thing," which they're so fortunate to be able to do, happily ever after.
Baseball Miscellany would make a sweet gift for Mother’s Day. Tie a satin ribbon around it and tuck inside that pretty ribbon a small bottle of Jo Malone cologne and a few lilac blossoms, then set the book beside her pillow when the children deliver breakfast in bed. Just saying. Father’s Day too: place it right there next to the big long spatula out by the Weber grill. Wrap it in twine from the garage and bind that fine book to a brand new carton of balls - Diamond Brand. America’s Choice. Simply the Best - while the kids and their dad are playing catch in the late afternoon light.
recommended for all ages:
Matthew Silverman, Baseball Miscellany:
(Skyhorse Publishing, March 2011)