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Last updated: October 18, 2008 4:45 am
For around half the year, my day begins much like anybody else in my line of work. I start with the Today programme or, if in conscientious mode, with the news at 5.30am and Farming Today. I listen to the sport with foreboding – the natural consequence of being a Tottenham Hotspur fan.
During the seven months of the US baseball season, however, I begin my day with a pilgrimage to the Boston Red Sox website to find out the previous night’s result, examine a stream of statistics that decode the game and watch a three-minute video of highlights. In recent years this has largely been a soothing activity – in 2004 the Red Sox abandoned an 86-year attraction to glorious and improbable defeat in favour of the more lucrative and satisfying activity of winning the World Series, professional baseball’s only championship of merit. At the time of writing, they are still – albeit precariously – in with a shout of playing the Philadelphia Phillies in this year’s World Series, which begins this week.
My addiction to the Sox and to baseball began in late 1977, when I arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, fresh from Cambridge, UK (where I studied history – quite a bit of it American but none of it, astonishingly, about baseball) but stale from years of watching Spurs sink into grubby mediocrity. I should have been spending my time at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government but found going to Fenway Park, home of the Sox, more conducive.
A trip to Tottenham’s ground, White Hart Lane, had involved an endless bus ride through suburban north London and a 15-minute walk down Tottenham High Road, where the matchday drinking began early and finished late. I stood on the terraces for more than a decade, enduring an obstructed view of the team’s decline from its glorious successes of the early 1960s. During one particularly abysmal performance, I made uncharitable comments about the manager and someone urinated on the back of my jeans. The team was sinking. Disappointment (then as now) was almost guaranteed.
So I felt entitled to find a new sporting cause and the Red Sox seemed ideal. For a start the trip to Fenway involved nothing more demanding than a 25-minute tram ride to downtown Boston with a stop outside the stadium. I often went with my Australian girlfriend (now my wife and, broadly, baseball-tolerant) and Martin Sixsmith (who later became the BBC’s correspondent in then baseball-free Washington) and his wife.
Fenway is no ordinary stadium. Opened in April 1912, it is the oldest ballpark in the US and smaller than most – though it still fits in 39,000. It has sold out for more than 460 successive games – a baseball record and the surest sign of the fervour the Sox inspire in fans across New England, also known as “Red Sox Nation”. The support is as fanatical as anything you would find on Tyneside for Newcastle United but spreads out for hundreds of miles, its tentacles extending to photos, pennants and autographed pictures on the walls of petrol stations and diners right up to the Canadian border.
Fenway is also irregularly shaped, having been crammed into an asymmetrical block of land, and features a quirky triangle formed from a meeting place of low walls and its most peculiar landmark, “The Green Monster”, a 37ft-high green wall off which the ball carooms at daft angles. The Monster – made of wood but coated in plastic – gives the Sox an advantage. The fielders know how the ball will ricochet and the hitters have an instinctive feel for it because – though high – it is nearer the home plate (where the batters stand to hit) and encourages home-run heroics.
In a New Yorker essay in 1960, John Updike, New England man and baseball aficionado, labelled Fenway “a lyric little bandbox” and there is a beguiling contrast between the immaculate turf and the red dirt infield area – the diamond – where the hitters gallop around bases or slide into opposing fielders to stop them releasing the ball.
On the pitch, too, the Red Sox were a wonder to behold. The manager, who looked a hundred and was appropriately named Don Zimmer, picked a team of heftily muscled home run sluggers, with nicknames such as Boomer, Butch and Big Jim. They provided great excitement when depositing the baseball several times a night into a variety of neighbouring car parks but would drop the ball almost as often when the other team got a chance to bat. The team’s pitching was also largely useless. One pitcher was a pot-smoking hippy who nicknamed Zimmer “the gerbil”. Zimmer, a conservative of the very old school, took his revenge by refusing to pick him. It was as if Chelsea were to line up this weekend with a one-armed goalkeeper and 10 strikers.
Incredibly, for most of 1978 this unique baseball alchemy worked. The Sox obliterated all opposition – including the hated New York Yankees. The Sox hadn’t won the World Series since 1918 when, according to fan legend, the franchise was cursed for trading Babe Ruth (the WG Grace of the game) to the Yankees. Nevertheless, the team had a reputation for losing in style – of always finding entertaining ways to disappoint their tortured fans. There were some similarities with Tottenham here but with the Sox there was a nobility to the enterprise.
For a brief period, it seemed I had arrived in Boston just in time to watch the curse removed in a starburst of slugging, with the bonus of a Yankee humiliation. But in late summer I started driving across America. An unimaginably generous condition of my fellowship in the US was that I had to travel for at least two months. The only disadvantage was to send me into exile from Fenway Park. Needless to say, in my absence, the Red Sox blew up completely. The sluggers ground to a halt and there was no plan B.
I followed this agonisingly from afar, listening to ball-by-ball radio commentaries – a broadcasting art form as pleasing in the American vernacular (“That’s a breaking ball inside to stop him unwinding that big hitting arch he can generate”) as Test Match Special is for its quintessential Englishness. Remarkably, as the season ended, after 162 games, the Yankees and the Sox had identical records. A one-off decider was arranged and, back in town, I watched on a cruddy black and white television in the Sixsmiths’ flat next to Harvard Square. The ensuing three hours provided the best sporting entertainment of my life.
The Sox had rallied over the final few games to force the decider and the game was at Fenway. The team’s greatest hero of the time Carl Yastrzemski (“Yaz”) was in form and opened the scoring with a solo home run. It seemed as though the fates were aligned. But then a small gust of autumn wind blew from behind home plate. Up stepped a Yankee hitter by the name of Bucky Dent. Somehow, despite his well-earned reputation for almost never hitting a ball beyond his nose, Dent chose this day of all days to waft a three-run homer over the Green Monster. The Red Sox narrowly lost.
. . .
Winning matches may be the object of the exercise but it seems not to matter quite so much when you are at the ballpark. The spectators look as if they have another life. There are many thousands of women and children – so the men behave better. And there are so many more games a year to watch. You can lose seven in a row and still have a very good season. No team can expect to win more than a hundred games a year in the regular season.
There is a beautiful rhythm to a baseball game. There are convenient breaks between each of the nine innings and by the end, usually around three hours later, most of a newspaper can be consumed. After a couple of hours comes the “seventh innings stretch” when an organist plays an old baseball ditty – “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” – and everyone stands and sings. Folksy, maybe even kitsch, and in England I would plug my ears, but it’s part of the sport’s history and rituals and I found it worth conquering my English distaste for mass untuneful participation.
Indeed, being an Englishman in the Fenway crowd was a huge advantage. Everyone wanted to teach me the game’s mysteries and to tell me about the curse and how it was about to be lifted. Baseball supporters can talk – loudly, fluently and articulately.
Of course, you can treat baseball as upmarket rounders and still enjoy it. And for the uninitiated, that is how it must seem. But this is a colossal mistake – like regarding a brain surgeon as somebody who taps your knee.
There are no leg before wicket mysteries to resolve and every game has the same rules – unlike cricket with its changing formats and methods of scoring points. But baseball has endless subtleties. The balance between bat and ball, every ball, is more precarious than in cricket. A truly great hitter will only be able successfully to lay bat on ball once every three times he is at the plate. But even when not reaching base there is the excitement of watching the ball fly large distances into a floodlit night sky before being snared in a baseball glove. For the most part, the fielders are fast and balletic. This year Manny Ramirez, until recently Boston’s star slugger but not known for running in the field when loafing would suffice, contrived to do a high-five with a spectator while simultaneously leaping up a perimeter fence to catch the baseball and prevent a home run. (Ramirez, my favourite player, was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers this summer, an astonishing move akin to Manchester United selling Cristiano Ronaldo to Liverpool mid-season.)
With cricket, when nothing seems to be going on, it is often true that nothing is going on. Not even the brilliant Test Match Special team can persuade me otherwise. In baseball every pitch makes a difference to the balance of power between pitcher and hitter and determines running tactics, fielding positions, catchers’ instructions, prospects of a stolen base and the intensity of the managers’ tobacco chewing. Every “at bat” – and there are at least 54 of them – has its own drama. And you get a result every time.
The game’s vocabulary is rich and large – bunts, squeezes, curveballs, sliders, line drives, knuckleballs, bloops, pinch hits, strike outs and, of course, grand slams. Much of the terminology has given American English a resonance that goes well beyond the game’s confines.
. . .
When I came back from America in 1979 my interest waned a little. It was hard to keep up with the scores, British newspapers took no interest, Spurs underwent a mild improvement and the Red Sox never properly recovered from that defeat to the Yankees. In 1986 they contrived to lose the World Series when the fielder standing on first base allowed a rolling ball – moving at about 2mph – to slip through his legs with the game and the series more or less won. The fielder’s name, Bill Buckner, is to the Sox what Ramsay MacDonald’s is to the Labour party. It was not merely the equivalent of missing a penalty in a World Cup game. He had consigned another generation or two to the curse. And we knew it.
This noble failure revived my interest sharply. But what really reconnected me with my American summers was the arrival of baseball on the internet. Major League Baseball (www.mlb.com) is a triumph on the web and a reminder of what American enterprise can do when not involved in banking and mortgages. The team sites are commercial but attuned to fans’ needs. And then there’s the video. For about $80 a year I am allowed to see thousands of games live on broadband. Most are played while I am asleep in the UK but I can choose between a condensed 15-minute version of the game or the three-minute package. And every Sunday the Sox play an afternoon game, conveniently allowing me to listen to the Radio 4 audience complaints programme, Feedback while watching the game live – the one an antidote to the other.
At work, I do not behave much worse than normal when the Sox lose – but I normally begin the first meeting of the day with an extra degree of frivolity when they win. And the end of every season is a mellow moment.
Most people are mystified by this addiction but not everyone. At the Cheltenham Literary Festival recently, I bumped into historian Simon Schama. We met at Harvard in 1977 and he is more besotted than I am by the Red Sox. He was dizzy from the adrenaline of giving another performance to a packed crowd. The world’s financial system had cracked still further overnight. He hugged me manfully and said only, “What news?” He wanted to know the Red Sox score. I understood.
The Englishman dubbed the father of baseball
Abner Doubleday, later a civil war general, is supposed to have invented baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York, while playing marbles, writes Jurek Martin. But Henry Chadwick, who grew up playing cricket in England, has a better claim on the modern shape of America’s national pastime, according to a diligent new biography by Andrew J Schiff.
Aged 13, Chadwick arrived in New York in 1836 with his family from Exeter. He found cricket the most popular game in his new city but not the only one scattered around the playing fields of Brooklyn. One was this new game called base ball (the two words were still used 70 years later). Chadwick became a journalist and, by the 1850s, was writing about little other than baseball for local newspapers, the early New York Times and the Brooklyn Eagle. He became so assiduous a promoter of the game that in 1859 he joined the committee setting uniform rules for the sport, then with several local variations.
Under his tutelage, it settled on the number of innings that constituted a game (nine), the player roster (also nine) and how many balls and strikes were permitted. After a six-year struggle, he got baseball to follow cricket in accepting that a batter had to be caught on the fly, rather than after once bounce, to be out.
But Chadwick had only just started. In 1860, he began editing an annual publication, Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player, which contained everything he knew about the game. Thus was born baseball’s first statistician, perhaps his most enduring contribution, because no sport places such a premium on statistics.
He first devised a shorthand system for in-game scoring, much like cricket’s, to track each pitch, hit and out. So the letter K recorded a strike out by the pitcher, HR a home run, while fielding positions were assigned numbers, one for catcher, two for pitcher and on around the diamond.
But, as a journalist, he understood that readers needed more than mere words about what happened in the previous day’s game. So he gave birth to the box score, setting out the hits, runs and errors in convenient tabular form. It has changed over the years, with new statistics such as RBIs (runs batted in) added and some of his originals deleted, but his model remains eminently recognisable.
Still, he lost his last battle, just before his death in 1908. He had always claimed, from the first Beadle annuals, that baseball derived from rounders, the English game. But a young nation needed to believe that its game had sprung clean and whole from an American breast.
A special commission settled, on pretty flimsy evidence, on the Doubleday story, which explains why baseball’s Hall of Fame resides in Cooperstown, and not in Brooklyn or, indeed, Exeter.
‘The Father of Baseball: A Biography of Henry Chadwick’ by Andrew J Schiff is published by McFarland £21.95
The World Series begins on October 22
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