The Elysian Fields

The Elysian Fields, Hoboken, New Jersey

The Elysian Fields, Hoboken, New Jersey

It is June 15, 1846 and we are in the middle of a war with Mexico. California has just declared itself an independent nation. The saxophone has just been invented by a Belgian. And Iowa, that shoeless field of dreams, is not yet a state.

And there is no baseball. Not yet.

No home runs. No green monsters. No curses. No seventh inning stretch. No “take me out to the ballgame.” No use of “three strikes” as a metaphor. No Jackie Robinson stealing home on Yogi Berra. No Jackie Robinson at all. No Curt Flood, no Buck Weaver, no Barry Bonds. No big market clubs, no small market clubs. No Black Sox, White Sox, or Red Sox. No Cubans, Clowns or Crackers.

Not yet.

I am standing on a street corner, in the shade of a tree. And I am looking at a wide intersection that is lined with the kind of early twentieth century buildings that filled the lonely canvases of Edward Hopper. Cars drive by and a light breeze is blowing out towards Manhattan.

And on this spot, on June 16, 1846, while others made their political fortunes in Monterrey and Veracruz and while McGillicuddys fled famines, the Knickerbocker Club got the stuffing beaten out of them by the New York Nine in the first officially recorded baseball game. Here, at what were the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey.

This was where New Yorkers came to get away from the congestion of their city. But where are the fields now? Brass markers are set into the street to identify where bases had been. I head out into the crossings to walk the four corners of the intersection, trying to make the same circuit that Paulding and Trenchard and Tryon and Winslow made more than fifteen decades ago.

Because baseball – whether you’re a fan or whether you couldn’t care less – has a relationship with us that is unlike any other activity in this country. Because baseball is the image of our selves that we paint, year after year, but that we leave to other generations to examine and understand.

Do you think it’s just coincidence that baseball was segregated for almost as long as the rest of America was? That we lived separately but equally with two baseball leagues through more than two world wars. Not at all. And is it mere happenstance that the bosses who owned the teams ran them in exactly the same way they ran their big companies – with as little regard for the people who actually did the work as they could muster? Or that when unionization finally did come to the game, baseball reacted about as well as the rest of corporate America did?

Each one of us has some baseball connection. A thread that weaves throughout your life and the life of your family. For me, there is my grandfather, son of immigrants, being offered a minor league contract by the Cubs, at a time when ballplayers were barely a step above hoodlums and rapscallions. A contract his parents would tell him he could not take. And again there is my uncle, fighting for a starting position at third base on a minor league club – until Brooks Robinson shows up and my uncle – in a way few of us ever are – is presented with the limits of his own greatness. Or there am I in an ill-fitting cap and t-shirt with the rest of my team on some dusty ballfield in the Midwest, a dozen thirdgraders and a handful of bats.

And through it all, there is baseball, with it’s peculiarly American idea of teamwork, a teamwork predicated not even on individuality but on separateness. The outfielder who hits the cut off man – who may or may not take the throw. Or the runner on first who distracts the pitcher into misthrowing a pitch that the batter sends over the fence. Or the teammates talking on the bench about how the umpire is calling the strikezone.

Plaque, Hoboken, New Jersey

Plaque, Hoboken, New Jersey

But more than our separateness, it reflects a sense of right and wrong that is almost unheardof by any but our better angels. Because there are no penalties in baseball. No red cards. No fifteen yards marched off for unsportsmanlike conduct, no five minute majors and power plays. There are balls. There are strikes. There are outs. There is the occasional loudmouth sent off the field. One would think that in a country like ours, with prisons bursting and the death penalty on so many lawbooks, that our game, the game that we call our own, would be preoccupied if not actually obsessed, with punishment and enforcement.

How reassuring that it is not. Because as we emerge from this era of bitterness and acrimony, it reminds us that perhaps, at our root, there is more to our national fabric – more to us – than an obsession with punishment. Than a pathology for vitriol. For comeuppance. Perhaps there is fairness. Perhaps there is personal responsibility. Perhaps that is the irony of this game that became our game only after the great malevolence of the Civil War. Perhaps this is baseball’s real lesson.

And it all came from here. From these fields of God in this most litigious state. Where our nostalgia for our mythified rural past is paved over by the blacktop of this urban game’s reality. Batter up.

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~ by martinbihl on June 7, 2009.

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