Baseball and Memory

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192 pages, 6" x 9", preface, introduction, notes, photographs, bibliography, index

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Baseball and Memory

Winning, Losing, and the Remembrance of Things Past

Congdon, Lee

In this historical/philosophical reflection, Lee Congdon writes of the ways in which baseball spurs memory. This is particularly important at a time when many Americans suffer from a form of amnesia that renders them defenseless in the face of concerted efforts to seize possession of the past. “Who controls the past controls the future,” George Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “who controls the present controls the past.” Baseball can, and does, stand in the way of those whose ambition it is to gain and maintain power by pretending that memory cannot be trusted; what was once thought to be “the past” was merely a fiction that served the interests of a ruling class.

This, Congdon argues, is asself-serving as it is untrue. Memory can play tricks on us, but, supported as it often is by confirming evidence, it alone can tell us who we are – and more. When we remember important moments and players from the game’s past, we soon discover that they are inextricably intertwined with particular eras in our common history: Babe Ruth and the Jazz Age, Joe DiMaggio and the country at war, Willie Mays and the 1950s. In often revelatory ways, those eras come alive again, and as a result we gain greater self-understanding, as individuals and as a people.

Although he draws upon the entire history of baseball, Congdon focuses primarily on the decade of the 1950s because he believes it to have been the game’s golden age – and a far better time in the nation’s history than Americans have been taught to think. Baseball’s continual invitation to communal remembrance can, he concludes, help us to avoid the fate reserved for those who forget.

Baseball fans, and people who find them puzzling are amazed by fans’ memories. That is, they are amazed by the amount of memory storage space occupied by stuff like the name of the man Bob Feller almost picked off second base in the 1948 World Series (The Boston Braves’ Phil Masi). Now comes Lee Congdon to explain why baseball is for America what the madeleine was for Proust, and why that is such a wholesome thing. – George Will, columnist and author of Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball, and Bunts.

Lee Congdon has written a warmly personal and charming account of his love for baseball and his special admiration for the 1950s, which he portrays as a golden era of that sport and of American society and culture. It will revive fond memories for his contemporaries and help younger generations understand an older one. – Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History, Yale University.

Lee Congdon, one of our finest intellectual historians, presents a brilliantly double-layered account of what was once America’s undisputed National Pastime, baseball. The account is double-layered in the sense that great allegory is double-layered: there are the wonderful events, exciting in themselves, and the moral lessons they embody, never thinning to mere symbolic abstraction.

The Fifties are presented as baseball’s Golden Age, but we realize that, as the author puts it, “Remembering the fifties . . . is an effort to take stock of what America once was and what it has now become.” Such sad developments as the loss of loyalty to place, leading players to change teams repeatedly, and the widespread use of steroids, clearly demonstrate that “In baseball – as in life – the burden of proof should always rest on those who advocate change, not on those who stand for continuity.”

Congdon is masterly in his exposure of the false utopianism that leads our current intellectual class to undertake revision of history, and even to hold memory itself in suspicion. His writing perfectly combines eloquence with crisp clarity: he could have been a great sports writer. The pages turn themselves, and the agonies and ecstasies of baseball are fully relived for their own sake, even as they serve as a parable of glory and decline. – Jonathan Chaves, The George Washington University

Lee Congdon is Professor Emeritus of History at James Madison University. He has been a Fulbright research scholar in Hungary and a Visiting Member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In addition to a trilogy on twentieth-century Hungarian intellectuals, he has written George Kennan: A Writing Life and hundreds of articles, essays, and reviews on history, philosophy, literature, politics, and baseball.