There is something of a tradition in American sportswriting whereby successful authors in other genres step back and admit that all they’ve ever really wanted to do is write about baseball.
The result is usually predictable and unsatisfying-often a treacly piece of nostalgia whose purpose seems to have been securing the author a field pass at spring training and a few player autographs. Expertise in one field is mistaken for knowledge in another as the author wallows in the reflected glow of being in the same place, at the same time, with his or her heroes. They are, to use baseball parlance, “green flies.”
The exceptions are few. Stephen Jay Gould, who died on Monday, May 20, in New York City, was one of them.
Mr. Gould had the good fortune to have been born in 1941, the season in which Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox hit .406 and Joe DiMaggio, of Mr. Gould’s beloved Yankees, hit in 56 consecutive games. Indeed, Mr. Gould once traced his affection for the game to a day at Yankee Stadium where he witnessed both men ply their trade.
But despite the temptation, when Mr. Gould wrote about baseball he never succumbed to nostalgia-except to get our attention. Neither did he ever fancy himself a “sportswriter.” Apart from the occasional review in The New York Review of Books , much of his baseball writing appeared in serials like The American Statistician , The Journal of Sport Behavior , Phi Delta Kappan and his beloved Natural History . Not quite The Sporting News.
The game was simply a tool Mr. Gould used deftly and with restraint. A tool that he loved, to be sure-this was a Yankee fan who held season tickets at Boston’s Fenway Park-but a tool nevertheless. Mr. Gould’s last “baseball” essay-“Baseball’s Reliquary,” in the March edition of Natural History -begins by dismissing the sticky notion that baseball “‘imitates life’ or stands as a symbol for larger truths and trends of human existence.” Baseball was not a metaphor to Mr. Gould, but a real event. He once explained that he wrote of baseball because “Few systems offer better data for a scientific problem that evokes as much interest, and sparks as much debate … of trends in history as expressed by measurable differences between past and present.” He used baseball to test larger ideas, knowing that baseball would bring the reader along as he explored a bigger topic. So an essay about Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak was also an excursion into statistical probability and the effect of that on the evolutionary history of a species.
That’s quite a trick, one that he was able to accomplish over and over again, using Ted Williams’ .406 batting average, Chuck Knoblauch’s throwing woes, Bill Buckner’s infamous error and other baseball events to guide us through yet another test of that system. Had he stopped there, that would have been plenty to separate him from the “baseball imitates life” school of sportswriting dilettantes.
But Mr. Gould could always bring it. Just when he was out there by himself with the bases loaded, no one out and the reader’s attention starting to flag, just when it appeared there was no way for him to deliver us from the bewildering complexities of science, he always brought it back, elegantly retiring the side. Baseball was a tool for Mr. Gould the evolutionary biologist, geologist and paleontologist to teach us about science. So too, I think, was science a way for Mr. Gould the humanist writer to teach us about ourselves.
Mr. Gould battled cancer for many years. Reading him now, it is perhaps easier than ever to see what he was up to. In his 1988 essay “The Streak of Streaks”-his examination of Joe DiMaggio’s remarkable 56 games-he shows us the difficulty of DiMaggio’s achievement, along the way touching upon Caruso, Middlemarch , The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám, statistical probability, logic and evolution. He then brings it back, concluding: “DiMaggio’s hitting streak is the finest of legitimate legends because it embodies the essence of the battle that truly defines our lives. DiMaggio activated the greatest and most unattainable dream of all humanity, the hope and chimera of all sages and shamans: he cheated death, at least for a while.”
George Gurley’s Confessions
On my first day of kindergarten, the teacher asked everyone to sit down and put our hands in our laps. “Now don’t we all know what our lap is?” she asked. “I don’t know what my lap is,” I said, “but I know what my penis is!”
In first grade, a classmate told me he had never cried, so I took his head in my hands and hit it against the floor a few times. Sure enough, he cried.
In second grade, I told a teacher to “Go to hell, bitch!”
Around the same time, I paid a pretty girl named Shannon four silver dollars to say “I love you,” then tossed the silver dollars on the ground and walked away.
I teased my grandmother’s blind cocker spaniel, Sam.
I persuaded a pal in seventh grade to ask a woman on the street for a blowjob.
I told my parents I was seeing Victory with Pelé and Michael Caine, but I really went to see Tarzan, the Ape Man with Bo Derek.
One winter I played the song “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” a dozen times on the jukebox at Pizza Hut, ruining a good dozen lunches.
At boarding school I went AWOL a lot, smoked during chapel, and was busted for urinating out a second-floor window. I wouldn’t rat out the other guy who did it, but his name was Fred and he had zero idea there was a teacher’s barbecue going on below.
I stole a Judas Priest Screaming for Vengeance tape from the Galleria, some candy from the corner store by St. Bernard’s, and a tremendous mess of bacon, burger patties and eggs from that fraternity.
Since age 7, I haven’t been able to get through a prayer without cursing the Lord.
Soon after moving to Manhattan, I began throwing wet toilet paper-“soggies”-at people and cabs from the roof of my building. I threw a snowball into a bus once, I believe at the driver. And I was there when an umbrella accidentally fell out of 640 Park Avenue and pieces of bologna were thrown off a bridge in Lawrence, Kan. (They stick to the windshield.)
I didn’t go to a best friend’s wedding, then gave him a bottle of booze for a present a year later.
I promised a girl we’d go to Central Park if she came over right then, but I reneged: It was all to have sex with her.
I went to Privilege and gave a stripper my roly-poly phone number.
I set bugs on fire with lighter fluid.
I shot an antelope in the head.
When I worked at Allure magazine, I got Isabella Rossellini’s home number and called her one too many times.
Still, I have done many nice things, too. Someone called me a saint once for helping a friend in need. I’ve always been kind to animals, besides that antelope. I say “please” and “thank you.” I drink green tea. I’m not loud in restaurants. Unlike vile, uncivilized human scum, I say “I can’t talk right now” into my cell phone when I’m on the Jitney or at Sushisay or in Duane Reade. I think about the environment and worry about the polar bears in the Arctic. For six months I walked around quietly in my loafers, often removing them, so that I wouldn’t disturb 1A, even though 1A was unoccupied.
I’ve been praised for including people in social gatherings, talking to the ones no one’s talking to. You know, considerate. A kind, compassionate guy. Mischievous, irrepressible, but not a complete misanthrope. Had I been born 20 years earlier, I would have appreciated what Joan Baez was up to in the 60’s-up to a point. I would have hated Nixon a little. I cried during The Killing Fields and an episode of The Love Boat .
No, I’m not saying which one.