Monday, February 04, 2008

The Hot Stove League

FROM: "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, February 7, 2008:
There is no denying it: the Super Bowl just past was a game for the ages, with a thrilling fourth quarter. I had listened to the Giants annihilate the Bears 47-7 in the 1956 championship game, had watched them lose to the Baltimore Colts two years later in the famous sudden-death overtime game, and have watched nearly every Giants regular-season or playoff game since. This one topped them all, inspiring long suffering fans to think that we too might rise above the burdens of history.

I woke on Monday still giddy with the improbability — no, the impossibility — of what I had just witnessed. But now, with two months of winter still ahead, football is over until next fall, over in a way that baseball never quite is. The furor over Draft Day is short lived and contrived, like an installment of American Idol. On the other hand, since the World Series ended I have devoured every crumb of baseball news I could find, and have daily swapped stories of the game in distant days with a legion of likeminded friends. The web is our century’s general store and electronic missives its equivalent of spitting tobacco juice on the hot stove.

Soon pitchers and catchers will report to camps in Florida and Arizona, and American hearts and minds, even those so recently in thrall to the rites of the oblate spheroid, will spring to attention. But we still have a few weeks to swap cracker-barrel wisdom, to bask in the wintry glow of the game that connects us with our past, that races through us like blood.

Baseball has always had an active hot-stove league in which today’s stars might be matched against those of the past. Ruth and Cobb, DiMaggio and Williams, Mathewson and Johnson — they cavort like colts every winter and are content to be idle when spring rolls around. But there is no summer stadium where Grange and Nagurski, Thorpe and Baugh, Brown and Huff square off. In football there is no air-conditioner league.

When was the last time you played a game of football trivia? Or basketball? Or hockey? These sports call for controlled aggression (as in the “on” position of “the switch,” an area in the frontal lobe of the brain recently the subject of a column by Bill Rhoden in The New York Times). Skilled baseball players must retain their composure, keeping this switch in the “off” position. Cool contemplation suits the hot-stove league just fine, too.

Being an expert at baseball is, I can report, about as lucrative as being the best whittler in Punkinville. So the interesting question about this trivial pursuit of plays and players past is why we do it, why in baseball as in no other sport it feels like fun while having about it an air of importance.

Even to its most ardent practitioners, baseball trivia is a curious form of play. If like other sports baseball is sublimated warfare, a proposition I have championed in this space, then trivia is sublimated baseball, in which the currency of skill is not athletic ability but memory spurred by passion. Playing baseball trivia is clearly different from playing baseball ... but is it also different from being a baseball fan? Did people do it before the current era?

Not in a competitive, game-playing sense they didn’t: a hundred years ago and more, the accumulator of baseball data was thought to be “odd” if not downright certifiable: some of the greatest baseball cranks and bugs were reputed to reside in insane asylums; their very nickname reflected the general sense that they were seized by mania. They would know all the stats, even inventing new measures to get at “the real dope” about the players. Today they might work in a team’s front office.

Fans originally reveled in the reflected glory of their favorites and longed for the opportunity to stand beside them with bent elbow and a scuttle of suds. In this the old-fashioned fan’s relation to baseball players was no different from his attitude toward boxers or jockeys: the allure consisted in the ruboff of celebrity. But as radio and TV came along to create visual abstractions of the players for a mass audience — box-score heroes recreated from the flesh — it became easier for fans to form a relationship with ballplayers’ baggage than with their physical beings. Gathering their biographical data, keeping track of their stats and inventing new ones, pointing out odd similarities and interesting tidbits … this came to be what we now call (but older fans never did) trivia.

Radio shows such as the Quiz Kids and Information Please of the 1930s created the genre of mass infotainment, extending from an earlier period’s fascination with “Mr. Memory” tricksters of the variety-hall boards. In the 1950s television created a game-show boom — The $64,000 Question, 21, and countless more — in which ordinary people who had uselessly known all about opera or astronomy might suddenly become rich and famous. Media made stars, but it was media that became the biggest star, fueling a pop-culture craze that remains with us. We admire someone who can sing perfectly the theme song from Davy Crockett or Gilligan’s Island or who can tell us the flip side of Ritchie Valens’ "La Bamba." Not so long ago such people — the modern equivalent of the insect taxonomists of the 1600s — were regarded as freaks.

Baseball trivia is similar to but different from pop-music or movie or TV trivia, in that it stretches further back. It serves not merely to inspire memory of one’s own childhood but also connects us to a collective memory, the youth of our nation. Baseball trivia is not exactly history, but it’s “in the ballpark”: closer to it, say, than remembering who played Inspector Joe Friday on Dragnet. And in playing it, in telling tales around the hot stove, we perpetuate the legends of our culture and even the culture itself.

A baseball trivia game can be as challenging as a spelling bee was to us once upon a time, or a PhD oral exam may be tomorrow. The trivia game is real life upside-down, an inversion by which the important is replaced by the unimportant while retaining all the trappings of exams, tests, trials, contests in which the stakes are genuinely high.

A good game of baseball trivia satisfies in just the same way that a good baseball game does. The pleasure lies in caring intensely about the activity while engaged in it but, because one knows at a deep level that the outcome is unimportant, caring not at all once it’s over, regardless of the outcome. To care intensely about something that doesn’t matter — to treat it as if it did matter — permits one to deflect real concerns and to engage in simulated combat with no real consequence. Such pleasures are part of civilized society, when not all one’s waking moments must resemble war, or football.

This essay is adapted from the author's contribution to Obsessed with Baseball; see

--John Thorn