Baseball as Myth: the Trickster

The second of my three views of the relationship between baseball and myth concentrates on the mythological figure of the trickster. He’s the closest myth comes to a comic relief guy (guess they didn’t know about drama, huh?). Our trickster is a clever god or person who is able to play tricks on the unsuspecting foil with either funny or horrifying results. In Norse myth it’s Loki, for the Greeks it’s Hermes. Odysseus gets into the act sometimes also. The “No Man” line in the Odyssey is about as close as Homer gets to humor.

Baseball has its set too. Let’s start by dropping the clowns. These guys aren’t what I’m talking about. You may have seen them at the ballpark. They’re not around much anymore, but these were guys who showed up at the stadium and for a fee ran around doing goofy things, insulting the Ump, harassing coaches, etc, trying to be baseball’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters. Now mostly mascots do this sort of thing. What I’m talking about are the showmen who put a bit of levity into the game. For our purposes there are three preeminent among these: Dizzy Dean, Satchel Paige, and Yogi Berra. I’ve done a post of Dean before so let me look at the other two.

Paige honed his skills in the Negro Leagues. He wasn’t overtly funny most of the time, and is perhaps the very best great player who also gets credit as a trickster. He had a great wit, but was most famous for what he did with his playing ability to frustrate the opposition. The stories are legion. A couple of my favorites include telling the other team before the game starts what pitches he’s going to throw today and having his infield sit down (or leave the field) while he strikes out the side. Great bits of showmanship and trickery (Trickeration?). He was also good with a line. The most famous being “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” Actually not bad advice.

Yogi Berra on the other hand didn’t give out good advice. He simply blew the English language (as did Casey Stengel, but Ol’ Case was a manager and I’m doing only players). I’m not sure how much of Yogi’s stuff was put on to amuse the crowd and how much was simply goofiness, but it made such a mark that he’s obscured just how good a player he was. This man won three MVP’s in an era when Mickey Mantle played on the same team. He may be the greatest catcher in Major League history and he’s most known for his attacks on the English language. My favorite Yogiisms:

“Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

When asked if he wanted his pizza cut into six or eight pieces, “Make it six, I don’t think I can eat eight.”

And from the Aflac commercial “And they give you cash, which is just as good as money.” (OK, I know the last one was done by ad writers, but you gotta admit it’s great.)

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2 Responses to “Baseball as Myth: the Trickster”

  1. William Miller Says:

    My favorite baseball trickster was always former Red Sox pitcher Bill (The Spaceman) Lee. Back in the ’70’s, admitted in a magazine interview that he “used” marijuana. He got called into the Commissioner’s Office to explain himself. He explained to the perplexed Commissioner that he didn’t smoke marijuana, he just sprinkled it on his pizza like oregano. They didn’t know what to do with him.
    His all-too-brief commentary on Ken Burns Baseball, including his take on the beginning of the use of the DH, is good stuff.
    Nice post, Bill

  2. sportsphd Says:

    I agree with you that Yogi’s intellect has overshadowed his on-field prowess, and I find it a bit sad. I remember when writing about Larry Doby in my series on the players who integrated baseball. In 1954, Doby finished second in MVP balloting, the best he ever did. I desperately wanted to prove that racism could somehow account for losing the vote to Berra, even though Doby was the best player on the winningest team in AL history up until that point. Unfortunately, Berra put up a higher batting average, OBP, SLG, OPS, and he did it all while playing catcher for 151 of the seasons 154 games, a phenomenal accomplishment in and of itself. Strangely enough, Berra did not make the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, though Satchel Paige became the first player to make it on the Negro League ballot that same year (1971)..

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