Posts Tagged ‘mythology’

Baseball as Myth: the Trickster

April 29, 2010

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.)

Baseball as Myth: an Introduction

April 26, 2010

Back around the beginning of the month I asked for some input into ball players who transcended baseball and became almost mythological figures. I got some good responses and have used the time to sit around (any excuse to sit around is welcome) and contemplate. So I’m going to take a look over the next few days at some specifics, but today I want to give something of a background to explain what’s about to go on.

Back in the 1920’s Milman Parry began studying epic myth and laid the foundations for modern study of mythology. His specific work dealt with the Homeric poems, especially the Iliad. Without going into any kind of detail that can and probably will bore readers to tears, what Parry discovered was that there was a certain amount of sameness to what was going on. Serb heroic poetry (what Parry initially studied) sounded a lot like Homer and he began to work on figuring out why.

Parry’s work ultimately led to Joseph Campbell’s major works on world mythology. Campbell stepped away from the specifics of either the Serbs or the Greeks and began to look at overall trends. I don’t want to mislead and make you believe that Campbell figured this out all by himself. There were a lot of people who came to conclusions that were much alike at much the same time. Campbell popularized the information so that it was available for people like me and all other non-specialists to read and understand.

There were a number of conclusions. For our purposes the most significant was that mythology deals with universal types of people. In other words, most myths revolve around types rather than actual people. There’s the all-knowing leader who is above the riff raff, the wanderer, the trickster, the doomed youth, and others. Pick a mythological cycle in any two societies and you see the same types emerge no matter how far apart geographically the societies are. (I’m vastly oversimplifying this so don’t take it as Gospel.). Some figures, such as Odysseus in Greek mythology, can hold more than one role (wanderer and trickster).

I will argue that baseball comes up with the same types to create its myths. Over the next few posts I want to give some examples of players who fall into some of the groups. My guess is that most of you, upon reading the above, will be able to figure who’s going where before even reading those posts. You’ll  probably also agree and disagree with my conclusions. Feel free to comment, but beware. As one of the all-knowing leaders above the riff raff I may toss a lightning bolt in your direction.

Taking on the Babe

February 28, 2010

It was fascinating to watch Barry Bonds in the first five or so years of the 21st Century. Forgetting for a minute about steroids, and hat sizes, and all those questions, focus for a moment on his quest to best Babe Ruth. He seems, at least to me, to have had a greater desire to top Ruth than he did to top Aaron. He might tell you different, but that’s at least my perception. Well, it was never in the cards for him to best Ruth, because he wasn’t taking on one man, he was taking on two: Babe Ruth and BABE RUTH!!!!! (to be said in deep stentorian tones, with awe, slowly, and deeply–Think James Earl Jones on a really good day).

Babe Ruth the baseball player was easy for Bonds to take on. There were numbers he could attack. There were 714 home runs, there was a slugging percentage, there were walks, there were runs, there were total bases. There were all those numbers and Bonds could attack them and either win or lose. You can take the two men, line their numbers up side by side and decide it Bonds came out on top. You can do that with or without the steroids issue as you desire and make your own conclusion.

But Bonds could never top BABE RUTH!!!!! (said in the same tones as before). You see BABE RUTH!!!!! (James Earl Jones again) isn’t a person, he’s a myth and you can’t top myths. He is Seigfried slaying Fafnir. He is Achilles at the gates of Troy.  He is standing at home plate in the World Series pointing to center field and parking the next pitch there. He is able to tell a sick kid he’ll hit a home run for the kid the that day and then do so. BABE RUTH!!!!! ( for a change, imagine Charlton Heston’s voice here) can hit a home run in Alabama that stops in Louisiana. He can walk into a school and order the principal to shut it down so kids can play ball and the principal will do it. He can play in the first All Star Game and manage to hit the first home run. When the Japanese in World War II want to ridicule Americans it is “Screw Babe Ruth” not FDR. He will sign autographs for kids for hours after a game, free of charge. He can stay up all night with four hookers, down a fifth of gin for breakfast, show up at the ballpark a half hour before the game, wolf down three hotdogs all in one bite, then hit three home runs on two pitches. He can step into a ward full of paralized children and three of them will “take up their bed and walk”  (well, maybe not walk, but at least wiggle their toes). In an age of heroes there is Red Grange and Charles Lindburgh and Jack Dempsey, and then there is (drum roll please) BABE RUTH!!!!! and he is greater than all of them combined. He is all these things and more. Heck, they even make movies about his life. He is  (say it with me now) BABE RUTH!!!!!  and he is next to God himself and in some corners the order is debatable.

And Barry Bonds, well, no matter how good he was he was never going to be BABE RUTH!!!!! (by now you’re getting the hang of how to say this, right?). Bonds wasn’t legendary, he was a ballplayer. They have a word to describe a larger-than-life feat in American sport, not just in baseball. It’s Ruthian. It was never going to become Bondsian. And Bonds never seemed to understand that he might be a heck of a ballplayer (and he was) but he could never be (get ready for it) BABE RUTH!!!!! in any tone of voice.