"Of Baseball and Battlefields"--an essay from "Over the Hill and Gaining Speed."

OF BASEBALL AND BATTLEFIELDS

Part I:  Baseball

Lured by the call to “Play Ball!”, my husband and I decided to go to Cooperstown, New York, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.  It was March and freezing cold, but baseball was in the air everywhere.   Abner Doubleday, often cited as the “inventor” of baseball, lived in Cooperstown during his school years.  His role in baseball history has since been disavowed, but Doubleday Field in the center of town still proudly carries his name.

The museum hosts baseball memorabilia both old and new.  It is an awesome space to explore and a wonderfully nostalgic excuse to travel to a quaint upstate New York town.  The experience starts with a film—in a theater designed as a baseball stadium—followed by a self-guided tour of intuitively flowing exhibit spaces.   As we meandered through the unfolding of baseball history, I began to understand that baseball is not just a game—it is an intrinsic part of our history as a nation, incorporating themes of immigration, integration, and even war.  (Many players served in the military and, during World War II, Roosevelt thought it important that the games continue, to bolster national morale.)

The Baseball Museum is filled with more memories than grandma’s attic.  In one display, I encountered the iconic Yankee team of the 1950s, and was immediately transported to my childhood living room where my father and I cheered every run and bemoaned every out, from one World Series to the next.  We laughed at Casey Stengel’s grumpy demeanor and duck-like extension of his neck and head.  Wham!   Like a well-struck ball, I suddenly realized baseball was part of my personal history too.

“Hey, I remember that!” I exclaimed to no one in particular, on seeing the jersey Doc Halladay wore when he pitched his perfect game.  My husband and I laughed in glee spotting Wilson Valdez’s cap, remembering the May 2011 game when Valdez became only the second ballplayer (the other was Babe Ruth in 1921) to start the game in the field and end it as the winning pitcher—during the Phillies’ incredible 19-inning marathon against the Cincinnati Reds.  Ah, good times.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is really two museums in one:  a museum of the history of baseball (and the American experience), and a separate Hall of Fame lined with brass bas-reliefs of key people in the sport. The plaques are beautiful art as well as history, and the serene Hall exudes an aura of sacred space.  All conversations, as if on cue, became subdued and whispery as people entered.   Plaques commemorate owners, managers, and others who have served.  One is for a black woman, Effa Manley, a Philadelphia-born co-owner and business manager of the Newark Eagles of the Negro League.  She was a trailblazing owner and tireless crusader for civil rights.   She made her team a social force off the field and a baseball force on it, and the fans loved her for it.

Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play Major League ball, is acknowledged for not only his baseball achievements, but also for his pivotal role in the future course of the game and American history.  “Displayed tremendous courage and poise in 1947 when he integrated the modern Major Leagues in the face of intense adversity,” reads his plaque.  Across the Hall, Pee Wee Reese, a white player from Kentucky, is similarly honored and acknowledged for being “Instrumental in easing acceptance of Jackie Robinson as baseball’s first black performer.”

These plaques serve as a reminder that we all need courage to create a more just society.  These institutions demonstrate that baseball is more than a diversion and its greatest heroes did more than just play the game.  They were catalysts who changed our lives and wove themselves into the diverse tapestry that is American culture and history.

Ball fields and battlefields may not seem to have much in common, but a key figure links them both.

***

Part II:  Battlefields

In his recent book, The Joy of Old Age, author Oliver Sacks notes that as one has an ever longer experience of life, “[one gains]…a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age.”  Perhaps that explains my ever increasing penchant to visit museums and historic sites and meander my way through all sorts of memorabilia.  I have always enjoyed history, but today museums offer insights that didn’t manifest for my younger self.   Museums and significant sites help concentrate my understanding of the big picture, and focus my attention on the humanity of individual stories and legacies.

Part I of this article explores American history through the lens of baseball.  More than just a game, it was also a symbolic battlefield of social justice and integration.  Soon after visiting Cooperstown, we traveled to central Pennsylvania and explored an actual battleground.  The famous Battle of Gettysburg was the largest battle of our Civil War and the largest battle ever fought in North America.  The Union Army of the Potomac numbered approximately 85,000 men while the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia commanded 75,000.  At the end of three days of fighting (July 1–3, 1863), total casualties exceeded 23,000—a horrific loss of life and limb sustained by both sides.   As the armies retreated, the people of Gettysburg were left to deal with the carnage, and to try and understand what had happened and what their lives had now become.

Our pilgrimage—and indeed it felt as if it were just that—started in the new Visitors Center and Museum.  Impressive scholarship, curation, and multimedia offerings provided a macro perspective that brought forth the grand scale and historic sweep of all that transpired on those fateful days over 150 years ago.  It gave us pause to think of the high passions on both sides that led to such a battle and such a war.  The human cost sobered us as did the historic impact.  Although the war would continue for another two years, Gettysburg is generally considered a key turning point for the North which led to the ultimate preservation of the Union and the abolition of the institution of slavery.

On day two, we hired a private guide to drive us to key sites and explain their significance.  As we moved from place to place, he masterfully recreated what transpired there.  Even without actual re-enactors, we could envision the ferocity of these engagements.  I was unprepared for the vastness of the landscape and the dispersion of conflicts strung out over miles in every direction.  The logistics of moving men and animals, artillery and ammunition, food and supplies boggled my mind.

We learned of communication challenges and miscues and how they often became a determining factor in success or failure.  We marveled at how unimpressive Little Round Top appeared from below—and how imposing from above.  Day two provided us with a field-level view of the miscues, operational challenges, and intensity of battle faced by both sides.

Gettysburg has over a thousand markers and monuments.  There were several we wished to see on our last day.  The misty rain and low clouds evoked the cannon smoke of battle.   In this eerie fog, as we read names listed on markers, long-ago emotions became palpable, rising as ghosts from the once blood-soaked fields: fear, frenzy, fury, hope, despair, disappointment, determination, exaltation, defeat, pressure, apprehension, relief, confusion, camaraderie, isolation, agony, and anger—a panoply of human feelings swirled around us in the haze.

Statues came alive.   We felt Buford’s anxiety as he surveyed the oncoming Confederate forces, Lee’s agony as he watched the devastation of Pickett’s charge, and Meade’s mental gear-shifting on being named commander of the Union’s largest army only three days before the battle ensued.  Meade was a military engineer who only wanted to design and build lighthouses.  Barnegat Lighthouse in New Jersey is one of Meade’s designs.

We spot Abner Doubleday’s statue—the same Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown fame.   His commander, John Reynolds, provided the reinforcements Buford so anxiously awaited, but was killed 20 minutes into battle.  Doubleday was called up to lead the corps.  Although badly outnumbered, he and his soldiers acquitted themselves honorably and fought ferociously—until the corps to his right collapsed and forced retreat. Unfortunately that commander filed a false report to Meade, absolving himself and blaming Doubleday for the defeat.  Meade subsequently replaced Doubleday, a career US Army officer, with a more junior officer, creating a lasting enmity between the two men.

We position ourselves in front of the monument and look up.  Doubleday stands tall on his marble base, gazing into the woods where he and his men fought with such tenacity.  And yet, one senses his disappointment and rage.  Unlike Meade, Doubleday longed to be a military leader, but chicanery denied him his due.

In an ironic twist of historic proportions, we remember Meade as a military man rather than a designer of famous lighthouses.  And we remember Doubleday not for “gallant and meritorious [military] service,” but for a baseball field in upstate New York, honoring him for a game he never invented.

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