When the weather warms in the early American summer there are at least 100,000 baseball games played every week—regularly scheduled games, that is, even making allowances for the teams that didn't show. There are 1,800 college baseball teams, with 30,000 players; 14,000 high school teams with 350,000 players; and 36,000 Little League teams with 1,100,000 boys.
Then there are about 500 minor league teams, playing each other almost daily. Nobody knows exactly how many top-ranking semipro teams there are, teams like the Gloneck Termites of Grand Rapids, Michigan, sponsored by the Extermital Gloneck Termite Service. A good estimate is 25,000, representing breweries, hardwood flooring manufacturers, bottling works, grocery chains, Army posts, wholesale hardware firms and kindred organizations. When you add to these the grammar school leagues, adult amateur leagues, Babe Ruth leagues (9,280 teams), American Legion leagues (16,000 teams), Pony leagues (5,034 teams) and all the twilight leagues, park department leagues, industrial recreation department leagues, together with special groups like the Hopi Indian League (18 pueblos) and the Union Printers League (the oldest of all), the statistics of baseball look like the totals of the gross national product.
But they are curiously unimpressive, despite their stupendous numbers. They do not communicate anything about baseball that suggests why people play it or what it means to them. Baseball authorities have fallen into the alarming habit of regarding the game as an inherent part of the national heritage, taking it for granted that Americans have always played it and always will. The truth, of course, is that there was a long, hard period before the game began to be widely played, a longer period before it began to be written about, a still longer time before it began to be understood and freighted with significance and emotion. Before the millions of players began appearing on the diamonds this spring there was a whole literature that inspired their fathers and grandfathers before them; painfully evolved, wildly uneven, it was nonetheless mightily interesting and unquestionably potent in stimulating people to follow baseball games.
The fathers of today's Little Leaguers, in their own youth, might have read something like this, from Ralph Henry Barbour's novel, Double Play: "Spring had come in the night. Above was a mellow blue sky dotted with little feathery clouds...." Barbour wrote of the sounds of spring, the ceaseless knock and chatter, the sharp crack of ball meeting bat, the lovely arc of flies soaring into the clear air, the low thud of flying spheres against padded gloves, and always "tomorrows stretching away in a seemingly limitless vista of happy holidays, when finals are over and summer beckons." Or, in The Captain of the Nine, the great book that made William Heyliger famous: "They shrieked their joy and pounded their fists on each other's backs. The wide free field, the smell of early grass, the ripple of soft breeze over flushed faces, the damp give of the springy turf...."
This was magic. It put into images the confused and nebulous sensations, the pleasant, lazy tensions that came to life when the games started in the spring. Or, if you wanted something highbrow, there was the same emotion expressed in different terms in Robert Fitzgerald's poem Cobb Would Have Caught It, summoning up the sun-baked parks, the batters tugging at their caps, the outfielders racing back looking over their shoulders, "Throwing arm gone bad.... Fly lost in the sunset.... There's your old ball game."
From around 1885 until the mid-1920s there were countless books for boys, the net effect of which was to evoke something of the poetry of the game; there is nothing comparable to them now. A handful of good writers of boys' books still write about baseball, but their product is of a different sort. For one thing, there is only a handful where there were once a hundred or more. For another, they write relatively few books, where the giants in the field produced hundreds. At best the new breed resembles careful handicraft operators, trying—but failing—to keep alive a vanished art form that everybody once appreciated. Millions of future Little Leaguers are going to play ball without a deep source of solace and inspiration: the romance of the diamond, in which the young star walloped a bully, was disgraced by a false accusation, usually of theft (something was planted in his locker), but was cleared in time to play in the big game and often wound up saving the town from destruction by fire or flood as well.
These books came in sturdy red or brown bindings, with titles plainly indicating the nature of the contents: Strike Three! by William Heyliger, Baseball Joe at Yale by Lester Chadwick, With Mask and Mitt by Albertus True Dudley, First Base Faulkner by Christy Mathew-son, The Young Pitcher by Zane Grey; Cliff Stirling, Captain of the Nine by Gilbert Patten, The Baseball Boys of Lakeport by Edward Stratemeyer, who wrote the Rover Boys books. The libraries generally did not have many of them. You had to buy them. They went for 50 cents to $1.50 apiece.
Opening a new one, you saw a young infielder making a terrific catch, an expression of dedicated composure on his features. Or there was a runner sliding into second, dust shooting up on both sides of him like the rooster tail from a speedboat, or a pitcher poised on the mound, like a doctor about to perform an operation, a batter with a mean expression glowering at him from the plate. "Keeper, coming in like a runaway motor car," said a caption in With Mask and Mitt, "flung himself at the plate, spikes first," and you knew at once what the story was to be.
The prose was clear and direct. There was never any hesitancy, in fact, except when some boy, long suffering from a weakness that kept him off the team, resolved to conquer it. In such cases there were brief interludes of double-I prose. "I—I'm going to fight," Dan said. He faced another boy, his fists clenched. He meant he was going to fight the weakness that kept him off the team, not the other boy. Or, "I—I can't help it," replied the pitcher bitterly. "We lost the game." In Baseball Joe at Yale : "I—I'd like to fight him," murmured Joe. "I wonder if they allow fights at Yale?" Or, "I—I my ankle's sprained, I guess," whispered Dan huskily, in For the Honor of the School. Sometimes an I—I character gave up entirely. "I—I don't seem to be able to get things right," said Dan Porter, in The Crimson Sweater, after being banned from sports because of something he hadn't done.
Not only was the prose direct, the conversations were forthright to a degree that would appall Tennessee Williams. "You heard me," said the hero of Bartley, Freshman Pitcher. "You threw the game. As for shaking hands with you, I have no use for your sort."