Linus: "Somebody said that sports are sort of a caricature of life."
Charlie Brown: "That's a relief. I was afraid it was life!"
When Charles Schulz was Charlie Brown's age, he and his buddies played baseball in a well-worn vacant lot in St. Paul. They played until they knocked the cover off the ball, and then wrapped it back together with black electrician's tape and played some more. If desire had anything to do with talent, they would have been pretty good, but one disastrous day Schulz and his pals challenged another neighborhood team. They lost 40-0. "We were overwhelmed and humiliated," Schulz recalls. "Everything seemed to be happening faster than it was. It was like playing in a dream."
At 63, Schulz is an enormously successful cartoonist given over to dreaminess and painful introspection. He has drawn Peanuts for 35 years, and Charlie Brown is still losing 40-0, 123-0 and 200-0. Peanuts is a child's garden of reverses, set in an eternal suburb where kids share the disillusion of the grown-up world, yet refuse to grow up themselves. Schulz's strips are full of nimble sagacity, coppery melancholy and a baseball team whose best player is a beagle.
Like his most famous character, Schulz has an easy face and soft eyes that radiate humility and self-doubt. He speaks with gentle humor, quoting Charlie Brown's warm, chuckly aphorisms as if they'd been uttered by a real person. "As Charlie Brown said," Schulz says mildly, "I thought I had life solved, but there was a flag on the play."
Sports may be the biggest thing in Charlie Brown's world. Certainly they account for Peanuts' undying popularity. Season after season, Charlie Brown takes the mound bursting with pride and hope; year after year, Lucy smirkingly yanks the football away just as he's about to kick it.
Sports allow Schulz to move freely from childish games to adult concerns. They provide him with an easy way to express frustration. He often twists sports clichés to make all sorts of little commentaries on life. "Winning isn't everything," Linus says consolingly. "But losing isn't anything," answers Charlie Brown.
Losing, in fact, is Peanuts in a nutshell. "Winning is happy," notes Schulz, "but happy isn't funny."
A theologian once observed that Charlie Brown's pose on the mound is not unlike that of Job on the ash heap. Schulz doesn't dismiss the parallel, but he doesn't dwell on it, either. He says simply that he likes the contemplative quality of baseball, of a pitcher rubbing the ball with two out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth.
Schulz himself has a sad and sentimental way of looking at the most innocuous event. Take, for instance, a ball game on TV. The home team builds an insurmountable lead; the camera pans the visitors' dugout and zooms in on a player. "I think, 'Is this guy really happy trapped with a miserable team far away from home?' " Schulz says. "He has to go back to a lonely hotel and brood about losing. How can he stand it? It bothers me. It's ridiculous, of course, but it bothers me."