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Voices Fall-Winter 2007:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Play column, “The Remains of the Game” by John Thorn
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Volume 33

The Remains of the Game by John Thorn

Play Conventionally understood as historical linguistics, philology is close kin with folklore. Practitioners of both will rake the embers of bygone days looking for traces of what fired the customs of present times, but where students of language are content to identify the remains, folklorists tend to fan the embers, hoping to revive just a bit of the old flame.

A July 1 article in the New York Times, “Anyone Up for Stickball? In a PlayStation World, Maybe Not,” by Timothy Williams and Cassie Feldman, detailed the improbable survival in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn of such presumably vanished games as stickball, skelly, ringolevio, and curb ball. In my experience, coming upon a game of steal the bacon or one old cat is as likely as finding a coelacanth in your bathtub. And yet the old ways of amusement survive, for games preserve the million memories of a people. Indeed, the whole history of play has the quality of mythology, and in its vestigial terms we are provided a unique peephole into the past.

These sport-specific relics—pentimenti of former practices—are everywhere, their true meanings hidden in plain sight. Baseball writers today will write “Pitcher Tom Glavine was knocked out of the box” or “the Yankees notched three runs in their half of the inning,” oblivious to the reality that the fellow delivering the ball has been tossing rather than pitching it since the 1880s, that we haven’t had a pitcher’s box since 1892, and that we haven’t counted runs by scoring notches into a stick since the 1840s. The football field is called a gridiron, even though scarcely a man alive has seen the vertical lines that once created a checkerboard pattern on the field. Basketball derives its very name from an extinct feature: the peach basket that Dr. James Naismith nailed to an overhead railing at the YMCA indoor track in 1892, long since replaced by a hoop and a net. The cage in which the game’s “cagers” played is also long gone, although the disconnected name survives. In hockey the phrase “a shot from the point” memorializes a ghostly position on the ice—the cover point—from back when seven men took to the ice, rather than six.

I could go on. A sport’s specialized terminology forms a veritable museum of its evolution. I like to think of these archaic survivors as linguistic exaptations, adding a modifier to the term that Stephen Jay Gould and Elizabeth Vrba coined to describe features arising in one context but subsequently put to a different use (in the way, for example, that feathers evolved to regulate heat for reptiles, then lingered for no evident purpose in their avian descendants). In the fossil record of sport—especially in baseball, the game to which memory attaches more than any other for Americans—these exaptations speak not only to historical change, but also to mythic strains.

The Odyssean voyage around the bases is the essence of baseball. A player goes from home out onto the perilous seas, with only three safe harbors or bays (bases) for respite, before returning home again, with reward. It is interesting to note further that the batter awaiting a turn is “on deck,” while the next one, waiting in the dugout, is “in the hold” (corrupted of late to “in the hole”). The leader on the field is the captain, and the club’s manager is often referred to as the skipper or helmsman. The maritime trade has also given to baseball the now forgotten “skyscraper,” a term for a high fly ball referencing a triangular sail also called a moonraker; it must be supposed that the advent of concrete and steel monoliths made this particular nautical allusion slink away. The phrase “around the horn” is still applied to a double play in which a ground ball is fielded by the third baseman, who throws to the second baseman, who then throws to the first baseman. The term is an old nautical one referring to the long voyage between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, which before the opening of the Panama Canal, required a vessel to go around the tip of South America at Cape Horn.

That the first baseball park should be named the Elysian Fields is another poignant instance of the long voyage home and the myth of return. The game’s original playing grounds—until the advent of Yankee Stadium in 1923—were parks or fields (Fenway, Sportsman’s, Ebbets, Wrigley), not stadiums or coliseums or domes. Indoor hockey and basketball were played in gardens (Boston, Madison Square), in a similar invocation of the rustic amid the urban. In the 1840s, when advancing industry began to imbue rural life with an ersatz nostalgia, the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York transferred its operations to the green fields of Hoboken. These pioneer baseballists were among the young bachelors who, having streamed into New York City for employment, now forgot the monotony and grinding physical labor of the farm. In their hearts they ached for their backwoods Paradise Lost. Playing ball in a park within the city—the Elysian Fields were actually just across the North River—they could go home again.

Larry Ritter liked to say, “The best part of baseball today is its yesterdays.” He was right, even though I like today’s baseball rather more than he did. For me the past is everywhere present, giving the game the feel of a family Bible, with all the births and deaths and weddings recorded on the flyleaf enriching the grand story.


John Thorn John Thorn is the author and editor of many books, mostly about sports, as well as occasional pieces for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Boston Globe. He lives in Saugerties, New York. Copyright © John Thorn.

That the first baseball park should be named the Elysian Fields is another poignant instance of the long voyage home and the myth of return.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 33, Fall-Winter 2007. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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