• Robert Birnbaum

(I've Got) Ramblin' On My Mind

Updated: Nov 17, 2018

There was a time as a midcentury public intellectual opined that baseball was one of a reliable set of indices with which to pontificate on the popular culture. Much has happened since that time (unimaginatively referred to as 'back in the day"), the rise of football, reality tv, the militarization of sports and so on. And yet, I for one, am drawn to to the latest iteration of our national tournament in which teams (and their tribes) from two coastal cities compete and for a few hours relieve some of us of the reality of a dark upside down world.

At the conclusion of the last senatorial cluster fuck, to be known in the history books as the Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearings, it was clear that what turned out to be an egregious assault on democracy would resonate into the foreseeable future. Robert Lipsyte, a sage and venerable sport writer, in Trump and Kavanaugh Win One for the Pack

How Frats, Teams, and Gangs Divide, Conquer, and Now Judge America, offers an astute and original take in his critique of a disturbing element in contemporary sports culture:

"Loud and aggressive, fueled and excused by alcohol -- what a commercial for the mellowness of pot is Brother Brett! -- the frat-jock gang tries to push everyone else to the margins, drown out all discourse but theirs, and move the goal posts or, if necessary, simply tear them down. And they are so often cheered on by the bystanders, vicariously enjoying the violence, like the audience in a sports arena. It makes me think of extreme sports fandom, a form of tribalism that has given a pass to dozens of sexually predatory athletes over the years. Most recently and sadly typical of our never-ending moment, Ohio State suspended its winning coach, Urban Meyer, for just three games for his mishandling of repeated sexual assault claims by the wife of an assistant coach and friend."

Lipsyte's SportsWorld: An American Dreamland, first published in 1975 has been reissued The publisher's description, "...[an] overview of the most significant form of mass culture in America—sports. Lipsyte's classic text, newly introduced, interweaves biographies of sports greats—including New York Jets star Joe Namath, greatest-in-the-world boxer Muhammad Ali, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and tennis pro Billie Jean King—with critical analysis of American racism, capitalism, politics, and gender."  

The author defines Sportsworld, "A great deal of the angry energy generated in America through the coming apart of the 1960s was absorbed by SportsWorld in its various roles as socializer, pacifier, safety valve; as a concentration camp for adolescents and an emotional Disney Land for their parents.… SportsWorld is a buffer, a DMZ [demilitarized zone] between people and the economic and political systems that direct their lives."

In order to avoid wasting my time with video games posing as films, endless serializations and a decidedly unfunny comedies, I use the textual origins as a guide for choosing my visual diet. And so I recently chose The Children Act (based on a novel by Ian McEwen), with a stellar cast led by Emma Thomson and Stanley Tucci, Hold The Dark by William Giraldi, a chilling thriller with Jeffrey Wright ( whom I don't recall in a lead role since his bravura performance in Basquiat.) Given the well crafted narrative that Ann Patchett's Bel Canto delivered I was disappointed, mostly by Julianne Moore's flat performance, though the supporting cast playing the rebels made themselves sympathetic (which I recall was the novel's intent.)

I did venture out of my comfort zone and watch the Sicario:Day of the Soldado (Benicio Del Toro is usually worth watching) which turned out to be far more interesting than its drug war cartoon predecessor—mostly for the nuanced way it dealt with the fluidity of morale imperatives in the world of black ops and cowboy operatives. And for a completely sense display of video gaming John Wick with Keanu Reeves who is a close second with Kiefer Sutherland as one of the talentless actors who regularly gets work...

My favorite film at the moment is the Land of Steady Habits—though I chose to watch it due to the allure of the cast which includes Ben Mendelsohn (Killing Me Softly), Edie Falco, Elizabeth Marvel, Josh Pais, Connie Britton and Bill Camp—accomplished thespians all...since iI was not familiar with Teddy Thompson's novel of the same name.

One scene really stands out(about 55 minutes in)—Charlie, the troubled son of Ander's ex wife's friends and Anders have a chat in which he bemoans the fact that his own son doesn't want to hang with him:

Anders: What a stupid fucking thing to be a parent

Charley: Yeah but it doesn't have to be. I feel like you guys all think that you have to, like worry all the time. Like if you weren't constantly worrying like, you're bad parents or something. What is that?

Anders: ...

For the most part, I am not inclined to read 500 -600 page biographies (preferring those concise 200 page biographical essays that James Atlas published in the "Penguin Lives series"). And I am even less inclined to read such a book about a sports figure ( though I did read Ben Bradlee's doorstop on Red Sox immortal, Ted Williams (The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams) but Jane Leavy, whose accounts of the great Dodger Hall of Fame hurler, Sandy Koufax and Yankee golden boy, Mickey Mantle were deftly told, weighs in with The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created, and more importantly, she is skillful in picturing mid-century America and the culture that Ruth's celebrity spawned. Along the way you will learn more about Baltimore, where George Ruth Jr. was born, than you ever thought you would—though to be fair, the town of H L Mencken, Edgar Allen Poe, Earl Weaver, Johnny Unitas , David Simon, Barry Levinson and Laura Lippman is certainly due some respect.

There have, of course been other useful and commendable books on the Bambino so in addition to covering necessary biographical material, Leavy attends to the barnstorming and other extra-curricular activities that engaged the Big Bam and so fascinated the country. As one critic opined, "The book captures Ruth’s outsize influence on American sport and culture, and for that alone it will make a welcome companion during the long, baseball-less months to come."

Stay tuned for my list of the most Important Books of 2018, my memoirist account of my near decade of little league umpiring, waxing nostalgic as i review songs that I have loved for many, many years...more baseball books to take you through the long cold dark baseball less season... and some "in case you missed it" (also known in the emoticon, hashtag laden language as ICYMI) stuff...

Robert Birnbaum shown umpiring a Little League game in Newton MA (photo : Cheryl Clegg)


"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn".

T.H White

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