- Baseball and Memory: Winning, Losing, and the Remembrance of Things Past by Lee Congdon
When it comes to baseball, memory is both a blessing and a curse. As a lifelong Texas Rangers fan, I am sure the memory of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, being one strike away (twice) from a World Championship, will forever haunt me. The reader will presume from historian Lee Congdon’s title that this book will examine his personal baseball memories. Indeed, he begins his preface thusly: “This is a historical and philosophical reflection on a game and the ways it spurs memory” (p. ix). Although a book ostensibly about memory, it covers most of the span of baseball history, much of it unable for our erstwhile historian to actually remember. Ultimately, Baseball and Memory serves as Congdon’s case for the 1950s as the best decade for baseball and American society.
The political slant of this book is evident throughout. One of the reasons for Congdon to write this book is to correct what he sees as an imbalance in histories of the twentieth century: “Laudatory books on the 1960s proliferate, while those on the 1950s are rare and almost uniformly critical” (p. ix). George Will’s endorsement, on both the front and the back covers of the book, will also clue readers as to what to expect: “Like the story of baseball . . . the story of America since the 1950s has been one of decline. Remembering baseball, and especially remembering baseball in the 1950s, can provide hope that that decline might yet be reversed” (p. x). [End Page 167]
Chapters entitled “Winning” and “Losing” lead off Congdon’s work. Encapsulated in the erratic structure are some of the more unforgettable achievements and failures, many of which will be quite familiar for ardent baseball fans. Congdon occasionally recounts a less familiar one, such as the story of Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro, the victim of a beaning in 1967 that later affected his vision and cut short what might have been a Hall of Fame-level career. As a passionate Chicago Cubs fan, it may not surprise readers that Congdon devotes the bulk of the “Losing” chapter to the history of his beloved franchise.
In the third and final chapter, “The Fifties,” Congdon asserts that “fifties baseball was a game first and a business second” (p. 96). Surprisingly, Congdon devotes less space to the notable players and achievements of the era (many of which were covered in “Winning” and “Losing”) than he does to criticizing those aspects of modern baseball he deems a travesty of the game: parity, free agency, the Major League Baseball Players Association (formed in Congdon’s beloved fifties), expansion, interleague play, the designated hitter, and above all, greed. With these innovations, the game has only declined since: “Baseball since the fifties has steadily lost its ability to elevate our sense of human possibility. The players are no longer heroes who inspire; they are mortals who entertain, mercenaries whose loyalty to team and city is contingent upon the success or failure of their agent’s most recent negotiations with management. They have become, in short, our baser rather than our nobler selves” (p. 104). Congdon takes a political swipe even when discussing his disdain for modern ballparks: “And ‘plans,’ when it comes to ballparks—even the retro Camden Yards—or to life, usually do more harm than good (cf. the Soviets’ Five-Year Plans)” (p. 93).
The chapter devolves toward the end as Congdon spins off into the popular music (before rock and roll), radio, and television of the early 1950s. He does not tie this into baseball, however, but he sees it as further evidence of the innocence of the era. Lots of literary references, not only of some of the great authors of baseball literature (Bernard Malamud, John Updike, Don DeLillo, and John R. Tunis), but also other significant literary works are also scattered throughout Baseball and Memory and better support his argument.