History on a Diamond

World Series musing: National pastime a prism of America's growth

WE stood by our seats and watched happily for several minutes as the shortstop turned backflips by second base and the rest of the players cavorted around the infield doing their own celebratory gymnastics and hugging the men with whom they'd just spent the last 200 days. One could scarcely hear the fireworks for all the screaming. It was the city's first pennant in 14 years. As the fans danced through the stadium exits, there were the obligatory battle cries of ``Bring on the A's,'' and somebody shouted, ``Fountain Square!'' Across the plaza, somebody else returned the shout, and before long, thousands had gathered in the square for no apparent purpose but to be there, with everybody else, on the night the pennant was won.

Fountain Square is Cincinnati's centerpiece and symbol, and it was there that the townspeople assembled to celebrate their team's headiest moments back in the 1970s. It was there also that they gathered to revel in their country's victories over Japan and Germany in the 1940s, and, at the beginning of that decade, another World Series championship. More than 20 years before that, delirious Cincinnatians observed the end of World War I by descending on Fountain Square with an effigy of the Kaiser in a coffin, and burning it there.

American history suggests to us that only the triumphant conclusions of wars and sports seasons can move our people to celebrate in the streets on a moment's notice. There must be a relationship in there somewhere.

When Cincinnati's Reds won the World Series 50 years ago, the zealous locals dismantled a street car. The Battle of Britain was being waged and the Nazis were in Poland and Paris as the Series unfolded, but in Cincinnati, the lead story was that the Reds' second baseman had dropped the iron lid of the water cooler onto his big toe.

In much the same manner, the Middle East has been second-page news in Cincinnati for the past week or so. Post-season baseball tends to make us lose perspective; but in another way, it provides a distinct and salubrious vantage point. A World Series reminds us where we live and what we have in common. It brings us together at places like Fountain Square. It provides a city with a common cause and reason to chatter. In its own way, a World Series prepares us for whatever, like war, requires a commonness of purpose.

Even in ways not pertaining to regional loyalty, the World Series reinforces the fact that baseball is and always has been, among other things, a study in urban dynamics. From the beginning, it has been a city game. Although myth and romance would ascribe it pastoral roots - as symbolized by the location of the Hall of Fame in bucolic Cooperstown, N.Y. - the game was actually conceived in Hoboken, N.J., as new research out of Harvard University has verified. From Hoboken, it was taken up in New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston. Appropriately, the game was known then as townball.

The first fully professional baseball team was formed in Cincinnati in 1869. It toured the country by rail, first East, then West, and played the entire summer without a defeat. Before long, though, the balance of power had shifted back to the East, where the biggest cities and best players were found.

In those days, the best players were Irishmen with names like Kelly, Delahanty, and McGraw. The Irish-Americans were a struggling urban ethnic group at the time, and the pattern has repeated itself. When the German descendants were emerging from social shackles in the early part of the 20th century, the dominant players were the likes of Ruth and Gehrig and Wagner. In mid-century, the cities produced Italian heroes on the order of DiMaggio and Berra. Repeatedly, the ballpark has been a Statue of Liberty for the ethnic group on the way up in America. In turn, black players assumed a vivid baseball presence in the '50s and '60s, with Latins right behind them.

For all of its timelessness and poetry, baseball has historically been a cutting-edge game. It gained eminence in America at about the same time that big cities did, and has maintained a front-running pace. It remains, as always, a game of commerce. Yuppies buy and sell baseball cards. The World Series is now played at night for prime-time television dollars.

Remember, a generation ago, when the schools used to interrupt classes to show the World Series? What a stirring diversion it was, a sporting event so vital as to break into the weekday. We thought we were watching the Yankees, never realizing it was American history.

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