Steve Gould's Baseball Blind Spot

The favorite baseball player of the late Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002)—as readers of a new collection of his essays on the sport, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville (W.W. Norton, $24.95) will soon discover if they don't already know—was Joe DiMaggio. Although New Yorker Gould became a season-ticket holder at Fenway Park and "came to appreciate the complexity of being a Red Sox fan," writes David Halberstam '55 in his foreword to the book, the paleontologist continued to idolize DiMaggio and failed to connect with a local legend, to Halberstam's regret. 


Illustration by Mark Steele
Baseball really begins for Steve Gould in the 1949 season, DiMaggio's last great year, when he missed the first two and a half months of the season with aching feet and then came back in late June to lead the Yankees to a three-game sweep in Boston, a series in which he hit four home runs and knocked in nine runs. If I have any regret, reading these pieces, it is that Gould did not seem to have made a comparable connection to Ted Williams, whom I think he would have adored. For someone who was fascinated by the complexity of human behavior and its effect on performance ("the human heart in conflict with itself," to use...[a] phrase of Faulkner's), it has always struck me that Williams is a much more interesting, much richer subject than DiMaggio. I can just imagine Gould and Williams together—Gould with his wondrous, shrewd, and relentless curiosity, and Williams with his exuberant spirit, his ferocious and on occasion belligerent intelligence, delighted because he had finally found someone smart enough to understand him: "No goddamn it, Professor Gould, when I said pitchers are dumb by breed, I meant exactly that, pitchers are dumb by breed....Yes, of course pitchers are a breed—what else would they be? Why you ought to know that—I thought they told me you were a smart Harvard scientist!"

I'd have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that one. After all, Williams's own philosophy (though he was technically a political conservative and Gould a liberal) paralleled Gould's with some surprising similarities, and Gould would have loved one of Williams's elemental truths of both baseball and life: "God gets you to the plate, but from then on, you're on your own." That is, natural talent has a lot to do with the earlier rounds of selection in any enterprise, but what you put into it on your own, how hard you work and how much passion you bring to it, how much you study to improve yourself matters equally—it is our mark as individuals, our passions, our visions, our commitment on occasion to something larger than ourselves, which sets us apart.


Text copyright © 2003 by Turbo, Inc. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


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