Stephen Jay Gould: a “learned Harvard professor and baseball-loving everyman”

Life’s Grandeur by Stephen Jay Gould, (Vintage, 2002) 272 pages.
(The book Life’s Grandeur does contain some baseball; however, it is included here not to recommend it as a “baseball book” but rather to set up a discussion of Gould’s only book that featured baseball and nothing else – Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville – and to describe the part that his writing played in developing my interest in the sport.)

I was bought my first Stephen Jay Gould book, Life’s Grandeur, as a birthday present in April 2002. I was studying for a degree in biology at the time and Gould’s writing on evolution featured prominently on the reading list. Less than a month later, and before I had got a chance to start the book, Gould passed away at the age of 60.

That summer, I took the book with me on a field course in Central America, thinking that a book on evolution would be the perfect accompaniment to a few weeks of watching monkeys eating, sleeping, and performing the other functions that unite us all as primates. I was somewhere over the Atlantic when I opened its pages. Expecting to see a preface on evolutionary biology or palaeontology, I instead read the six-word title and was left a little confused: those six words were “A Baseball Primer for British Readers”.

A flick through the book did reveal writing on evolution, but interspersed with baseball, human culture, and his diagnosis with an abdominal cancer at the age of 40. This seemingly unrelated selection of topics was sewn together by the common thread of Gould’s contention that “our culture encodes a strong bias either to neglect or ignore variation.” This idea is introduced in a second preface, titled “A Modest Proposal” (Full House, the American version of the book, contains only the second of the prefaces.

The purpose of his baseball primer was to give British readers a grounding in the game so that they were able to appreciate one of the two central cases he used to illustrate his philosophical statement: “The Model Batter: Extinction of 0.400 Hitting and the Improvement of Baseball”.

In Gould’s words:

“[Using baseball to illustrate a philosophical statement] may be terrific for Yanks, but what a turnoff for Brits! (I’d be truly pissed off if Stephen Hawking based his next book on grasping an analogy between the structure of the universe and hitting for six, bowling a maiden over, or being out leg before wicket.) Consequently, I hasten to provide this synopsis of an arcane American religion.”

I had attempted to get into baseball on two previous occasions, and both times I failed because I didn’t start to understand the sport on a level where I could appreciate its subtleties. Gould’s engaging introduction to the sport put me on base at the third attempt, and the baseball-themed case got me to feel at home with the game.

The human habit of neglecting or ignoring variation that he describes is demonstrated by the fallacy of assuming that the “extinction” of the .400 hitter is a reflection of a decline in the ability of baseball players. Gould argues the counter-point: that the disappearance of .400 hitting reflects an improvement in baseball quality. It is a shame that the phrase “a joy to read” has become trite and thus lost meaning, because there is no better short phrase to apply to Gould’s work. He was a master writer who effortlessly passed on his passion for a subject to the reader (and he wrote skilfully on an impressive range of topics).

This habit of neglecting or ignoring variation is exemplified by the fallacy of taking an average value as a meaningful description of the full range. Gould’s poignant illustration of this example is based on his diagnosis with abdominal mesothelioma at the age of 40. After receiving the diagnosis, he made a trip to the medical school library and found a number of articles all stating that the median survival time was 8 months. That is, if you lined up all the people with abdominal mesothelioma from left to right based on the time they would survive, then 8 months is the length of time for which the person in the middle would live.

Gould was interested in how long he would survive for, not the middle person. He thought it plausible that he might be among the half of the people who would survive for longer than 8 months and that, for some in the group, survival might stretch out for many years  

Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball by Stephen Jay Gould (Jonathan Cape, 2004) 344 pages.

During the month I was given Life’s Grandeur, 20 years after his diagnosis, Gould was working on some new baseball material that was to sit at the front of a collection of his essays on baseball, something that he had been thinking about publishing since the 1970s. He produced a number of anthologies over his lifetime, and his process for this, his last one, was no different. After gathering all of his writing on baseball, he selected and edited those that would accompany his new material.

The editor’s note in Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville completes the story:

“At last he turned to the long, personal work which was to have been the book’s cornerstone, only to be overcome by the cancer that would take him from us [the cancer that he died of was separate from the one he had been diagnosed with in 1982 and successfully fought]. Game and enthusiastic to the end, Steve called in the early spring of 2002 to assure me that he would deliver the book, and he has. He had left it, neatly organized and in good hands, in his office at Harvard. With the revised earlier essays, designed to accompany the memoir, were two new pieces: the warm introduction to this volume and his fond – and analytical – story of a boyhood spent playing stickball on the neighborhood streets of Queens, as far as he could go with the longer work.”

Included in the set of existing essays, all of which are wonderful to read, is one originally published in Discover in 1986 as “Entropic Homogeneity Isn’t Why No One Hits .400 Any More”, and it was ideas laid down here that Gould developed into the more thorough treatment of the subject that appears in Life’s Grandeur. My last comment on his writing on the subject of .400 hitting is a suggestion for an alternative title: “Why the splendid don’t splinter any more”.

I now pass the baton to Matt, who had reviewed the two new pieces referred to in the passage from the editor’s note above.
 
 

Seventh Inning Stretch: Baseball, Father, and Me

Gould describes this essay as a “novella”, as it was Stephen King, a fan of the mid-length piece, who suggested he should write it. In the essay, he puts his love of baseball into context and, in doing so, sets the scene for the rest of the collection. This introduction broadly looks at two questions posed at baseball fans such as Gould: firstly, why are many American intellectuals so serious about their baseball commitments; and secondly, why is baseball’s place in the hearts of millions due to the sport in some way imitating the “central rhythms and patterns of our lives”?

As you would expect, Gould provides a considered dissection of these statements. If intellectuals have a stronger bond to baseball than to other (North American) sports, he argues that this simply reflects a general phenomenon among Americans. Furthermore, baseball’s development as “America’s ‘Signature Sport’” can be explained by a series of circumstances that amount to a logical outcome, but which could have unfolded differently. Those circumstances will be a unique part of every individual’s adoption of the sport.

It is when Gould expands on his own circumstances that the introduction really springs into life. He firstly considers the importance of baseball as a means for millions of immigrants (including his ancestors) to become assimilated into American life and takes great pride in charting his family’s baseball-loving lineage from his maternal grandfather to his youngest son. Baseball had become a family tradition; however, it was just as important to Gould that he grew up in a time (the late 1940s to early 1950s) and place (New York) where the sport meant everything.
 
 

Streetball from a New York City Boyhood

His essay “Streetball from a New York City Boyhood” develops this theme, reinforcing the statement that “almost all the neighbourhood boychicks … lived and breathed baseball all the time, for our city then boasted three truly great teams” [the New York Yankees, New York Giants, and Brooklyn Dodgers]. Gould’s descriptions of the major forms of street games played at the time are interesting from a historical standpoint, yet they also help to reveal how powerful our memory of childhood adventures can be.

Those carefree times spent playing forms of baseball couldn’t help but create a lasting affection for the game and most sports fans will have their own similar memories to recall. In Britain, this is more likely to mean summer evenings spent playing games of football (jumpers for goalposts, rush goalies, “World Cup pairs”, and so on), yet the spirit of it all remains the same. You can easily relate to the sense of joy Gould must have felt in sitting down and reminiscing about long childhood evenings, whiling away the hours playing “punchball” or “stickball” with friends and neighbours.

As he concludes:

“We derived a great deal of enjoyment from these games. They also kept us out of trouble and away from girls. And what more could a boy have desired in preadolescence?”

Baseball might not have an innate quality that imitates the patterns of our lives, but, as Gould so clearly shows, that doesn’t stop it from becoming a special part of many people’s lives.
 
 

An epitaph: “The Cal Ripken of essayists”

In his obituary in The New York Times, Carol Kaesuk Yoon wrote:

“In his column in Natural History magazine, he employed a voice that was a successful combination of learned Harvard professor and baseball-loving everyman. The Cal Ripken of essayists, he produced a meditation for each of 300 consecutive issues starting in 1974 and ending in 2001.”

2 Responses to Stephen Jay Gould: a “learned Harvard professor and baseball-loving everyman”

  1. Chico January 24, 2009 at 7:38 pm #

    Very nice review guys! Being around the game since I literally was in a baby crib, I have found that baseball has many, many layers and levels to it, as it were. Most boys even to this day (although it has declined in recent years I believe) in the U.S. have played some sort of little league baseball (girls also participating in T ball). A huge dropoff of playing begins at about 12 or 13 years of age. Lack of skill to be successful or other interests take over at about this age. As in all sports, numbers continue to drop at every age and level as far as actual participation is concerned. What is interesting is that the game can be enjoyed by intellectuals and those not so inclined. Baseball can be enjoyed by card collecting, fantasy players, statistical folks, readers and non readers. There are so many metaphors of life that can be taken from the game. Some continue to pursue the game on the field as long as possible by coaching or playing in amateur leagues. I have always said that MLB is at the top of the pyramid with most of the game being at the base. The pure love of the game passed down through the generations becomes a way of life for many. There are a lot more things to take the time of young people now as compared to in the past. I still believe baseball holds a place in the hearts of more Americans than other sports, including American football. Those childhood memories of summertime and a glove, bat and ball and simply playing stay with people their whole lives. The game is still being passed down from father to son, although not like it once was.

  2. Joe Gray January 25, 2009 at 7:40 pm #

    We know you are doing your bit to maintain that father-to-son tradition.

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