Friday, March 30, 2007

The Beautiful Game

Baseball season begins this weekend. I know that soccer (er, football) lays claim to the title of "the beautiful game," but to me, baseball will always be the most beautiful of games for all the same reasons why it's OK for men to cry while watching Field of Dreams ("Hey, Dad? You want to have a catch?" always chokes me up).

Baseball is also the most beautiful of games to me because it provides the most beautiful images of sports. Above is a watercolor by Thomas Eakins of Philadelphia Athletics players practicing in their pre-1900 uniforms. The painting just oozes Americana to me.

Other sports just fail to enthrall me in terms of visuals, as much as I enjoy watching them, especially football (er, American football). In football and hockey, the players are so loaded down with equipment that they're almost indistinguishable from one another. In basketball, the problem is the reverse: the players are all about individuality, with too many moments of achievement cheapened by ego, i.e., the "posterizing" by slam dunk over a hapless opponent.

Above is a vintage photo of Ty Cobb sliding into third sometime in the 1920s. As big an egomaniac as Cobb was, I don't see the fielder here as hapless. Cobb has obviously won this small battle, but the third baseman here doesn't seem any less for it. There's always the sense in still photos of baseball action that the outcome could be different, that it is truly a unique moment being captured. Conversely, you always knew that Michael Jordan was going to dunk over some nameless big man, mainly because he was Michael Jordan. Even Michael Jordan wasn't Michael Jordan on a baseball field.

Baseball also holds a special place in my art heart because of baseball cards, which were the earliest form of art I knew and loved along with comic books. The Baseball Card Blog is the place to go for truly obsessive love of baseball cards, but I'd like to point out two that I remember fondly.

Topps Baseball Cards in the early 1970s had a subset of star players shown "In Action." Above is Johnny Bench racing back for a foul pop, his mask already torn from his face. Bench's determined scowl always reminds me of his days on "The Baseball Bunch," an old TV show that even kids knew was so bad it was good. When I was old enough to know about such things, I would wonder if Bench had to do it as some kind of community service punishment, especially in those scenes with the San Diego Chicken. My favorite episode was when Mike Schmidt came to visit to teach the kids how to be an elitist, indifferent jerk just like him (oh, and how to field a bunt barehanded as well, which was as applicable to my life as the jerk lesson).

Roberto Clemente (shown above) is one of my favorite sports figures ever. The biography of him by David Maraniss is a must read for any baseball fan. I love this picture because of the expression on Clemente's face. In the aftermath of his tragic death, I always imagined Clemente having the same expression upon entering the afterlife: "What? I'm dead? You're kidding, right? Awwww, man. Well, at least I got to 3,000 hits."
UPDATE: Welcome to all visitors from The Bibliothecary! Thanks for the link, Ed!

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