Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Game Through a Prism

Near the end of his sprawling, kaleidoscopic The Devil's Snake Curve, Josh Ostergaard writes, "There are an infinite number of ways to write a book, an infinite number of ways to read a book, and an infinite number of ways to be a fan of baseball and of America." The Devil's Snake Curve establishes those observations and then tests their limits. Both a subjective fan and an objective chronicler, Ostergaard narrates baseball's history—from its contested origins through to this second decade of the Twenty-first century—as a series of casually linked observations and speculations, and he's not particularly interested in telling his story conventionally. He's read newspaper articles spanning a century, and many books, some baseball-related but many not, researched at the baseball Hall of Fame, and observed the game from its field as well as its stands, tuning his ear toward what connections there might be among baseball and culture at large. Moving among narratives of warfare, politics, racism, jingoism, organized religion, and cultural oppression of all stripes, Ostergaard casts a wide net, wondering on hidden correspondences among baseball, vernacular language, turns-of-phrase, Japanese internment camps, animal territorial behavior, Sun City retirement complexes, and fast food television commercials. And that's only a small sample size of Ostergaard's wide gaze.

But I don't want to suggest that the book is pedantic, or dully scholarly. It's not. Put more simplyThe Devil's Snake Curve is a book written about a Kansas City Royals fan who grew up hating the New York Yankees. That ancient story. Ostergaard was born in 1977 as the Royals were suffering October bruises courtesy of the newly-revived, bullying Yankees; by the time Ostergaard came of age and began playing ball himself, the Royals were well into a downward slide. We all know what happened to the Yankees. Chip on shoulder, deeply curious, Ostregarrd examines how the Yankees became symbolic of all that is Good and Patriotic in this country, following their history and identifying national and international cultural moments of Yankee iconography and what one might call Yankee Philosophy. Ostregaard draws a line from the organization's notoriously iron-clad anti-hair policy to baseball's general taming and fashioning of itself from a game played by wild man-boys having fun to an industry ruled by Corporate Think, family values, and astronomical player and management salaries. Not without a feeling of surprise, Ostregaard comes around to the Yankee way of thinking by the end of his book, describing being at an exciting playoff game at the Stadium when the team, and its telegenic brand of baseball on and off the field, suddenly made a kind of narrative and symbolic sense to him. Concurrently, his loathing of his hometown team increased. In short, Ostergaard—who isn't shy about his progressive politics in the book—is won over by success. "[Yankees principal owner and managing partner] George Steinbrenner was an old-school capitalist, in the flawed but comparatively human tradition of Henry Ford," Ostregaard observes.
At times he seemed to have an assembly-line approach to building his teams, because the best players eventually found their way to New York. But, like the system Ford created, the benefits of the Steinbrenner system were not limited to him alone. He became richer, and more powerful—and baseball owners do wield symbolic power—during his time at the helm of the Yankees. But his players also became rich, in fact richer than they could have been anywhere else. And if you overlook the late eighties and early nineties, when the team suffered losing streaks and Steinbrenner’s behavior distracted him from the task of winning, Yankees fans were better off under Steinbrenner’s system. Every year, Yankees fans knew they would be taken seriously. The owner respected them, if only for pragmatic reasons.
Ostergaard grudgingly respects the Yankees' "task of winning," and recognizes the responsibility the Royals ignored for so many woeful seasons. (Until recently, of course.) Winding its way among Ostergaard's cultural, political, and historical observations are autobiographical accounts of his own history with the game, from wide-eyed, gum-chewing Little League enthusiast to disillusioned, grown-up spectator unwilling to spend money to attend games. His fondness for the sport revives a bit at the end, buoyed, I think, as much by the knowledge gleaned through his book's wide lens as by his native, never-gone love for the game at his fingers. The Devil's Snake Curve is a wholly unique, collage-like take on baseball and the intersections among the fans, the sport, and the world's far-flung corners.

Ostergaard lives in Minneapolis and works at Graywolf Press. Recently, I virtually sat down with him to discuss his book, and how and why baseball matters in so many different ways.


Josh Ostergaard
The Devil's Snake Curve is classified in part as an "alternative history (fiction)." Really, it's an alternative form of history. What appeals to you about the segmented, mosaic form in terms of writing about baseball? Is that your natural aesthetic, or did the content dictate the form in some ways?

Before I begin tackling your questions, let me say that I really appreciate your interest in the book and I want to thank you for your good thoughts. When writing The Devil’s Snake Curve I was drawn to the mosaic form for several reasons. I think the biggest is that I wanted to avoid succumbing to theory-making tendencies I developed while working as an anthropologist. With this book I was trying to make a hard break from my past training and find a new way forward aesthetically. I was also trying to avoid “essay voice,” which as a reader I often find cloying. I wanted to use images and anecdotes and patterns to suggest meanings that the reader might or might not absorb—the risk of not being understood seemed preferable to telegraphing my intentions. It was lots of fun to write this way, and I think it’s more fun for readers to have to actively try to figure it out even though I was deliberately trying to scramble their brains. It’s also true that baseball, like the book, takes place in fragments, and that was a bit of a permission-giver with regard to form.

As for the classification of The Devil’s Snake Curve as “alternative history (fiction),” I assume that Coffee House Press gave it that label in response to the essay with which I concluded the book (“The Umpire’s Rules,” p.217-227). They had my back, which is nice. I chose not to fact-check the personal anecdotes in the book, so maybe the “fiction” classification was meant to save me from scandal if an old friend came out of the woodwork to present a different version of one of my memories. The classification doesn’t bother me—I think it’s interesting. But in reality, there is no fiction in The Devil’s Snake Curve. Apart from my memories, everything I drew from is readily available in old newspapers and archives that are accessible to the public, and I documented my sources very carefully in the back of the book. What’s different is that my overall point of view as the curator of the information is very slanted, very subjective. I used my angle of vision to “make visible” things that otherwise might seem normal or natural about the way baseball is commonly represented, but which in fact are pretty exotic and strange.

Richard Hugo wrote, "It is impossible to write meaningless sequences. In a sense the next thing always belongs. In the world of imagination, all things belong." Did you find a point at which the connection between baseball and whatever you were comparing it to or correlating it with snapped, became too tenuous?

This is a fun question—yes, there were definitely passages I drafted for The Devil’s Snake Curve that I later looked at and thought: what the hell does that even mean? But at least in my view, none of the elements that were too tenuous made it into the final version of the book. If I couldn’t explain it to the smart editors at Coffee House, or to myself, that was a bad sign, so I made cuts. From a thematic perspective, I can justify every segment, every sentence, and almost every word that made its way into the published version. That doesn’t mean that everything came off successfully, but I’ll avoid speculating on what worked and what didn’t—that’s up to readers.

A few sections that I cut from the manuscript are worth mentioning. I removed a section about the Mohawk haircut Travis Bickle wore in Taxi Driver because I could not figure out why in the world I even wrote it. At various times while drafting the text I was just “ripping and running” and the best I can figure is that the section on Bickle had something to do with the Mohican Motel in Cooperstown, where I stayed during my visits. Well, that’s not good enough, so I cut it. I also had a section about how Moose Skowron of the Yankees got his nickname, but ultimately the language I used and the directions it pointed were too forced, so I cut it. I also really wanted to include a section on the old Cub Fergie Jenkins hunting moose in the snow—a friend sent me a video of it—but I couldn’t justify it thematically. If Jenkins had been a Yankee it might have worked.

There’s a huge caveat with everything I’ve just said about cutting sections that were too tenuous, and it also applies to the issue of fact and fiction in the book. I took great delight in absurdity whenever I could. The best example is the section called “Intelligence” (p. 77-79). I implied there was a correlation between the performance of the Washington Senators and the coups enacted in Iran and Guatemala by Allen Dulles of the CIA, who was a Senators fan. Well, that’s absurd. I wrote it for the sheer fun of it, and because I wanted to gently mock quantitative approaches to making meaning. It’s tenuous, but it’s meant to be. The stats I quoted are true, but the implication is not. Does that make the passage fiction? I don’t think so.

Who's your favorite figure in the book? Why?

My favorite figure in the book is Billy Martin, and in fact through the research I did for the book Martin became one of my favorite characters from baseball history. Obviously he was a deeply flawed person who didn’t always do the right thing. But he was fully himself and fully human. And like George Brett, one of his enemies, Billy Martin was a fierce competitor.

There’s an anecdote from my own life involving Billy Martin that I completely forgot to write about for the book. In retrospect I can’t believe I forgot, because it would have fit perfectly with my larger themes. When I was about twelve years old, I was completely obsessed with collecting baseball cards. I was a ruthless little capitalist and tried to trade bad cards for good cards all the time. I would have made a good bond trader, if the New York banks had run out of bros and needed the services of a twelve year old boy from Kansas. One day, while at a friend’s house before soccer practice, we started talking about baseball cards. My friend was not a collector, but his dad had been. By this time every kid my age knew the legends of their dad’s baseball card collections being tossed into the trash by their mothers—all those Mickey Mantles lost to history. Well, my friend and I were standing in his bedroom when he mentioned that his dad’s cards had not only survived the fifties, they were in the room somewhere. I crawled under his bed and found a bunch of 1955 and 1956 Bowman and Topps baseball cards. The best of the lot was a 1956 Topps Mickey Mantle. That was the year he won the Triple Crown. The evil little capitalist in me took over and I tried everything to get those cards from my friend. I probably offered him a Ken Griffey Junior rookie card or something. Or even worse, a couple Bob Boones with bent corners. I don’t remember. In the end, the only card I could get from my friend was a 1956 Topps Billy Martin. It wasn’t worth much, and the backside had been destroyed by the glue his dad used to stick it into a scrapbook, but it was a relic or a link to that golden age. It wasn’t until later that I lost that capitalist drive and gained a richer understanding of Billy Martin. Since my book takes a decidedly leftist perspective, I would have loved to include this story as a way of implicating myself—I heard somewhere that deep within every socialist is a failed capitalist, and there might be some truth to that.

You mention some of your favorite baseball books in the "Extra Innings" section. Are there some favorite baseball books that you didn't mention, but can talk a bit about here?

I mostly avoided reading books about baseball while I was writing The Devil’s Snake Curve. I preferred the raw material, or slightly less polished material, that appeared in newspapers across the twentieth century. That said, there are several baseball books I enjoy now. My friend Tom Flynn (@mighty_flynn) introduced me to Ironweed by William Kennedy. It’s a novel about a washed up former baseball player who’s on the bum in Albany in the early twentieth century. I love that book. I also really enjoyed Will West, a novella by Paul Metcalf about a pitcher who walks away from baseball. The book can’t really be categorized, although it’s much more oriented toward narrative than Metcalf’s later work. I honestly can’t remember if I mentioned this in the back of The Devil’s Snake Curve, but A Fan’s Notes by Fred Exley is a novel I feel great kinship with, although it’s about football fandom rather than baseball. The phrase “A Fan’s Notes” that appears in the subtitle of my own book comes directly from Exley’s—I meant it as an homage. His novel is beautifully written and it’s about more than football, of course. It’s very different from my book, but what they have in common is a critique of the overall social system that uses sports as a launching pad.

One of the more poignant passages in the book is about your and your baseball-loving friends' disinclination to pay to attend baseball games anymore. Has this continued for you?

No—writing The Devil’s Snake Curve really was a kind of exorcism for me. For many years I found it impossible to enjoy professional baseball because of all the cultural and political garbage that came with it. I felt that the game’s meanings had gotten hijacked, but that nobody had noticed or cared even though the sport was being used in the service of warmongering, etc. But about the time I finished the book I became friends with a group of baseball fans who hang out at Grumpy’s Northeast in Minneapolis, and the combination of getting the critique out of my system through writing and just spending time with other fans led me to be able to appreciate the sport as just a game again. It’s been fun ever since. That doesn’t mean I don’t relate to that passage I included in The Devil’s Snake Curve or that it wasn’t true. Life is complex, people change, etc.

Another significant moment in the book is when you approach Bob Feller on the street in Cooperstown, following his lecture. Can you talk a bit more about the importance of that meeting for you?

Bob Feller joining the Navy following Pearl Harbor.
When I was a kid I read a book that mentioned when Babe Ruth made his final appearance at Yankee Stadium before he died, he needed a baseball bat to lean on as a cane. The bat he grabbed belonged to Bob Feller. I haven’t gone back to check if my memory is correct, but that connection between Feller and Ruth sparked something in me. When I shook Feller’s hand, it was a connection back to that period of baseball history that really captured my imagination as a young kid. But meeting him was meaningful for more reasons than that. The day I met him, he gave a talk at the Hall of Fame about his service in World War Two. I was, and still am, a severe critic of the second Iraq war and in many ways my perception of the U.S. has irrevocably changed as a result of the way that war started and was carried out. But even in the midst of that well-deserved cynicism, hearing Feller speak in person was a reminder that World War Two had been different. I can’t imagine having to participate in a battle, and I realize that makes me fortunate.

The book's a kind of secret history of the New York Yankees, a team you naturally loathed growing up a baseball fan in the Midwest. One of the book's main narratives describes your coming around to appreciating the Yankees historically, culturally, and as a fan of the game. What percentage breakdown of fandom would there be in you if the Yankee's and Kansas City Royals met up again in postseason series? Would you be a one-hundred percent Royals fan? Ninety-five percent? Fifty percent?

When the Yankees play the Royals I root for the Royals. What I wrote in my book was true—I came to appreciate their drive to win by studying a team I had long considered the enemy. And it’s true that I took pleasure in the Yankees beating the Royals during that period. But the Royals teams of the last couple years are the antithesis of the Yankee model of assembling a baseball team. The 2014 and 2015 Royals teams had lots of good players, but nobody that would be considered a superstar. They won because of things that cannot be quantified or distilled into a single player: team spirit and grit. If the Royals abandon that strategy and try to use the old Yankee model of buying superstars, I’ll care less about the Royals.

A Royals fan gives a Missouri-style Bronx Cheer
How has winning changed Josh Ostergaard? You put the book to bed the year before the Royals made it to the World Series. You mention at the end of the book that you'd found your way back to your beloved childhood team. How do you think the book would be different if you'd started writing it now, after the Royals' postseason successes?

I think it’s okay to hate your favorite team, but I’m biased because I wrote about it publicly. I’m still shocked that the Royals made the 2014 World Series, so there’s no way I can begin to process the fact they won it all in 2015. The games both years were so much fun to watch. I’ve never heard of a team that routinely entered the seventh inning down by three runs, and then routinely rallied to tie it in the ninth, and then routinely won in extra innings. But that’s what these teams did, over and over.
If I were still revising The Devil’s Snake Curve it’s an open question as to how winning would affect the book. After the Royals made the World Series in 2014 an old friend texted me and asked what it was like to have the central metaphor of my book destroyed by reality—he was referring to my use of baseball as a way to talk about capitalism, etc. After I punched his lights out I admitted there was some truth to his perspective. The Royals surprised me by winning. My criticism of David Glass was obviously shortsighted, and I never, ever, imagined the Royals would make the playoffs in 2014, much less the World Series. So if I could do it over, I would slightly temper my critique of the ownership, though I wouldn’t cut it from the book.

The bigger story, as I would write it now, is that despite being on the margins of the system and lacking a big star, the Royals had enough grit and spirit to win. I would love to be able to go back and do a little surgery on The Devil’s Snake Curve and write about grit and hustle and spirit. Because those traits fit perfectly with my overall project for the book—I wanted to celebrate the vitality of the animal within as opposed to “Webberized” domesticity and rational approaches to “winning.” That’s what the whole book was about. It’s as if the 2014-2015 Royals wrote the coda themselves, which is really fun.

Image of Billy Martin's 1965 card via PSA Card Facts.
Photo of Bob Feller via cbs.sports.

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