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Marcel Proust and Le League Americain

April 20, 2010

Predictions are hard--especially about the future.

(This essay was broadcast on WUWM’s Lake Effect program on May 7, 2010.  Have a listen to it here.)

It’s a little known fact that Marcel Proust—yes, that Marcel Proust—he of the monstrous early Modernist novel Remembrance of Things Past—one of those Mount Everest sort of books that some readers say they ought to tackle and sometimes actually do—wrote a weekly baseball column for Le Monde.  True fact.  You could look it up.

In the off season, Proust, Babe Ruth and a young Casey Stengel hung out in the Deux Magot cafe in Paris, smoking Gauloises, drinking strong coffee, sampling the latest Beaujolais, discussing French fiction and the prospects for Le League Americain in the year ahead. Seems that Proust couldn’t abide Le League Nationale—see, Paris is a Yankee town—Proust was a die-hard Yankee fan. But mostly, they remembered—because baseball is mostly about memory and the perpetually receding past.

Proust, writing in Remembrance, famously recalled how the taste of Cracker Jack dipped in a beer instantly transported his narrator back to his youth in the provincial old baseball town of Combray, home of those perpetual cellar-dwellers le Hose Rouge and the venerable old brick Three Spires Field.  How did that happen?  How did a taste conjure such a vivid recollection?

(Note: I was wrong about the Cracker Jack and beer—it was a madeleine dipped in an infusion of lemon tea. Writer Joe Queenan recently commented on this in a piece for the New York Times Book Review.)

I sat in the cheap seats out at Miller Park in Milwaukee a couple of weeks ago, on an early spring day catching the Brewers and the visiting Colorado Rockies, both teams trying to shake out the cobwebs and kinks of winter and live up to the eternal hopes of their fans.  The mechanical marvel of a roof was closed—it was a cold and rainy day—any other place and the game would’ve been a washout.  But there I was and like Proust’s taste-prompted memory, my first view of the deep and verdant green of the diamond’s (real) grass as I walked up the ramp and emerged into the open of the Park—an astonishing green seldom seen outside of a ballpark somehow exclusive and magically empowered to imprint itself on the mind—electrified my brainstem and kicked off an immediate mental Googling that yielded a million hits—all of them for extra bases.

In the same league as taste, my visual image took me back to my first big league game at Comiskey Park on Chicago’s South Side years and years ago and I don’t mean to get into a sappy Field of Dreams moment here but the look on my little kid face must’ve been a sight to see and I bet that my Dad noticed it, just as his dad had seen it in him some thirty years earlier at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis where that same wondrous hue of green had appeared on some sunny day.

Comiskey Park - field of green

As longtime New Yorker writer and editor Roger Angell has written “baseball and memory come together so naturally.”  And I think that perhaps, like Proust’s vividly personal remembrances, baseball is a slow and mysterious mechanism of the mind, like a slow river of time that is at its best when relived in memory, paddling upstream.

Readers complain about the lunatic long length of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and its slow, languid pace—somebody once said that any book that consumes thirty pages to describe the act of falling asleep is nuts. And take my wife—she says that baseball’s languorous tempo drives her crazy—and it’s true—there is no clock to play against.  Baseball’s clock is invisible and it is played the same way its always been played—time is measured in balls and strikes and outs.  So as Roger Angell said—time is defeated.  The game ends only when it ends, a long pastoral game of the mind where memories of the sound of the crack of the bat launching a ball into the seats or the taste of a local hot dog and the smell of a crowd on a hot summer night in the city can transport us to someplace else where time’s arrow is strangely stopped and possibly reversed and one can almost believe that Marcel Proust really did commune with the Babe or Casey or maybe even my Dad.

Marcel remembers

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One Comment
  1. excellent article, thoroughly enjoyed reading it. One of the things about Nationals Park here in DC that distresses me the most – beside the fact that it looks sort of like a portable aluminum workbench, unfolded here for a few years near the banks of the Anacostia – is that the grass simply doesn’t have that magic green color of the big league parks of my childhood. What I think is true though is that something else has changed – and that is grass itself. In my neighborhood, the fields were largely un-irrigated patches of dirt and sand with only the occasional dandelion or other weed showing through the cracks. Seeing actual grass, and in such a large expanse was breathtaking. I wonder now if children of privilege, those who went with their fathers on outings at expensive country clubs with their acres of manicure lawns, would’ve felt the same way.
    I do want to take the time to express some irritation at Mr. Queenan’s article, especially his equating of Manchester United fans to Yankee fans. People like the teams they like and that’s the end of it, far as I’m concerned. There is no possible moral superiority to the American fan of Chelsea (a big English club that spends much, much more money than Man U) over that of Man Utd, but I’d be willing to bet Queenan would have no quibble with the former. Grrrr.

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