Diamond days and the ageing boys of summer

Professor Baseball
June 8, 2007

John Sugden on a sporting attempt to relieve a midlife crisis

One hot and humid summer when Professor Edwin Amenta should have been hard at work at home or in his office in the sociology department of New York University - finishing his book on pensions organisations in Depression-era America - "Eddy" could be found roaming the recreational spaces of Central Park indulging in the very serious business of playing softball. Professor Baseball is a sociological account of his experiences.

Reading Professor Baseball reminded me that, when it comes to sports, the US is a curious and exceptional place. As a younger man, I spent five years as a postgraduate at a New England university in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As a keen sports fan and participant, I was immediately struck by two things: first, mainstream American sports are very different from their European counterparts; and second, it was very difficult for adults to continue to play competitive team sports beyond high school and college. In Britain at weekends we are used to our parks, playgrounds and village greens being overtaken by multitudes of men and, increasingly, women of all shapes, sizes and ages earnestly playing organised amateur football, rugby, cricket and the like. While I was in the US, I managed to persuade a Hartford-based Greek team to take me on to play for them in the state-wide and ethnically structured Connecticut amateur soccer league. But virtually none of my American peers, many of whom who were avid fans of American sports, could have found similar opportunities for participation in the sports they may have enjoyed and even starred in at school.

Softball, a competitive bat and ball team game played extensively in leagues in towns and cities across the US, is an exception to this rule, but only partially. It is a modified version of baseball with differences in rules and equipment that make it a slower and potentially less dangerous pastime than its major-league counterpart. The principal differences are that a softball is more than twice the size of a baseball and (unsurprisingly) softer than a baseball, making the object both easier to hit and catch. In almost all other respects, the game is identical to baseball. It is a bit like playing cricket with a tennis ball: structurally the same, but if you get hit it doesn't hurt so much.

At one level, Professor Baseball is a straightforward diary of Amenta's successes and failures over one summer season in the several teams on which he plays and the one of which he is player-manager. At another, the book is a narrative account of one person's lived-through obsession. It is a coming-of-middle-age tale of a fortysomething man, with fatherhood imminent, trying to come to terms with changing fortunes in his professional and personal life. Above all, it is about his forlorn and ultimately doomed quest for redemption.

We learn of his failures as a child in Little League baseball - that notorious American theatre of broken childhood dreams - driven on by a judgmental and frowning father. We also learn of Amenta's failure to secure the chairmanship of NYU's sociology department. Compensation is an elusive goal, and things damaged in one sphere of our existence cannot so easily be put right in another. On the contrary, as Amenta realises while lying awake bathed in sweat, worrying about his team selection or fretting over a fumbled catch, in the social microcosm of sport there are fresh stress-inducing threats and failures to experience that can infect other parts of one's life.

Mirroring the schism in sociology itself between positivistic and quantitative scholars and those who prefer a hermeneutic and qualitative approach, Amenta finds that as a manager his statistically based, or "sabermetric", approach to making decisions about team selection and strategy - "Eddy ball" as he calls it - flies in the face of those who live by "the Book", the folkloric and quasi-mystical received wisdom of baseball traditionalists. Despite the author's obvious love of statistics in softball, in both method and representation his book is itself a study that is heavily reminiscent of the naturalistic urban ethnography of the Chicago School. Between his agonising about team selection and problems with his own "on-base percentage", not to mention the power struggles in the sociology department at NYU and concerns about his partner's pregnancy, we are treated to rich glimpses of New York's vibrancy, brash confidence and colourful social heterogeneity in the months before the felling of the Twin Towers on a fateful September morning in 2001.

While I greatly enjoyed reading this book, readers should be warned that some understanding of the specialist baseball terminology and jargon that is woven throughout Amenta's narrative is helpful. As if to counterbalance this, Professor Baseball is sociological but in an interpretive rather than didactic sense. Amenta uses a well-developed sociological imagination to make sense of the social dynamic of which he was a part, and although he alludes to the influences of classical theorists and other more recent scholars, he does not overburden his narrative with complex and second-hand discursive theoretical hyperbole. The academic community might have had to wait a little longer for Amenta's quantitative study of pension funds in Depression-era America because of it, but I for one found Professor Baseball a more than worthwhile diversion.

John Sugden is professor in the sociology of sport at Brighton University.

He is currently working on a study of sport and international espionage.

Professor Baseball: Searching for Redemption and the Perfect Lineup on the Softball Diamonds of Central Park

Author - Edwin Amenta
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 242
Price - £16.00
ISBN - 9780226016665

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