Don DeLillo’s Underworld starts with a set piece about that mythic baseball playoff game won by Bobby Thomson’s home run in the bottom of the ninth, and echoes of it recur throughout the novel. A few years ago, I thought of DeLillo’s portrayal of that day again in an unlikely place—waiting in line at Kennedy airport for a flight to Rome. I found myself in conversation with the man behind me who was a professor at a university in Naples. He told me that his specialty was Italian-American literature. I had heard of many academic concentrations, but never of this one. I asked what authors interested him and he mentioned Richard Russo. I was somewhat taken aback. When I have read Russo, I only thought that I was reading an American novel, not an Italian-American one. His list did not include Mario Puzo, but he praised John Fante, an author I had never heard of. (Because of this conversation, I have since read Fante’s Bandini Quartet, which I had trouble finding. My copy was shipped from England. These novels are quite good, and I should thank him for putting me on to them.) He went on to talk about DeLillo, and I asked him about his reaction to Underworld, and he was effusive. I asked if he had trouble understanding that baseball game at the beginning of the book, and he gave a charming smile and chortled that he did not have a clue about what was going on. I did not try to explain. There is something so particularly American about that baseball game that I did not think a few minute’s conversation on the topic could accomplish much with a foreigner, and, furthermore, while I did feel that the game had some sort of significance besides its mere outcome, I was not sure why.
Finally, after reading about the game by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Red Smith, I read for the third time DeLillo’s take on it, and I began to understand at least some of the reasons why that playoff lives in American consciousness. Perhaps every moment in American history is some sort of watershed, but this game encapsulated aspects of American history and past culture and foretold changes that were to come.
In 1951, baseball provided a peaceful connection to the past. “You do what they did before you,” DeLillo says. The Bobby Thomson game was played at a time when America was thinking it could put the sacrifice and horrors of World War II behind it and carry forward a peaceful world. Baseball reminded us of that past. DeLillo has Gil Hodges, a Brooklyn player in that game, say the Polo Ground is “a name he loves, a precious echo of things and times before the century went to war.”
Baseball also then resonated with a wide swath of Americans, or at least American males. Red Smith, writing a few years after the game, noted that almost every American male had played some version of baseball, whether it was baseball itself, or softball, stickball, five hundred, punch ball, kickball, or myriad other games. In 1951, it was America’s sport and somehow represented a perpetually youthful America. DeLillo writes about Thomson that “he is forever Bobby now, a romping boy lost to time. . . .”
Baseball is just a game, but it could feel more momentous. DeLillo writes, “The game doesn’t change the way you sleep or wash your face or chew your food. It changes nothing but your life.” And a particular game could feel as if it fit into the tide of American history. Russ Hodge’s producer says about Thomson’s home run, “Mark the spot. Like where Lee surrendered to Grant or something.”
We readers of Underworld know, however, what its characters did not: that dominance of baseball was going to fade. A column by Red Smith makes that point. He had driven to Florida for baseball’s spring training, where many major league baseball teams prepared for the regular season. He said that once on these drives he had seen baseball and all those other games being played by men and boys in the various town along his route, but now he no longer did. DeLillo foreshadows this change by having the broadcasters ask how can you explain the 20,000 empty seats in the stadium. The sport’s hold on America was still strong, but it was waning.
(concluded September 30)