The 1950s was the beginning of many changes to America, and the famous playoff stood on that cusp. Looking back at that game, there seems to be a time up until Thomson’s home run and a different time afterwards, and DeLillo creates scenes in the grandstands that indicate changes soon to come. No one knows, as far as I know, what happened to the baseball Thomson hit once it landed in the left field seats, but in DeLillo’s telling one Cotter Martin wrests it away from others scrambling for the ball and leaves the park with it. Cotter, an African-American youth, has sneaked into the contest and is seemingly befriended by a white man seating nearby. Of course, almost all Americans in 1951 knew that a major change in our race relations had occurred only a few years before when the major leagues’ color barrier was broken when the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, who played in the famous game. A few know that the next scheduled batter after Thomson was Willie Mays, who would not have been playing if that color bar had not been bashed. In 1951, it may have seemed that we were finally making great peaceful strides towards resolving our racial problems. Bill Waterson, the white man talking with the black kid in the novel, seems to capture that, but we readers know that racial peace and resolution faced many violent episodes after 1951 and still has not be reached.
Emmitt Till and the Birmingham church bombings, snapping dogs and firehoses, bus boycotts and many killings were yet to come. And DeLillo has Waterson turn creepy towards Cotter. The white man wants the baseball that the boy has fought for. Bill yells at Cotter that he is going to get the ball and threatens violence. He chases Cotter out of the stadium and through the surrounding streets, and Cotter is only safe with his new possession when he makes it into the black Harlem that was not far from the Polo Grounds.
The game also stood on the cusp of a great change in American mass culture: the rise of network TV. The coast-to-coast broadcast of the game was itself a harbinger of that, but DeLillo signals it in another way. He has Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Toots Shor, and J. Edgar Hoover together in attendance. (I do not know if Sinatra, Gleason, and Shor were at the game, but I know Hoover was there.) They joke and drink, but Gleason keeps saying that he should be at rehearsal for “The Honeymooners,” an icon of 1950s television that lived long after its initial short run, which was to air for the first time in two days.
But something else happened on the very day of Thomson’s home run that would greatly change America. Until 1951, Americans had been little bothered by the thought that they might be killed at home by a foreign government, but on October 3, 1951, the same day as the famous playoff game, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. We learn that fact when a message is delivered to Hoover informing him of that blast. After that October day, Americans could never again safely tuck themselves into bed the way they had before. The always present strain of paranoia in American now had a much firmer basis, and that paranoia was going to dominate the U.S. in coming years.
An apocalypse was now palpably possible, and DeLillo, a master of portraying American paranoia, has sheets of Life magazine float down from the upper deck onto Hoover. Those pages contain a reproduction of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s panoramic painting of apocalyptic slaughter. Hoover becomes mesmerized by the images of incredible agony, and the painting and its horrific portrayals recur again and again in the novel.
We want that baseball game to be a kind of unifying experience. DeLillo has Russ Hodges, the Giants announcer, think “this is another kind of history. He thinks [the fans] will carry something out of here that joins them all in a rare way, that binds them to a memory with a protective power. . . . Isn’t it possible that this midcentury moment enters the skin more lastingly than the vast shaping of strategies of eminent leaders, generals steely in their sunglasses—the mapped visions that pierce our dreams?” However, the game may have been memorable, but almost instantly it was only a memory. This prologue concludes with a drunk in a raincoat running the bases who leaves his feet to slide into second base: “All the fragments of the afternoon collect around his airborne form. Shouts, bat-cracks, full bladders and stray yawns, the sand-grain manyness of things to come. . . . It is all falling indelibly into the past.”
DeLillo had first published his depiction of the baseball game as a magazine piece before the book was written. He titled the piece “Pafko at the Wall.” (Andy Pafko was the Dodgers left fielder who watched the ball sail over his head into the stands.) When DeLillo placed this piece as the beginning portion of Underworld, he re-titled it as “The Triumph of Death.”