Saroyan and Baseball
On a recent re-read of the last Saroyan book published during his lifetime, Obituaries, I came across a brief section that caught my interest –
…a book that arrived in the mail only eight hours before I began to study it, inscribed to me by the author, Robert W. Creamer, who drove me out from Manhattan in 1954 to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn in his second-hand Cadillac, along with my son Aram, to see the second game of the World Series, with the Yankees, for I had agreed to write about the Series for the just-lately-founded (by Henry Luce) weekly, Sports Illustrated.
Something about that just didn’t strike me right.
First off, as a life-long San Francisco Giants fan, I was pretty sure that the Giants had been in the World Series in 1954, and though they had played games throughout all the parks in New York at various times, a quick search showed that all the New York games in 1954 had been played at the Polo Grounds, the Giants’ home field.
They also hadn’t faced the Yankees, but instead, the Cleveland Indians, now the Cleveland Guardians, led by their incredible pitching staff including future Hall of Famers Early Wynn, Bob Feller, and Bob Lemon. This was interesting because the Yankees had been in every World Series since 1948, so there would have been no Yankees for Saroyan to head into Brooklyn to see! The 1954 World Series is best remembered for Willie Mays making the incredible over-the-shoulder catch and gunning the ball back into the infield to prevent a run scoring. The Giants won the Series, the last time they would until 2010.
Looking at the history of the Series, the next two years, 1955 and 1956, both featured Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the New York Yankees, making it likely that one of those years would be the one Saroyan had confused for 1954. Looking through our collection of magazines, I found several copies of Sports Illustrated, and there were two from 1956, both with William Saroyan pieces in them. One is most generally about baseball, called aptly enough “My Baseball.” It’s a very Saroyanesque piece, full of the thoughtful rumination Saroyan had been packing his memoirs with throughout the 1950s. The piece is at once personal, but also profoundly deep in its understanding of the role Baseball played in America at the time.
Baseball is caring. Player and fan alike must care, or there is no game, there’s no pennant race and no World Series. And for all any of us know there might soon be no nation at all.
And slightly later in the piece –
It is good to care – in any dimension. More Americans put their spare (and purest?) caring into baseball than into anything else I can think of – and most of them put at least a little of it there.
Saroyan packs a lot of philosophy into the single page of the story. He intimates that a baseball season is a concept not built of games, but of drama. He approaches people like Casey Stengel, the legendary baseball manager who took the Yankees to the World Series in 1956, to characters in one of his plays. They are not necessarily larger-than-life, but they are so full of life that they may well feel so. It’s a strong, short, and fascinating piece about baseball in a time when there was still a perceived purity, but all the elements that would eventually seem to taint the game were just starting to bubble up.
This was clearly not the story that Saroyan wrote after riding in Creamer’s Caddy to Ebbets, though. The issue featuring that piece would be released two weeks later, on October 22nd. “One by One and Seven” was the article that Saroyan was talking about in Obituaries…even if he got the year wrong.
The article opens with a beautiful sentence that makes Saroyan’s view of baseball as theatre obvious.
The way we felt was…Let it go anyway it must, but let it be good drama.
The 1956 World Series is largely remembered for the performance of Don Larsen in the fifth game of the series. It was the first, and so far only, perfect game in the history of the World Series. Larsen allowed no hits, no walks, and no Yankee committed an error in the game. Saroyan covers the game, which took place on October 8th, and though Saroyan seems to be partisan towards the Dodgers, he certainly understood the significance of the game.
You don’t begrudge a win that comes out of a Perfect Game.
Saroyan chose to look at Larsen’s achievement as well as a few of the other players on the field, but really seems to be writing about baseball as more than the American pastime, but as a definition of what Americans want out of life. He describes the game as a tension between two teams, but one where seeing a magnificent feat, such as a Perfect Game (or even Mays’ miracle catch) will suffice. He seems to see baseball as a source for great American storytelling. Saroyan closes the piece with a note that seems to indicate his belief that the game is fundamental to America’s arts as well as the sport of its people –
Baseball tells a nation’s story. Among the reporters who regularly cover baseball are those who have become writers of style, wit and humor, and it may be that they are turning out the best folk writing of our nation.
What other folk writing is there?
The October 22nd issue of Sports Illustrated includes a piece by Robert Creamer, as well. "The Name is Yogi" is a wonderful piece focused on the legendary New York Yankee’s catcher, and sayer of malapropisms, Yogi Berra. While less philosophical than Saroyan, Creamer certainly presents Berra as a semi-magical presence in the game.
Saroyan wasn’t merely in on baseball for the articles he had been contracted for, but enjoyed the game his entire life. He made mention of the game in a few of his stories, though rarely as a focus, but instead as a flavor to establish the scenario or character as deeply tied to America.
One of the most interesting pieces we’ve here at Forever Saroyan is a program from the 1963 World Series, fascinatingly enough between the Dodgers (who’d left Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1958) and the Yankees (who had remained behind in The Bronx.) It was one of the most hotly anticipated showdowns of the period. Several of the players from 1956 were back in this series, including Hall of Famers Whitey Ford, Don Drysdale, Yogi Berra, and Mickey Mantle. Saroyan attended the opening game of the Series on October 2nd, 1963, and again was joined by his son, Aram. Saroyan, which often adorned things like programs with marginalia, wrote on several pages, including seemingly having prepared to keep the box score of the game, but abandoning the task after merely writing the starting line-ups’ names. He did write one phrase on a page that might be the most Saroyanesque statement he could possibly make. Under a photo of the American League champion New York Yankees, his unmistakable scrawl noted “Look at all those human beings.”
-Written by Archivist Chris Garcia, San Jose, December 2023