As I start writing this post, I’m about halfway through Stephen Jay Gould’s posthumous collection of baseball writings, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball (W. W. Norton, 2003). At this point the weaknesses of the book have become quite apparent to me: Gould has a habit a reusing the same anecdotes across multiple pieces, the length restrictions of newspaper columns prevent him from fully developing ideas, and the introductory memoir—in fairness, written during the author’s terminal illness—suffers from incredibly stilted syntax.
Nonetheless, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville shines with Gould’s amateur passion for baseball; I feel the pleasure he gets in taking a break from paleontology to wax rhapsodic about his favorite players. It doesn’t quite work when read straight through, but this seems like a pleasant book to dip into and out of for a few minutes at a time.
I first became aware of Gould’s baseball writing while I was preparing to teach a class on sports literature (something that, in a shamefully Gouldian fashion, I’ve mentioned several times on this blog). His essay on DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak during the 1941 season, entitled “The Streak of Streaks,” was included in one of my main source books for the class, Baseball: A Literary Anthology (edited by Nicholas Dawidoff). The essay is among the highlights in Dawidoff’s anthology, and it was one of the last pieces I cut from my syllabus before I had to submit it for approval.
Gould’s focus in “The Streak of Streaks” is on probability, specifically how people have difficulty analyzing things like hitting streaks in probabilistic terms. He cites Amos Tversky’s research on shooting streaks in basketball, which found that the “hot hand” phenomenon doesn’t actually exist: players who make a basket on one shot are no more likely to hit on the next, and players’ “hot” streaks can be predicted entirely based on their overall shooting percentages. Gould doesn’t bring up this research to denigrate athletes’ accomplishments, though. In fact, it serves as the context in which to celebrate DiMaggio’s hitting streak. Gould also cites Ed Purcell’s research on baseball streaks and slumps, and Purcell found that DiMaggio’s hitting streak was the “one sequence so many standard deviations above the expected distribution that it should not have occurred at all” (p. 177).
That revelation honestly shocked me when I first read it, as I had regarded DiMaggio’s streak record as a vulnerable one. Beating it would be mighty difficult, yes, but surely a batter just would need to get “hot” for nine or ten weeks. But if, as Purcell found, baseball would need 52 career .350 hitters for even a 50-game hitting streak to be likely (actual number of such hitters: 3), then DiMaggio’s accomplishment is truly incredible. In his characteristically statistical way, Gould finds a way to place his baseball hero into the realm of the divine. As baseball has become ever more analytic, as launch angles and exit velocities and wins above replacement increasingly dominate discussions of the sport, the fact that DiMaggio’s hitting streak is nigh inexplicable becomes all the more important to me: there is still mystery in this weird little game.
I had gone back to Dawidoff’s anthology to re-read “The Streak of Streaks” multiple times. It was only when I got to that essay in Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, however, that I learned that the essay was originally a book review. Specifically, “The Streak of Streaks” reviews Michael Seidel’s book Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of ’41, which purports to cover precisely that. Had I read the acknowledgments section of Dawidoff’s anthology, which mentions that the review portions of the essay had been omitted, this would not have been a surprise to me. But alas I had not, and I could not help but think: why would Dawidoff choose to cut such a significant chunk of the original piece?
It seems especially strange to make such an edit in a book called Baseball: A Literary Anthology, as Gould’s original review makes a point of placing Seidel’s book in the context of baseball’s literary history. Gould sees Streak as part of a trend of “serious, scholarly books treating baseball as something that might even get you tenure at a major university (as something other than an athletic coach)” (pp. 178-179). It’s as though Gould went out of his way to justify Dawidoff’s efforts over a decade before the anthology came out.
One may argue that removing the book review passages from the “The Streak of Streaks” makes the piece more accessible for general audiences, who are statistically unlikely to have read, or even have heard of, Seidel’s book. Better to leave the intertextual elements for the Gould completionists, no? But if that were indeed the goal, Dawidoff doesn’t fully commit to it, because Gould’s review is also a response to an article by John Holway called “A Little Help from his Friends: Hits or Hype in ’41,” which ran in a 1987 issue of Sport Heritage. Readers probably have as much knowledge of Holway’s article as they do of Seidel’s book—less, even, because Gould devotes less time to summarizing it.
Yet, having now read the original version of Gould’s essay, I do think that Dawidoff’s edits make the piece stronger. For one thing, the review portions include some rather self-indulgent quotations from Omar Khayyam and Alexander Pope, in an attempt to link sports streaks to our quest for meaning in a world dominated by chance. I appreciate the effort, but even as a baseball fan I find there’s something bathetic in Gould’s sincerity here. We are still talking about grown men playing a children’s game in oversized pajamas, and I’m not sure the subject can support a straight-faced digression on Absurdism.
More importantly, Gould’s discussion of probability with regards to DiMaggio’s hitting streak has little bearing on his review of Seidel’s book. Seidel, from how Gould describes his work, seems more interested in placing DiMaggio’s streak in the context of then-current events; Gould likens the book’s weaker passages to “reading old newspapers and placing the main events in order” (p. 179). The most Gould can do to make Seidel’s book relevant to his main point is to say that it “will help us to treasure DiMaggio’s achievement by bringing together the details of a genuine legend” (p. 181), which is about the vaguest praise possible. I do get the sense that Gould enjoyed Seidel’s book, but I get a stronger sense that Gould saw this review as an excuse to publish a different article that he was actually excited about writing.
For comparison, I would look at something like “The Cruelest Sport” by Joyce Carol Oates—which, coincidentally, did make the cut for my sports literature syllabus. “The Cruelest Sport” is a review of two books about boxing by Thomas Hauser, but it begins with a gripping discussion of the aesthetics and ethics the sport. Oates is simultaneously entranced and repulsed by the cruelty inherent to boxing. She spends the first six pages of that review exploring the tension between our humanitarian impulse that wants to abolish the deliberate violence of boxing and our spectator’s desire to see a satisfying, consciousness-crushing KO.
That tension is clearly what animates Oates to write that essay, but what makes “The Cruelest Sport” successful as a whole piece is that the opening discussion ties into the books that Oates is reviewing. The first is a biography of Muhammad Ali, an all-time great performer whose well-being boxing devastated; the second is an account of the grimy underbelly of the boxing establishment that belies the Las Vegas glitz surrounding the sport. Whereas Gould’s statistical discussion of DiMaggio’s hitting streak is at most tangential to the book he’s reviewing, Oates makes a persuasive case that her pet interest is central to the works before her. It’s true that someone like Dawidoff could easily excerpt those first six pages as a stand-alone essay, but they would not be improving the piece by subtracting from it.
It’s not as though I’m disappointed that Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville retained the review elements of “The Streak of Streaks”. That book is meant to be a compendium of Gould’s career work on baseball, so the need to accurately reflect his work ultimately trumps aesthetic considerations. Dawidoff’s anthology, meanwhile, is free of such requirements, and so it can tinker with pieces as much as it likes. There may inevitably be some hubris to that endeavor, but at least in this instance, it works out for the best.
I would love to hear your response to my thoughts on Nicholas Dawidoff’s edits to Stephen Jay Gould’s review of Michael Seidel’s book, if only to put as many brackets around this discussion as possible. What do you think about making cuts to essays for inclusion in anthologies? Do you have a favorite piece of baseball writing that you’re dying to share? Let me know in the comments!
If, on the other hand, you’d prefer to read more of my thoughts on Stephen Jay Gould’s work, I have a very old piece about his essay “Dr. Down’s Syndrome” that might interest you.
And as always, thanks for your time.