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When New York Made Baseball and Baseball Made New York

The rise of the sport as we know it was centered in Gotham, where big stadiums, heroic characters, and epic sportswriting produced a pastime that bound a city together.

Is the romance of baseball in New York coming to an end? The anchoring of sports in community seems further and further away, and the modern American curse of a capitalism that makes people feel miserable without visibly immiserating them affects sports just as it does everything else. One turns back to the real question: Why do we care? Why can the narration of these long-lost and in themselves insignificant contests still enliven our imaginations? Confucius says—an old-fashioned locution, perhaps, but appropriate here—never to take interest in feats of strength. And, in the main, we don’t. Sports are an artificial, deliberately narrowed activity that we create, in order to have moralizing stories to tell. If we didn’t have the legend of Christy Mathewson or Willie Mays, if we ascribed to such men merely feats of strength and speed rather than ebulliences of character, we would be bored.

There are passions that have to be private to be felt, and others that have to be communal to be real. Making up morality tales about small differences in physical performances is as necessary a human occupation as offering wildly differing rewards on the basis of equally minute differences in physical appearance: he’s a god, she’s an angel, he’s a star. We live within our bodies and honor them by admiring ones nimbler than our own. There seems no way out or up from this preoccupation. It gets its grace by becoming common.

The strength of our moralizing instinct is shown in the vindictive nature of our assessments of right and wrong in sports. We’ve kept Shoeless Joe out of the Hall of Fame, for the same reason that we’ve kept out Pete Rose and Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, even as we recognize inconsistencies in these judgments. Pete Rose’s sin—betting on baseball—is scarcely a sin at all for those outside the game, but it is rightly a capital offense for those within it. We accept the inequity of banning Shoeless Joe for having helped throw the 1919 World Series while enshrining the White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey, even though it was Comiskey’s greed and stinginess that pushed Shoeless Joe to take the gamblers’ money. We may recognize that the ban on performance-enhancing substances is hypocritical—pretty much everything that an athlete takes is in some way “performance enhancing.” Yet it is the cost of the activity to the nonparticipants that makes us rebel. The cost of corruption is the cost it imposes on those who would rather not partake in it.