That the 1950s and 60s were an era of remarkable change in this country is a statement nearly as old as anyone reading this essay. But so are they all eras of remarkable change when viewed in the convenient rear view mirror of history. For only by its distance do we see a thing in context. Thus are the frantic activities of our crowded days revealed as the meaningless distractions they were, and thus the slow moving tropes of our times confess themselves the seismic shifts that we did not recognize.
But context hides in the most inconvenient places, and thus to uncover it, we must often look in odd places. We’ve made the case that advertising is one. In America, baseball, is another.
Because the thing about baseball is that it consistently gives us the picture of ourselves that we rarely want to see, quite like advertising, and thus delivers the same profound value. The value of seeing beneath the veneer to the particle board of our true selves as revealed by another era – an era whose decisions and disasters directly impacted our own. The value of training us to look at our own era with the same sharper eye, an eye now equipped to see, hopefully, the truth of our own times.
Though you would be entirely within your rights to ask “why?” Why is it so damn important to see what we really are. We’re advertisers. At best we’re just trying to make a buck by selling someone something. At worst, we’re just trying to pay our bills by filling in the blanks on a client’s marketing plan. Why is truth important to us?
Because this industry is built on truths. Is built on insight. Is built on curiosity about why we do the things we do the way we do them. What motivates you? What are you afraid of? What task are you trying to accomplish? What meaning are you trying to find? What tools were you not provided? And why?
“We Would Have Played for Nothing” is the second entry in former Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent’s “Baseball Oral History Project” series (the first was “The Only Game in Town” which chronicled the 1930s and 1940s), and is a simple collection of transcribed interviews that Vincent taped with players who either broke into baseball in the 50s and 60s, or for whom those decades were the bulk or peak of their careers. (The videotapes themselves are apparently available for viewing at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York). Each interview is preceded by a few brief paragraphs that provide some background relevant to the fan and non-fan alike.
Are these interviews at times a little bumpy? Sure. Do they occasionally rehash battles that were extremely important before the advent of color television, and that in retrospect seem odd and small? Of course. That’s the nature of oral histories, because that’s the nature of life. Especially life among athletes who were not polished and schooled and refined by handlers and agents and managers and communications specialists – all of whom have the jobs they have today in order to sanitize sport of voices like these.
What’s important is what we see. And what we see is men endeavoring to do the job they learned in one world in a world that was changing more radically than they had even the ability to comprehend. We see men whose skill and talent and genius put them in situations for which they had no vocabulary, no tools, no training. Does growing up dirt poor in Oklahoma during the Depression prepare one for the New York City nightlife of the 1950s. Does anything? Does a genealogy that crossed the street to avoid white folks prepare you for a world of Selma and the 16th street Baptist Church and Huey P. Newton? Does an education that extended no further than the county line give you the tools to manage jetting across the nation and around the world?
“We Would Have Played for Nothing” reminds us that life is about learning to live in times for which we have no preparation. And that our success in those times will only push us faster and further into them. It reminds us that it has always been thus.
Which actually gives one hope in turbulent times like these.
We Would Have Played for Nothing by Fay Vincent was published by Simon & Schuster on 04/07/09 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).