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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 20, No. 1, 2021
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Robert J. Lewis
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward


baseball, mythology and



Donald Dewey has written some 40 books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as contributed scores of stories to magazines and other periodicals. He has also had some 30 plays staged in Europe and the United States. Dewey was editor of the ASME-award winning magazine Attenzione and was editorial director of the East-West Network, overseeing a dozen in-flight magazines and the PBS organ Dial. Don's latest book, Franchisement: The Alan Gibb Story, is now available.

The image of baseball as essentially pastoral in its origins because it is played on grass is about as meaningful as viewing poker as essentially wooden because of the tables where the cards are dealt. This hangover belief in simple serenities makes for a set with such other images as fathers playing catch with their sons, the game’s ultimate objective of reaching home, and breaking the window of the cranky old Norman Rockwell neighbor with an errant line drive. It is reassuring imagery, and not at all confined to illusions about the sport’s happy innocence before the days of free agency and mega-billion TV contracts. Just the opposite, the Field of Dreams vision is a conductive remnant of the good old days of virtuous bloodshed when men were men and others weren't, when the air carried admiration for militarism as much as the odors of hot dogs and beer. Missing that context from back in the era when being macho was a superfluous concept, very little of the sport’s lore would resonate. Before the legends went somewhere to die, they had come from somewhere to live. And what they toted with them were cultural presuppositions that had curious, not to say convenient, conceptions of what we usually call innocence.

Americans prize their innocence. We weren’t ensconced in the Garden of Eden before Adam and Eve spoiled everything, but at various junctures we have debated the personality of the mythically innocent “American Adam,” identifying him with everybody from Walt Whitman to John Wayne. Thanks in good part to the early Puritans, in resistance as much as acceptance, such speculation seems to have come with the territory mapped between the Atlantic and the Pacific east to west, Canada to Mexico north to south. Not everybody on the planet has earned tribute as a Chosen People. Not every land on the planet has been called the “Galahad among nations.” Name another people with the pursuit of happiness as its Constitutional goal. Or think of another place populated by so many instant historians avid to announce that this war or that terrorist bombing, this defection from a home team by a free-agent catcher or that forty-dollar loss at Three-Card Monte marked an “end of innocence.” Sex, that French business about losing one’s virginity, has been the least of it, too blandly literal. Here, never here, or, oops, disappeared through the door just a minute ago, the conceit of what the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described as the “pretensions of innocency” has mesmerized as fable disguised as ethnography. Whether it's a cop being listed as a casualty for cracking his fingernail while gunning down a pickpocket or a G.I. losing a leg in some foreign country to which he had not been invited, American authority is routinely depicted as an innocent party. For Stuart Creighton Miller, the bottom line is that "American innocence has been historically nurtured and protected by a conveniently selective collective memory." A literary critic has compared the cultural climate to "Billy Budd about to have [his] first experience with evil." Merely the description of the nineteenth-century frontier with its hundreds of thousands of Crows, Sioux, Kiowas, etc. as "virgin territory" begs much more than vocabulary questions.

Not that our innocence equates to a blamelessness: Our history has shed too much blood for indulging that self-delusion. The presuppositions of white privilege when it comes to black slavery and decimated Native Americans are not debatable. Historians have gone so far as to assert that not thinking about that privilege has been the essence of American innocence. Even short of that, our tenacious belief in it at a cultural Identikit level, invoking youth, naivete, or good intentions, would ransom brutality in retrospect; i.e., so all right we were a little rash back then, but wasn’t there an excitement in being more than Europeans, Asians, or Africans, in the presumption that we were superior for being white Christians, in colonizing a fabled New World? We were an untried people on an untried terrain; errors, even to a genocidal degree, were inevitable. Let’s move on. There is rebirth, innocence of the baptismal kind, isn’t there? Dwelling on history only brings on lamenting callow objectives. A purportedly comprehensive study such as Daniel Boorstin's The Americans: The Colonial Experience doesn't mention slavery at all, and who misses it? Forgive and hope we don’t share Boorstin's forgetfulness.

But be careful. Don't look too deeply into the Anglo-Saxon premises of philosopher John Locke's "In the beginning all the world was America." Keep in mind Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville who, inspired by the Puritans, launched centuries of crowing about how America was “exceptional,” going so far as to make an ism out of it. He didn’t claim that about New Caledonia, did he? Well, actually he almost did, and indeed few countries have not been called exceptional at one time or another. Moreover, the American political and rhetorical translation of exceptionalism down over the years has never truly reflected the Frenchman's observation since, rather than lauding a unique innate characteristic of Americans, he was mainly pointing out that "in spite of the ocean which intervenes, I cannot consent to separate America from Europe . . . The position of the Americans is therefore exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed similarly." But never mind that, it need not be admitted. More important was the contention of George Bancroft in his nineteenth-century History of the United States that the nation had been established as a divine plan for showing the world how superior democratic institutions were. Genocides or not, Guilty doesn't have to be the final verdict for innocence.

The obsession with national innocence has weathered obtuseness and plain malice ever since the final signer of the Declaration of Independence laid aside his quill. It has also survived an early premise by forefathers such as Jefferson that it was tied to a rural existence ("when the lands are exhausted, Americans will get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, and go to eating one another as they do there"). A half-century later, congressman George Julian was voicing the same attitude with observations such as: "The life of a farmer is favorable to virtue, and both individuals and communities are generally happy in proportion as they are virtuous." At another extreme the same innocence has been the motor for American hypocrisy in that this quality requires a modicum of feigned purity. Or, as Walter Nugent says, "the distance between noble purposes and self-serving aggressiveness is the measure of hypocrisy." Measuring that distance has led to some odd proposals. The historian Gordon S. Wood, for instance, might have been right in asserting that American colonists "knew they were freer, more equal, more prosperous, and less burdened with cumbersome feudal and monarchial constraints than any other part of mankind in the eighteenth century." But if this is so, this also contributed to the mania at the dawn of the nineteenth century for abolishing the English language for dripping with history, too much of it shameful, less than prosperous, and certainly none of it the responsibility of those who inherited it. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to advocate a new code of laws every generation so nobody would be burdened with the sullied limitations of its predecessors. A couple of decades later, de Tocqueville could still permit himself an observation that when it came to the Americans "no one cares for what occurred before his time . . . In America society seems to live from hand to mouth, like an army in the field."

This was no passing phase. Further decades later, following a suggestion by Ralph Waldo Emerson in an essay that there might be something gained by examining classical writings, the journal Democratic Review shot back that "probably no other civilized nation has at any period . . .so completely thrown off allegiance to the past as the American. The whole essay of our national life and legislation has been a prolonged protest against the dominion of antiquity in every form whatsoever." Another eight years after that in 1850, in his novel The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne had one of his characters exclaiming: "Shall we never, never get rid of this Past? It lies upon the present like a giant's dead body! The case is just as if a young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of the old giant his grandfather who died a long awhile ago and only needs to be decently buried. Just think a moment and it will startle you to see what slaves we are to bygone times -- to Death if we give the matter the right word." All of this was taking slightly more literally than de Tocqueville had meant with “for every democratic nation each generation is a new people.” On the other hand, it hardly contradicted the Frenchman when he wrote”

Americans] owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing
from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering
themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine
that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not
only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors,
but it hides his descendants and separates contemporaries
from him. It throws him back forever upon himself alone
and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within
the solitude of his own heart.

As pixilated as this no-past movement sounded, it would be reflected in various creationist myths at the end of the nineteenth century, covering everything from sports and the entertainment industry to the premise that American invasions of other countries were unlike any launched before so could not be likened to their intentions or excesses. Indeed, the obsession was never more rampant than during what has been called the Gilded Age or Anything the Trust Wants It Gets. Going further, Eric Rauchway has not been alone in asserting that "the United States became American during a particular and well-defined phase in its development -- specifically, during the half-century following the Civil War, stretching up to the start of World War I in Europe." Desire commanded enterprise, ideally with a corporate articulation. Bankruptcies disposed of crooks and their prey, too bad about that, but many of both survived and with few contusions on a confidence in basic national purity. The more venal was the plundering, the more it supposedly represented the American spirit. Horatio Alger wasn’t a board chairman, but if he invested modestly in a monopoly or two, that was okay, too.

Winners and losers as parameters of the human species wasn’t invented by the sleazoids in our era but traced back to the Goulds, Fisks, and assorted Gilded forefathers. Profits were rewards bestowed from a higher spiritual plane; failures were a baleful judgment on the human soul. Henry Ward Beecher spoke for all the true patriots when he said that “God has intended the great to be great and the little to be little.” Or: "It is your duty to get rich . . . To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins is to do wrong." Those not hearing it from Beecher could have heard it as the credo of the Massachusetts Episcopal bishop William Lawrence: "The race is to the strong. Godliness is in league with riches." In short, what God didn’t bless hadn't deserved being blessed, so don't be surprised that the 700 Club with its creaky moderator has been on the air for so long. And God also made it evident that He had no objections to violence for implementing innocence; in the name of purification, it was redemption all around. In this context "what is distinctly American," as Richard Slotkin has noted, "is not necessarily the amount or kind of violence that characterizes our history but the mythic significance we have assigned to the kinds of violence we have actually experienced, the forms of symbolic violence we imagine or invent, and the political uses to which we put that symbolism." Don’t tread on me but don’t lose any sleep about treading on others. It was a delirious epoch and, aside from recurring national depressions, angry strikes, and a moral alertness as soporific as a feather pillow, favored the favored in their virtuousness. Vicious circles had never been so impeccable.

In studying this era, historians have been struck by how often children -- matched only by lambs as symbols of innocence -- appeared as protagonists of literature, leisure-hour restoratives to surrounding soullessness. Children, in the view of T.J. Jackson Lears, "embodied the moral innocence and the emotional spontaneity which seemed increasingly absent from the public realm." But the analysis didn't stop at individual childhood innocence; on the contrary opening the door to much wider implications. For one historian, "by the 1880s the link between the childhood of the individual and of the race was firmly established in the bourgeois imagination." This in turn led to flirting with such theories as that children "alone possess in their fullness the distinctive features of humanity, that the highest human types as represented in men of genius present a striking approximation of the child type," while on the other hand social maturation was "to some extent progress in degeneration and senility." At issue, of course, were not playground boys and girls. As Barry Spector viewed it, "America's cult of the child is not really about actual children, but about idealized images that help to cover up the disgraceful reality."

For proponents of such a diagnosis of late nineteenth-century society, it was only another short hop from there to emphasize the physical vitality of children in contrast to the intellectual stolidness of adults for warning of the dangers posed by what was fashionably called "overcivilization." If you fell on the overcivilized side of the line, there was plenty wrong with you, but most of all you couldn't furnish more of the innocence that had spurred America's growth till then. The energy required for sports was not in itself a guarantee of that, but it was certainly closer to godliness than the languors of adulthood and for that reason alone was to be encouraged as the nation's saving grace.

One of the gestures of that encouragement was the establishment of the Amateur Athletic Union (1888) to organize that vitality as much as possible. By any measure, the AAU was the first attempt at bureaucratizing "organized play," an endeavor that would throw up more than one scandal along the way. Its public founders included James E. Sullivan, who would figure prominently in the Doubleday myth and related affairs touching on Albert Spalding, hardly a disinterested party in a big new market for his sports goods. And what could possibly offer more uplift than the stories of Frank Merriwell, the all-lettered collegian who had not even had to chop down a cherry tree for demonstrating his character in some 200 books that sold 125 million copies. For folklorist Tris Coffin, Merriwell was "everyone's dream of himself -- secure, resourceful, capable, fair, if unrelenting, cool under fire, respected, eventually loved by his enemies." Not that Frank was a rube: He was a collegian, no hay baler. When violence was necessary to reach his worthy goals, he resorted to it. Come to that, he didn't mind too much crossing that wavering line of legality when necessary, either. That was also an important part of being an American.


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Also by Donald Dewey:
Baseball, Myth, and the Gods of Summer Pt. I
Double Bill
Heroes and Victims
The Relationships Conundrum
The Finger
Smoke Blowers
Noticing Death
Passive Resistance
Not Playing It Safe
The Expectation Medium
Crisis in Critics
Words Not to Live By
Knowing the Killer
Racism to the Rescue
Punk Times
Not Playing It Safe
Meeting the Author
The Overwriting Syndrome
Writers As Ideas
Let Them Entertain Us
It's a Kindergarten Life
Being and Disconnectedness
History of Humour in the Cinema
Cartoon Power


Before becoming the world's most respected life, death, and everything in between coach, Alan Gibb shared that common frustration over the failure of astrology, numerology, and similar religions to direct all aspects of human behavior. They might have all been sacred systems for establishing a personal identity, but there was a rusty screw at their core. Even when the revolutionary tenets of Franchisement occurred to him, he knew they might remain stillborn without the attacks, arrests, and tragedies customarily accompanying an original vision. Happily for Gibb and the tens of thousands of his fellow believers, he was assaulted in physical, mental, and dietary ways and hauled in as a fraud, thug, and stalker even as he pressed forward on his crusade to share Franchisement with the hordes crying for it as a national pastime superior to baseball. More happily, the tragedies struck others, not him, enabling him to enjoy the millions Franchisement brought through the Internet, the telephone, and pay-on-demand cable. As he noted repeatedly, the delivery vehicle was unimportant as long as a customer thought he wanted what he was getting. "If you listen to people, the world is divided between the Yankees and the Red Sox," he liked to chuckle fondly. "Tell that to those with a crush on the Minnesota Twins. A vision that isn't comprehensive sees only its own nose."


"Granted there are many similar books too numerous to count, but this book is sui generis." --- Benjamin Acocella, S.J., President of the Council for Mental Observances.

"This book changed my life when it most needed changing." --- Sidney Willinger, Leisure Sciences Department, University of Indiana.

"Sometimes love is a 13-letter word." --- Jennifer Pryor, Harvard School of Theoretical Business.

"Gibb demonstrates how life is more than steak knives and storm windows." --- Joel Sternheim, Informercials Institute.

Trade Paperback - 6 x 9 x .7
150 Pages
FICTION / Humorous / General
FICTION / Satire
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