NONFICTION: A take on our national pastime, focusing on the links between baseball and grim events that have taken place on the edge of the game.
Don DeLillo’s “Underworld” opens with 50 pages about a ballgame and a famous home run, but the novel is less concerned with the final score than it is with an atomic bomb test that occurred the same day, Oct. 3, 1951. To DeLillo, convergences like these are part of “the sand-grain manyness of things that can’t be counted.”
I thought of this phrase, and of DeLillo’s focus on the intersection of baseball and global politics, while I was reading Josh Ostergaard’s book, which, in its own idiosyncratic way, takes a swing at similar ideas.
By no means am I comparing the two writers — in baseball terms, DeLillo is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, Ostergaard an unproven rookie. But like parts of “Underworld,” Ostergaard’s “The Devil’s Snake Curve: A Fan’s Notes From Left Field” is derived from a close reading of the links between baseball and some grim events that have taken place on the periphery of the game. It’s a resourceful effort, and totally offbeat.
Conformity, exploitation and oppression — these are among Ostergaard’s primary concerns. He explores these themes via historical facts, personal recollections and apocryphal tales, synthesizing a set of divergent parts into a provocative, if occasionally daffy, narrative.
A University of Minnesota grad and staffer at Graywolf Press, Ostergaard followed the sport closely as he grew up in Kansas in the 1980s and ’90s, a time that included a brief, disastrous stint as a 14-year-old relief pitcher: “I used my calculator watch to figure my earned run average. It was 189.19.”
At a certain point, however, he started to question his fandom. Today, he writes, his idyllic memories of the game “turn my stomach sour. They don’t reflect the world I live within and choose to see.”
What changed? Ostergaard did. As he learned more about the sport’s history, he grew increasingly suspicious of the wisdom that casts the game as an exemplar of American virtue. Often, he argues, the opposite is true.
Ostergaard bolsters his thesis by looking at everything from team policies that discourage freedom of expression to the business practices of some club owners.
Some of this material is featherweight and funny — such as Ostergaard’s borderline loony fixation on the Yankees’ rule that prohibits players from growing beards.
But other parts are more substantial. In one chapter, he chronicles the decision to send two teams on a European tour as World War I neared. Another describes how Del Webb, a part owner of the Yankees, built internment camps to hold Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Expansive and inventive, “The Devil’s Snake Curve” is a challenging reconsideration of a game that used to be called the national pastime.
Kevin Canfield is a critic in New York City.