As I’ve tried to write professionally for 31 years and still have, for the most part, no idea what I’m doing, I’m constantly looking for advice. Currently I am reading Manage the truth by another Beth, a Mrs. Kephart. This Beth is a much better college professor than the Beth typing right now, at least in the sense that she clearly has more than a second of patience for people who have benefited from twelve years of education and who insist always to start each task with: “In today’s society, things…”
In one of her memory classes, Beth Kephart told her class to go outside and take pictures. She followed them around campus as they began what was surely an obvious task regarding the choice of imagery. Then she took them back to the offices. Then she shook their worlds assuming things in today’s society.
“Choose one of the photographs,” she told them, “and write about what’s in the background.”
We tend to miss this part of our lives, don’t we? And yet, it is the necessary seam of it all. We’re approaching the middle of March and we haven’t seen a single pitcher pitch to a single receiver. It’s the focal point of our photography as baseball fans. But why are we on hiatus, and what does that say about the sport, and MLB (because it’s not the same thing), and us, and what’s important?
That’s the context, and that’s where the real story is.
Here, in the quiet of daffodils sprouting from frozen mulch and the first fish fries of Lent, I searched for the first time anyone thought to freeze for posterity the course of a baseball game. And, just as I didn’t expect, the result isn’t even an image of a baseball game.
The first known photo of a baseball game was taken in 1862 in Savannah, Georgia at Fort Pulaski. The photographer wanted to capture a posed, uniform and bright image of the 48th New York Volunteer Infantry. There was a war, you see. These men were preparing to both inflict and receive death. This may well provide the only retainable image they left behind. But in the background are the cowardly figures of men going about their lives.
I have been to Fort Pulaski. I typed about Fort Pulaski. I’m not the first dreamy, raunchy writer to do this. Fort Pulaski is a giant five-sided metaphor built of bricks and bad assumptions.
He was believed to be impenetrable. Fort Pulaski was meticulously designed, deeply grounded and bound together by 25 million bricks. And it was broken in about a day and a half, because it was built for War of 1812 techniques but didn’t see action until the Confederacy was formed. Union forces did not even have to approach within five miles of Fort Pulaski. They just fired at it with rifled cannons that hadn’t even been imagined when the first pillar was driven into the mud.
We fear baseball as we know it is dying, and we’ve always assumed the fatal blow would come from close opponents: other sports, stadium tax referendums, beer prices. We never anticipated the deep infliction of cultural wounds falling five miles away or, even worse, destroyers within.
This photograph was taken shortly after the fall of Fort Pulaski. Men who play baseball are fellow soldiers. I don’t know what happened to those members of the 48th New York Volunteer Infantry. I know what they heard. They heard exactly what we heard in 1901 and 1944 and 1978 and 2022, from radio to television to wifi signal: they heard shouts of celebration, the sound of a bullet hitting a small upright object , the murmur of onlookers discussing the preparation of dinner. They heard, in the middle of the war, the sounds of life.
This is how baseball connects us; these are never the matches we follow step by step or with constant half-inning recordings. It’s the transistor radio on the back porch, human voices softening the high-pitched mechanical measurements of a heart monitor in a hospital room, the gentle undercurrent of parents cheering on an actually caught pop fly.
And so fittingly, the earliest known image of a baseball game is not, in fact, a baseball game. Why were these men working hard on a childhood hobby? They were bored, or they were scared, or they were out of shape, or all or nothing. Baseball was the natural progression of Americans gathered in one place for over an hour. It soothed, distracted, strengthened, bound the galaxy.
Perhaps these men returned to the farm or the factory and lived long and happy lives. Maybe they didn’t. But no matter where their days went after breaking away from that formation, I’m glad that, if only for the moments it took them to come together in two parallel lines and adjust their hats precisely to the correct angle, they heard the comforting sounds of an over without outs.