When Marilyn Monroe divorced Joe DiMaggio, Oscar Levant remarked that it only went to show that no man can be expected to excel at two national pastimes. Time can do terrible things, even to wit, and this superior mot now has a slight flaw, which is that it is no longer clear that baseball is America’s other pastime. In the 1940s and early ’50s, the national pastime it indubitably was, a game that captured the country’s attention and enraptured the imagination of young boys and most men, who had earlier played it as boys. Just how it did and why it did and with what consequences is the subject of the intellectual historian Lee Congdon’s Baseball and Memory, a book about the game but also about much more.
The 1940s and ’50s, the years at the center of Congdon’s book, are those of his boyhood, and, as it happens, also of mine. The sports menu during those years was much shorter than it is now. Professional basketball hadn’t yet arrived in a serious way; professional football had a short season, and not many teams had franchises west of the Mississippi; hockey was still felt to be essentially a Canadian sport; golf and tennis were thought, for the most part correctly, to be country-club or rich people’s games. Baseball was the main, the primo, the supreme American sport.