This fall marks the first time in ninety years that there will not be a World Series. The players' strike has not only taken away a rite of fall for many Americans, Canadians, and others who love baseball, but it has spawned discussion about the conflict between labor and management and the perceived worth of one's work both within the pages of the country's newspapers, and in our homes, offices, and schoolrooms. The baseball strike, which, at this writing, has yet to be I resolved, has commanded even the attention of the United States Congress itself. While it let legislation dealing with the likes of a national health care initiative die this September, the Congress began hearings investigating the game's protected monopoly status. In Ken Burns' documentary, Baseball, columnist George Will notes that baseball was one of the last American industries in which the labor won the right to negotiate with its management, after the demise of the reserve clause in the early 1970's. Will's comment is just one more plank in Burns' argument that baseball is America's game, somehow reflecting its soul, mirroring (and sometimes forcing its history), and defining its national character. Out of this conflict comes the idea that play is a job to be rewarded highly. The average baseball player, according to Baseball, makes fifty times the average American working person's salary. And management, of course, makes much much more. It is a manifestation of the truth uttered by Susan Sarandon's character Annie Savoy in the baseball film, Bull Durham. "Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it's also a job."
There are many movies about work. In the 80's we had Working Girl, where work promised money, liberation, class mobility, and power to any one who had ambition. In the 90's we have Falling Down, where the absence of work (the protagonist has just recently been laid off, and the cop who's after him faces retirement) means also the absence of economic freedom, class position, and power. There are even more movies about play. However, Ron Shelton's Bull Durham provides a clear picture of what happens when work is play. The primary concern of Bull Durham revolves not around the issues of money, power, or class, but centers on issues of the spirit. The work of baseball, the film leads us to believe, is satisfactory because its 'joy...and poetry," as Annie puts it, "feeds the soul." Mind, body, and spirit come together in baseball, a job which allows workers to create art, profess faith, and engage in intellectual activity.
The film is about the Durham Bulls, a losing 1-A baseball team, and their biggest fan, Annie, who takes it upon herself to impart her life's wisdom to the Bulls' undisciplined pitcher, Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLouche (Tim Robbins). The idea is that when Nuke learns control, he'll play his best. Tension builds when the team hires Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), a very worn twelve-year veteran of the minor leagues, to impart his life's wisdom on the young pitcher, preparing him to ascend to the majors.
When they dream of the major leagues, or 'The Show," as they call it, the players for the Durham Bulls speak of a sublimity they might find at bat only at a Fenway Park or a Wrigley Field. When Nuke brags about the material possessions his pitching arm has brought him, Crash responds with tales of his experience in the major leagues as being, "the twenty-one greatest days of my life." He recalls, "You know you never handle your luggage in The Show, somebody else carries your bags. You hit white balls for batting practice. Ballparks are like cathedrals." The ballplayers sense a higher purpose for their play, or Crash's soliloquy wouldn't tantalize them in a way that Nuke's Porsche does not. Being able to play at your work, they understand, has nothing to do with "personal fullfillment," or even survival. Through their work, the ball players strive for a wholeness of being. The life of a minor league ballplayer is not at all a stable one, but something about it sustains them. But, as the Bull's manager remarks, "It beats the hell out of working at Sears."
Crash watches Nuke disrespect the Game with the disgust of Salieri observing Mozart in Amadeus. It is a curse for the talentless lover of an art to be forced to watch a gifted monster doing God's work. Baseball is a hard art to practice, if only because of the disappointment inherent in it. Many are called but few are chosen to ascend to the realm of The Show, and as Crash laments one night, "only one more dying quail a game" makes the difference between baseball heaven and an eternity in A-ball Purgatory. He and Annie have spent their lives searching for the sublimity in baseball, sensing its presence, working to find it. Now his job is to create an artist. Crash's charge to Nuke to respect the game and his gift comes from his own regard of play. Play is not something to fool with, Crash knows; it is a thing out of which great things can be created. He also knows that to create great art on the ballfield takes more than talent. The artist must serve his gift, he teaches Nuke, and that takes work. Pleasure and satisfaction come not from the ends of work, but from the process of doing it.
Respect of the Game, Annie and Crash know, allows for the complete and satisfactory practice of its religion. Bull Durham comes right out and addresses faith, acknowledging it as a vital aspect of personal growth. One needs to work at faith, through art and deliberate play. In the film, one arrives at full understanding through the body, the mind, and the spirit. The Game is a metaphor for life, everything happens on the ball field: birth, death, sex, marriage. Superstition and fear frustrate work and distort play, making life difficult. The players who have faith will have peace with the Game, as a scene on the pitcher's mound directly preceding the final plot point demonstrates. The players meet in the middle of a difficult game, confused as to why play is hard that evening. As Crash explains to the team's assistant manager, "Nuke's scared 'cause his eyelids are jammed and his old man's here. We need to cut the head off a live rooster to take the curse off of Jose's glove, and nobody seems to know what to get Millie or Jimmy for their wedding present...We're dealing with a lot of stuff." It is curious that the film takes as its central characters frustrated intellectuals like Annie and Crash. They both have brains and wisdom gleaned from experience, but the world, as Annie puts it, "is not made for people cursed with self-awareness." And neither, it seems, is the actual play of baseball. Bull Durham, after all, is about growing older, both in wisdom and in years. Throughout, both Annie and Crash sense an absurdity about their situations. Why, they ask in subtle ways, are people like us playing games? Crash identifies himself as "the player to be named later," and later chastises Annie. "Who dresses you," he asks. "Isn't this a little excessive for the Carolina League?" The combination of Nuke's talent and his lack of introspection convince them that baseball is a game best played by little boys. But the poetry and joy of play is wasted on the young. Nevertheless, the promise of their redemption comes in the intellectual study of baseball. Annie gives up boys, but finds solace in her theories, and Crash removes himself from the field, but looks to salvation in the dugout as a manager. Theory and management are jobs that allow for another kind of play, one in which the mind creates in place of the body.
Most of us only watch baseball, relegated to the stands we are much like Annie and Crash at the end of Bull Durham, participating through our imaginations and our intellect. Which makes baseball like film. In one of its nine segments of "innings," Baseball finds a connection between film and the national pastime. Ken Burns chronicles the story of the creation of the song, "Take Me Out To The Ballgame." Written by a vaudeville performer whose act it failed to enliven, the song gained popularity in the nickelodeons that populated the prehistory of the moving image. It is the only connection the documentary makes between its medium and itself, and it's not a self-conscious one. Film stays small—worth only a nickel—in Baseball, though Burns' filmmaking is big. His style is so refined that for the first few hours Baseball could have been an earlier film of his, The Civil War, with players in ball uniforms taking the places of soldiers in blue or gray. For Burns, baseball, film, and history are paths toward introspection. With film, Burns combines the work of researching a history with the play of assembling it—the hours of drudgery in the archives and the imagination together reach the sublime for which Bull Durham's ballplayers played the game.
And so we can have a baseball strike in which we tolerate labor whose salaries are fifty times the average and management that controls one of the most lucrative industries in the country fighting over the value of work that is, essentially, play. In America we have a dream about work, that it should sustain, satisfy and please, and not only economically. That's why we can call our ballfields "fields of dreams." It is in our sports, our arts, that we find this satisfaction and pleasure. So we, like the Durham Bulls, envy those who can play and call it work.