In the Spring Semester of 2008 at the University of Connecticut, I took what is called a “capstone” course. Basically, it’s a seminar course and my entire grade was based on one research paper that I wrote. The course dealt with the Homeric tradition (that is, The Iliad and The Odyssey). For my paper topic, I chose comparing those classics to two “contemporary” American films: Barry Levinson’s The Natural and John Ford’s The Searchers.
Both films are excellent examples of their respective genres (baseball and the western). They also have things in common with the plot and character structure of Homer’s work from thousands of years ago. What follows is the portions from my paper (I got a B) that deal with using baseball as the sort of “Americanized” version of Homer’s settings.
Notes: pay no attention to the page numbers; those were obviously for citations from articles/books that you guys most likely won’t have.
That takes care of the West but what about baseball? What makes the American pastime right for the Homeric tradition? Perhaps it is because in the American culture, it is referred to as the “National Pastime” and is a game that is more or less central to America only. Though it is growing in popularity in Asia, the Caribbean, and surprisingly enough Australia, baseball is generally a game that revolves around the American sphere of influence and the American homeland.
Because of that, many feel that it is incredibly important to know baseball to know America. In his essay about “The Natural,” Kevin Thomas Curtin quotes Jacques Barzun who remarked: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball” (227). Clearly, there is some link between the game and the American condition. That is why director Barry Levinson used a baseball backdrop for his rendition of “The Natural.” Though the film is based upon Bernard Malmud’s novel, to compare the two “would be a complete distraction” because “the film makers clearly set out something very different” (Curtin, 225).
That something different is the inclusion of a Homeric structure and Homeric characters that appears in the film. But again, why baseball for Homer? That is because with baseball, there is a sort of mythology that does not seem to be there with most sports. That could be because people focus on that mythology more but regardless of that notion, it is worth examining. In an interview with Joshua Siegel included in The National Baseball Hall of Fame’s “coffee table book” entitled Baseball As America: Seeing Ourselves Through Our National Game, Levinson says that “[he’s] always loved the mythology of baseball” (228). On the next page of the interview, Siegel comments that the film’s “villianess,” Harriet Bird, says to the hero, Roy Hobbes, “if Homer were alive today, his heroes would be baseball players” (229).
Why, though? That is because we live in a time and an age in which warriors are relatively disconnected from popular view. In Homer’s time, the warriors were blended into every day society and it was about them that people spoke. Now we “support the troops” but we generally do not sit around recounting their actions and making mythic stories out of their endeavors. Instead, it is our heroes on the diamond that we discuss. Curtin remarks “In his time, Homer’s audience was as intimate with the fates and feats of Achilles and Odysseus as most are today with those of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams” (Curtin, 228).
Baseball works in telling a Homeric hero’s story because, simply, people will know it. Though it may seem odd to see men who hit, throw balls, and play a game for a living as heroes, it is nonetheless true. They are more than just our topics of discussion. Baseball players have become to some—mostly males—cultural “landmarks” of sorts and have assumed the roles of thereof; they have become our legendary heroes.
The other part of baseball’s inclusion of the Homeric is also the fact that for the beginnings of the 20th century, baseball was a game that was broadcast on the radio. It was an oral game rather than the visual game it became with the advent of television. “The Natural” touches on this by using a radio voiceover for various portions of the film. This is the ultimate in the Homeric. In their time, The Iliad and The Odyssey would be told to people via word of mouth, they would be sung and spoken rather than written down or acted out. The classic age of baseball is one that revolved around the radio and an oral tradition. “As Earl Wasserman remarked…baseball constitutes an historical pageant made present and alive each time one person talks to another about the game; thus the history of baseball…forms a special mythos…directly expressive of the American grain” (Curtin, 227).
That is quintessentially Homeric. Baseball and its portrayal are perfect grounds in which to sow a Homeric story.