“Baseball is not simply an essential of this country, it is a living memory of what the American culture at its best works to be…. Its wisdom says you can go home again, but that you cannot stay. The journey must always start once more… until there is an end to all journeying.” -A. Bartlett Giamatti
Baseball, it is said, is a game of inches. Inches be fair, foul, strike, ball, safe, out. Life, too, is about inches, moments between life, death, friend, foe, right, wrong. In Don DeLillo’s Underworld DeLillo’s fictionalized (though historically accurate) account of the momentous 1951 final pennant play-off game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants serves as a link between past and present throughout the novel. In an interview with ESPN in 2001, Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken spoke of his own achievement, breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game record, by saying, “It offered a link back to another era, where people thought it was a game, it was simple, it was pure” (Ripken Interview). DeLillo using the 1951 game as a starting point for his novel offers that same link, a link that Nick both reaches for and shuns throughout “the narrative that lives in the spaces of the official play-by-play” (DeLillo 27).
The third game of the 1951 pennant play-off game is one of the most famous baseball games in history. In an episode of the sports-oriented sitcom Sports Night entitled “The Giants Win the Pennant…” one of the sportscasters, Danny, calls the 3rd game of this series “one of the greatest baseball games ever played…in the history of baseball” and goes on to announce that, “Everyone should know this” (Sports Night). In Willie Mays’s autobiography, Mays, who was on deck when Thomson hit the homerun, describes October 3rd by saying, “There was so much happening in the rest of the United States that day, as well. Indeed, it could almost be described as a historic day for the country in general” (Mays 88). He also mentions that one of the McCarthy hearings happening on October 3rd was interrupted to announce the score of the Dodger-Giants game (88). DeLillo, in the novel, describes the game as being the last coming together of Americans. From Glassic’s point of view DeLillo writes, “When Thomson hit the homer, people rushed outside. People wanted to be together. Maybe it was the last time people spontaneously went out of their houses for something. Some wonder, some amazement. Like a footnote to the end of the war” (94). And, perhaps even, a preface to the escalation of the Cold War. The game is, thus, the starting point of DeLillo’s Cold War and post-Cold War concerned novel. Both culturally and historically this game became significant in the lives of many characters in the novel, even those who were not there to witness it. “So Sims told her about Thomson and Branca and how people still said to each other, more than forty years later, Where were you when Thomson hit the homer?” (94). And for those who were there, or alive to witness it, it becomes that link Cal Ripken spoke of. A symbol of something simple or pure, the last time people spontaneously ran out into the streets. And these links, along with many other links, are the connections Nick struggles to understand or distance himself from throughout the novel.
For Nick, a Dodgers fan, the game was momentous, but not happy and instead of the burst of togetherness that Glassic spoke of, Nick “died inside when they lost. And it was important that I [Nick] die alone. Other people interfered. I had to listen alone” (DeLillo 93). For Nick, the memory of the game and later buying the Thomson homer ball is “all about losing” (97). The game, to him, was a moment of loss rather than triumph. In an interview with Hungry Mind DeLillo said, “There was a sense, at least for me, that this was the last such binding event that mainly involved jubilation rather than disaster of some sort” (qtd. in Caple) to which the writer of this piece, Jim Caple, replied “Well, that depends on whether you rooted for New York or Brooklyn” (Caple), perfectly illustrating that, to Nick, this game was not about jubilation, but about loss. This “mystery of loss” (97) haunts him, seemingly, for the rest of his life. During the last scene with Nick where he is in his mid-fifties, he talks about finding the ball every once in a while sometimes knowing “exactly why I [Nick] bought it, and other times I don’t, a beautiful thing…” (809). And yet, he bought the ball to make that connection to when the game meant something to him, even if it only meant loss and failure or the ending of that meaning.
It is fitting that he bought that ball alone, without fanfare, because that is how he watched and felt about the game. In the aforementioned episode from Sports Night, when asked if he was ‘bummed’ at having missed the homerun because he was in the men’s room, the character of Isaac responds, “For a while. But then you get older and it just joins all the other things in your life that happened while you were looking the other way” (Sports Night). Like Isaac, Nick ‘misses’ or ‘loses’ out on things for similarly inexplicable reasons or maybe even just a bad luck. He is, after all, obsessed with bad luck and the connection to the number thirteen. (Adding the month and the day of the game ended up with thirteen, along with numerous other additions) Nick mentions throughout the novel). When Nick shoots George it isn’t out of malice or necessarily on purpose. He is told the gun isn’t loaded and therefore the murder he commits is something of an accident or even ‘bad luck’. It would be interesting if DeLillo had dated that passage so that we could see if the numbers added up to thirteen. Also the leaving/disappearance of Nick’s father, and not knowing what happened to him for sure, through no fault of Nick’s own, is another loss Nick is forced to deal with, and though it gets less important over time there are still times when he thinks back to it. For instance, in the same chapter where Nick goes back and looks at the baseball sometimes knowing why he bought it and sometimes not, he runs across a document with his father’s name on it, pausing to place the name. He reaches out from future to the past and reopens that connection between father and son for just a moment, until the present moves him onward.
This sense of connection between past and present underlies the whole novel, though it is not until the end where the reader can begin to understand these connections and what they might represent. The present, through DeLillo’s epilogue, is described as sterile and detached. “The attenuating influence of money that’s electronic and sex that’s cyberspaced, untouched money and computer-safe sex” (785). We get this sense of disconnectedness in the present, despite that fact that connections and links bond this whole novel together. It is, again, the link Cal Ripken spoke of, the desire for a seemingly simpler and more pure time in the face of a world that has become increasingly detached from one another as technology has become more and more advanced, stemming partially from the advancement that seemed needed during the Cold War in order to keep the world safe. And yet, connections still run through life despite this detachment. “Because everything connects in the end, or only seems to, or seems to only because it does” (DeLillo 465). Thus, one of the main themes running through Underworld is connectedness in the face of present-day detachment and isolation. The game is just one of those events that acts as a connection between the characters as well as between past and present.
“Most of our longings go unfulfilled. This is the world’s wistful implication-a desire for something lost or fled or otherwise out of reach” (DeLillo 803). In the end, the loss of the Dodger’s in the 1951 pennant play-off game was just the beginning of things lost Nick was going to encounter. And yet he, just like anyone else in this world, still has the longings for the things that were lost and thus unfulfilled. Though the Bobby Thomson homerun and Russ Hodges call will be remembered as long as baseball history survives, it wasn’t just about a game. It was about a connection with a time, a connection with a team, a connection that Nick struggles to keep a hold of despite the continuing disconnectedness of the world.