Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 10, 1995

Play Ball!

State folklorist considers why 
baseball the sport will survive 
baseball the business

By Steve Libowitz

     As the 1995 baseball season crept perilously close to the
brink of what many fans felt was unthinkable--replacement-player
ball--lots of pundits and too many fans seemed ready to abandon
the game and leave it to fester under the pressure of its two
ego-inflated, greedy behemoths: the owners and the players. 

     But then, like lightning, the player strike was over. The
games would begin after all.

     Through drug and sex and gambling scandals, through wars and
depressions and political assassinations, even in spite of
strikes and work stoppages and lockouts, baseball has endured.

     But why? 

     Those who love the game, who wait for it each spring and
follow it all summer long, who read about it and talk about it
know the game endures because of something more than money.

     Charlie Camp is one of those people.

     Dr. Camp is a lecturer in the School of Continuing Studies'
Odyssey program, offering for the past four years a course called
Baseball and American Life: Close Readings and Close Calls.

     He believes baseball endures because it is the stuff of
which myths are made. He should know.

     Since 1976, Dr. Camp has served as Maryland's folklorist for
the Maryland State Arts Council. As folklorist, he is the state's
chief proponent for celebrating the myths and folk ways of
individuals, families and specific professions--like watermen--
who record their unique histories, traditions and customs through
homespun arts, crafts and performances.

     Dr. Camp calls this "the arts of remembrance." And that is
the link that connects, in his mind, baseball and folk art.

     "As I've gotten older, I have been more self-conscious about
trying to connect the worlds of folk art and baseball," said the
44-year-old, who holds a doctorate in folk art from the
University of Pennsylvania. 

     It's in this connection that Dr. Camp believes exists the
key to why baseball, more than any other sport, elicits such
strong emotion among even the most casual fan.

     "Both folk art and baseball appeal to people who care about
tradition," he said. "They both link customs, rituals and
superstitions not just over time but through generations."

     "A child's first big-league ballgame is like a story
retold," he wrote for the flier copy announcing his recent
lecture at the Library of Congress called "Of Heroes and
Ballparks, Real and Imagined: A Folklorist's View of Baseball."

     "Adults responsible for the experience treat it as something
to be reported, commented upon, compared with their own,
broadcast to friends and family.

     "Beneath baseball's surface is a world of belief and custom
that connects the people on the fields with the people in the

     "Baseball weaves together memories and aspirations, thought
and action, players and fans, thereby gaining an importance that
seems at once absurdly overblown and spiritually essential."

     But what makes it so? What is it about baseball that helps
it withstand internal and external calamities? Why does baseball
seem to rise in much of our collective conscience to mythic,
romantic proportions?

     "There's no simple answer, of course," Dr. Camp said. For
him the starting point is that baseball is bigger than our field
of vision and powers of understanding.

     "Unlike  other pastimes that are played out in front of us,
baseball is played by individuals spread out over a large field.
It's played in the dugout, in the bullpen, in the front office,
in the minor leagues playing hundreds of miles away. All of these
affect what's happening on the field as we watch a game.

     "But baseball is also kind of a microanalytic game," Dr.
Camp said. "It all happens due to specific acts: a ball thrown at
a bat, a ball speeding to a glove. Then it becomes a game of

     "I enjoy this paradox of the game, trying to see the whole
game while concentrating on individual parts," Dr. Camp said.
"But if you just focus on one thing, like some people just watch
the pitcher, the game explodes in other places and catches you
off guard. And then you turn to the person next to you and ask
what happened, and maybe he saw something. Or someone near him
saw it, and so it may take everyone in a ballpark to piece
together what really happened in a game."

     This dynamic only occurs, Dr. Camp admits, at the ballpark,
another totem of the game.  

     "In baseball having emotional, historical and mythic
connectedness to the place where the game is played is a link to
the past of a grand sport, and it's OK and even expected."

     Just recall the emotion surrounding the final game played at
Memorial Stadium at the close of the 1992 season. The whole day
was played out like a scene from the film "Field of Dreams."

     Fan favorite Mike Flanagan striking out the last batter.
Past and present Orioles, in uniform, taking their old positions
on the field creating prolonged and seemingly connected post-game

     What was that all about?

     "It's funny because the stadium is so very plain. Nothing
about it says 'love me'; it's not a cozy place," Dr. Camp said.
"But it was a crucible for people's feelings and celebrations and
pain. When the Orioles lost to the [Pittsburgh] Pirates [in the
1979 World Series], we had to watch them celebrate on our field.

     "That stadium was such a product of what people brought to
it. There was a sense of leaving your childhood home," he said,
"but no one was going to ever live there again. It was going to
be boarded up or torn down." 

     Perhaps the most important quality about baseball that
colors it in mythic tones is that it has been around for so long,
Dr. Camp said.  "People mark the passage of time in relation to
baseball," he said. "And in those 119 years, a wide variety of
people have written about the game and its players and its
places. The literature has done so much to romanticize it."

     He uses the example of Cal Ripken's consecutive game streak.

     "We aren't just connecting Ripken to his current statistics
but to [current record holder] Lou Gehrig and his life and the
tragedy of his death and the movie about it and Gary Cooper's
portrayal of him in that movie. The whole of all of this is
significant and imposing."

     Dr. Camp knows, though, that there is no standard mythology
about baseball.

     "Everybody finds their own enjoyment in the game. Some
things connect and resonate immediately, others crop up later.

     "What has sustained my interest over the years is that
baseball has kind of historical and social depth that allows
people with very different views on most other subjects to come
to some kind of mutual respect for each other," he said. 

     "Not a lot of things cross generations the way baseball
does," he said. "I don't need to encourage my 8-year-old son,
Nicholas, to argue with me about baseball, he comes to it
naturally. And that's important to me. It's better for a father
and son to have something they can argue about, rather than to
find that the worlds they each inhabit are disconnected, and they
have nothing to talk about."

     Dr. Camp is certainly thrilled that the strike is over. But
does he hold a grudge against the sport that would cause him to
turn away from the game he has loved since he was a boy growing
up in Ohio?

     "Hell no," he said. "If the recent cold snap had come two
weeks earlier and gotten all my daffodils before they bloomed,
would I have gone out and pulled up all the bulbs in my garden?

     "We live in the real world. And whatever our romantic
attachments are to it, and no matter how much those attachments
are based on mythological readings of past teams and heroes,
baseball belongs on the sports page. It happens, and you read
about what happens, and you experience it, and then you think
about it and chew on it.

     "For me, the real calamity of the strike was there just was
nothing to eat."

     As of April 26, the main course will once again be served.

     Dr. Camp will present an illustrated talk titled "Hallowed
Grounds: A Tour of Ballparks Real and Imagined," as part of the
Wednesday Noon Series, April 12 in the Garrett Room of the Milton
S. Eisenhower Library on the Homewood campus. Admission is free.
For more information, call the Office of Special Events at

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