A Yankee in an English country garden

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The Independent Online
Today's quiz question is this: "What is the connection between Jane Austen and baseball?"

While you're thinking about that one (and we will get to the answer by and by), I'll tell you the connection between me and baseball. The connection between me and baseball is that my nine-year-old son came home at the weekend from his school Christmas Fair and revealed that he had bought a baseball mitt for 30p on the white elephant stall. Not only that, but he had conceived an intense desire to play baseball. Not in the future, but right now, at a time when normal fathers have to sit down and write pieces for The Independent. He wants me to go out and initiate him into baseball.

"Not right now," I told him. "I can't play baseball with you right now because I am busy and also because I haven't the faintest idea how to play baseball ..."

And, I nearly added, because baseball is such a minority taste that it hasn't even made it on to Channel 4. (At American insistence it has made it into the Olympics, but this slightly backfired because the American Olympic baseball team keeps getting beaten by the Japanese and Cubans.)

The extraordinary thing is that my son should know anything about baseball at all. He has never seen it played in his life. If he wanted to see a game of baseball, where would he go? I believe I have seen it played by expat Americans in Hyde Park, but where is the nearest place where it is played seriously? You would have to cross an ocean, would you not?

No, the reason he knows about baseball is that it slips and slides into our consciousness through American films and cartoons. Baseball is part of America, therefore it is part of their culture, therefore it is part of our culture, and it does not seem odd for American films with a baseball theme to be released in Britain or anywhere where baseball is not played. There seems to be a new film every six months about a junior league team that has never won a match and suddenly gets a new manager or about a team which is on the slide and suddenly gets a new manager or about a guy who has a vision of building a baseball stadium or ...

Baseball runs through Hollywood. The game runs through American cartoon strips. I learnt most of what I know about baseball from reading Peanuts. It permeates American expatriate culture. Every year in the International Herald Tribune, at the start of the US baseball season, they print the same poem called "The Crack of a Bat", which is a lament written by an American living in Europe at being out of the old country just when baseball is starting up again.

And now my son has got a baseball mitt, just like those American kids in American films. Next thing, he will be wearing a baseball cap backwards. Where have I gone wrong?

Mark you, I have seen a couple of baseball games myself, and I thought they were wonderful, a lot better than any American football. This was way back in 1960, when I worked for a few months in New York, in the vacuum between school and university. One day I got the train uptown somewhere to Yankee Stadium and sat for a day in the bleachers eating hot dogs and watching men in long white uniforms hit, throw and run. There were one or two men playing who were legends coming to the end of their golden days. Mickey Mantle I saw, and Yogi Berra. They didn't do much, but I saw them.

(I also sat behind a black couple who fascinated me, not just because I had never seen ordinary black people before, but because the man was so absorbed in the game that he never noticed that his girlfriend, bored out of her mind, had started flirting with the lone black guy sitting next to her on the other side. I went back again for another game two weeks later, and the girl was there again, not with her boyfriend this time, but with the lone black guy! I have to say, she was looking a little bored with him too by this time.)

Well, I am afraid I have to leave it there. I have to go and play baseball with my son until he gets bored with it. After all, I suppose it isn't quite such an un-English activity as all that. It is part of our dear old heritage. Jane Austen herself knew all about baseball. Turn to page 3 of Northanger Abbey and you will find:-

"Mrs Morland's elder daughters were inevitably left to shift for themselves. And it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country, at the age of fourteen, to books ..."

STOP PRESS: Baseball has been cancelled. He has just found last summer's cricket stumps in the icy edge of the lawn and we are going to play cricket instead, as the dark falls and the frost returns.