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How To Throw A Baseball And Live Forever

Christy Mathewson head and shoulders portrait photo
GHI/Universal History Archive via Getty Images

This is a blog about how much I loved The Celebrant. First, some context. David Roth loaned it to me after he named it the best thing he read in 2023. It’s a 1983 novel by Eric Rolfe Greenberg which more or less spans 1901 to 1919. Our protagonist, Yakov (assimilated to Jackie), immigrated to New York with his family when he was 8, had a go as an amateur pitcher, and then joined the family business: jewelry. He designs the pieces. His older brother Eli is a salesman. Later, his younger brother Arthur makes an entrance and brings a decidedly 20th-century mindset of optimization and expansion. But what defines Yakov perhaps even more than his family is his distant but mutual relationship with New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson. Yakov uses inspiration from watching Mathewson’s work for his own craft. The intellectual, exceptional pitcher admires Yakov’s jewelry and appreciates that their connection is something greater than fan and player—muse and artist, “the celebrant of his works.”

Mathewson’s career goes by. The world around Yakov changes, sometimes for the worse, like any life. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Mathewson succumbs to illness after inhaling chemical gas during World War I. In its final chapter, The Celebrant focuses on the 1919 World Series—the one that members of the White Sox conspired to lose. Mathewson had a presence just above this series, in the press box with Hugh Fullerton, helping the journalist identify suspicious plays by circling them in red on the scorecard. That it was Mathewson who did this, both in real life and in the book, is symbolic: a revered and unparalleled figure sitting pure in judgment of his dirty successors. Even today, there’s an aura of unprecedentedness to his dominance, playing as he did before so many other great pitchers ever put on a jersey, that manages to keep him iconic even under the weight of a hundred more baseball seasons.

As a baseball fan, Yakov’s undoing is his loyalty to Mathewson and Mathewson alone. When the pitcher is on the mound, Yakov is in his head able to elevate the sport into something like religion. Without his icon, however, the game’s vices, coarseness, and bigotry are laid bare to him. He can’t connect to it. Only Mathewson inspires, and as Yakov clings on to this single chapter in the game’s long story, the rest of it can only pass him by. A cohort of veterans leaves the field. A new crop of rookies appears. They all become tiny names in a big almanac. What is special becomes old. What is profitable, the business of baseball, becomes larger than any life. Baseball as America; America as baseball. Here I saw some of myself. As the players I loved as a kid wind down their careers—Verlander, Scherzer, Cabrera—it’s almost like I’m being sped along on a moving walkway I don’t remember stepping on.

It was late in The Celebrant that it clicked into place for me. To be clear, I’d enjoyed it the whole way—it’s a breathtaking novel that combines lushly descriptive baseball writing, painstakingly researched history, and nearly mythical character archetypes. But only in the end, through the eyes of Yakov at an exclusive gathering for baseball’s elite, did I feel like I got it in a way that was too big for one slim book to contain:

Fewer than half the company had ever played the game for money; the owners and their lieutenants were for the most part promoters or businessmen, and their guests were men of enterprise who carried no hint of athletic form. The rest were survivors of the dreadful attrition the game enforced upon its own. Of the millions of boys who ever put bat to ball, how many had signed a professional contract in the fifty years this occasion celebrated? Twenty thousand? Of those, how many had advanced even a single stage, let alone to the big leagues, and of each year's rookie crop how many played a second year, or a third? Fewer still found a place in the game when their playing days were done, fewer than two hundred; that was the survival rate out of millions. Sad, too, that the longer the career the more desperate the condition when it ended, for what else did such men know but baseball? How long could their fragile celebrity support them once outside the game? Precious was a manager's posting in a rude backwater of Class D ball, for without that the forgotten men became shadows, walking ghosts, figures to trigger a memory of days past but irrelevant to the present. They ended as statistics in Bill's neatly filed books, mere measurements against today and tomorrow, gravestones. For twenty years I’d grieved for what I’d lost when I gave up the dream of a professional career, but what might I have today if I'd followed it?

I’ve tried to describe the epiphany that overtook me at this section, and the phrase I keep landing on is “He sees the whole machine.” “He” being Yakov, but of course really Greenberg, who from his position in the 1980s recognized how much of our national avarice and this sport’s uneasy relationship with its own supporters had remained unchanged since the early-century time period he wrote about.

For most of the novel, Greenberg’s gestures toward then-and-now similarity are refreshingly subtle. When his fictional fans complain about greedy players or the corruption of a kids’ game, their words stay firmly rooted in their moment, but readers hear the echoes clearly. “Managerial discipline vanished and the concepts of sacrifice and team play were abandoned,” Yakov laments about player movement and bidding wars—in 1901. But near the conclusion of the book, as the years flip by and entire decades are made to blur together, the firewall that allows baseball to be the American game while remaining separate from America itself starts to collapse. The unstoppable march of the sport, and of American industry and culture, advances unhindered even as player names, slang, and hit songs and shows pass in and then out of the public consciousness. Both chew up young, ambitious men and do their best to keep them from hijacking the means of production.

This is slightly embarrassing, but it took me a week to realize I had missed a three-page epilogue in The Celebrant. I’m glad I found it, because without negating the facts of its tale, it twists its perspective to block out just a bit of the cynicism in Yakov’s all-consuming observation. It’s a meta-commentary on the writing of the book, in a way—Greenberg’s uncovering of old newspaper archives eventually delivering a sort of afterlife to those players he included. Yakov, in this epilogue, refers to a player from the 1880s nicknamed “The Only Nolan,” and how our narrator intersected with a baseball fan one night who claimed Nolan was the greatest pitcher he ever saw—an object of worship in that fan’s heart just like Mathewson in Yakov’s. Nolan had a career record of 23-52 across five seasons for five teams. Baseball Reference credits him with a career WAR of 0.4—almost the very definition of disposability . But once, with this fan in attendance, Nolan pitched a shutout, and so lived forever.

After reading The Celebrant, I picked up Jane Leavy’s biography of Sandy Koufax, a Mathewson-esque figure 50 years later. She briefly profiles an owner of one of Koufax’s game-used jerseys, who uses it to fundraise for the Center for Jewish History. “What I do is I go around and ask these people, ‘What is the importance of Sandy Koufax?’ Then I take out this rumpled shirt from an Air Express box and say, ‘Here, put it on.’ And they give me money.” According to Leavy, over $2 million has been raised by way of adult men’s adoration of a jersey that formerly touched the skin of a pitcher who, as of the book’s publication, hadn’t entered a game in 36 years.

Perfection, to fans then and now, goes beyond records or statistics. Numbers are overshadowed by memory and sensation. You don’t remember the strikeout totals; you remember the roar of the crowd when he got one with runners on in the bottom of the eighth, the cold stare that preceded his fastball, the tip of the cap on his trot to the dugout. Mathewson, or Koufax, or Verlander, or The Only Nolan can become the best pitcher you ever saw, the star around which a girl can orient her entire conception of the game that stands in for a society. He can leave town, he can wither and ail, he can dissolve into a plaque. But he can never die.

Mathewson is buried with the rings Yakov designed to celebrate his greatness. The jewels, unlike the body, stand the test of time.

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