DeLillo’s Pafko At the Wall and The Culture of Sport
Pafko At the Wall is a novella by Don DeLillo that takes place at the 1951 National League final between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. This novella is part of a much larger work by DeLillo called Underworld but has been published as a stand-alone book and can be appreciated as such. The narrative is fragmented and jumps back and forth between various characters. Some you know—Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, J. Edger Hoover. But some you don’t know—Cotter, a young black boy who cuts school and sneaks into the game. And Russ Hodges, the play-by-play announcer at the park. This game is famous for the ‘shot heard ’round the world,’ which was a three-run, game winning homer hit by Bobby Thomson.
DeLillo’s prose is outstanding throughout and the opening line is no exception, ‘He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful’ (9). The opening line really sticks out to me, less so for the ‘American’ and more so for the ‘you.’ I love prose that addresses the reader because it tends to be somewhat shocking; to open a book and to have the author essentially point right at you, it’s a startling experience.
At the end of this opening section, DeLillo calls upon us once again, ‘Then you lose him in the crowd’ (14). I think opening and closing this first section by pointing directly to the reader is DeLillo telling us, you’re in the stadium too; you’re shoulder to shoulder with the fans. And I think this is important because while DeLillo appears to be attempting a lot of things with this novella, I can’t help but see a lot of his prose as a romanticizing of the Culture of Baseball and the Culture of Sport as a whole.
DeLillo marks this past time as a great equalizer of sorts; a poor kid who couldn’t even afford a ticket is sitting in the same stadium, watching the same game, as Frank Sinatra and ‘the number one G-man’ (19). Those considered elite and those who will never be known, all sit in the same stands, guzzling beers, eating hot dogs, and shelling peanuts.
And so, maybe the ‘American’ in that first line speaks to this culture. While sporting culture is not unique to America, the culture surrounding Baseball definitely is; and while Hoover learns of Russia’s bombs, while he ponders the political chess moves he must make to ease the public (a consideration that one can’t help but think undermines the notion of a democracy built on a well-informed public engaged with the reality of the world) the baseball stadium creates its own culture of equality (and therefore democracy) that doesn’t exist beyond the stands. On page 42, a fan in the crowd, named Bill, speaks to the tradition of the culture, ‘That’s the thing about baseball, Cotter. You do what they did before you. That’s the connection you make. There’s a whole long line. A man takes his kid to a game and thirty years later this is what they talk about when the poor old mutt’s wasting away in the hospital.’
A bit earlier, our narrator somehow makes the seemingly obscene into a beautiful statement of camaraderie and of a shared culture:
...generational tides of beer and shit and cigarettes and peanut shells and disinfectants and pisses in the untold millions, and they are thinking in the ordinary way that helps a person glide through a life, thinking thoughts unconnected to events, the dusty hum of who you are, men shouldering through the traffic in the men’s room as the game goes on, the coming and going, the lifting out of dicks and the meditative pissing.” (25-26)
Some may think I’m over-romanticizing this, but I see this passage as a sort of perverse yet beautiful hymnal of the working class—To those who toil and struggle, who have been given the least amount of opportunities and privileges, and who trade in their woes and their dreams for the dreams of others—the dreams of those out on the field, fighting for the pennant. Because a hometown championship further compounds that sense of camaraderie and that sense of community.
We see this at the end of the novella, after Thompson’s game winning homer. While Russ is going nuts in the broadcast booth, unable to stop screaming, ‘The giants win the pennant,’ our narrator informs us,
All over the city people are coming out of their houses. This is the nature of Thomson’s homer. It makes people want to be in the streets, joined with others, telling others what has happened, those few who haven’t heard—comparing faces and states of mind. (69)
This passage reminds me of David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ and the lyrics, ‘I had to phone someone so I picked on you/Hey, that’s far out so you heard him too?’ The way these events in our lives bring us together might have changed with the evolution of technology but it hasn’t gone away. While I sat heartbroken the other week, while watching my beloved Philadelphia Flyers lose to the New York Islanders in the playoffs, I texted my friend so that we could commiserate together. And all last season, my roommate and I watched every Flyers game on a streaming service. Without planning, we would arrive downstairs at the appropriate time, beer in hand, like zealots on a very short pilgrimage.
At the end of Pafko, the fans in the stadium take to the field to celebrate, and the very last scene of the book is of a ‘raincoat drunk’ who is,
…running the bases. They see him round first, his hands paddling the air to keep him from drifting into right field. He approaches second in a burst of coattails and limbs and untied shoelaces and swinging belt. They see he is going to slide and they stop and watch him leave his feet.
All the fragments of the afternoon collect around his airborne form. Shouts, bat-cracks, full bladders and stray yawns, the sand-grain manyness of things that can’t be counted.
It is all falling indelibly into the past. (89-90)
How wonderfully fitting to have a raincoat drunk be the punctuation of a historic game—The inevitable drunkard, running rampant, causing chaos, falling indelibly into the past in the form of stories and folklore. In the form of, ‘Hey, remember when the Giants won the pennant and there was that crazy drunk guy?’ Of a man, who is a nobody, and who will always be a nobody, becoming a symbol, pure iconography, of an experience shared by thousands.
This is the Romance of sports culture. The way something as simple as a game played by children in the park can turn into a momentous occasion, a shot heard ’round the world. Today, particularly in America, COVID has put a damper on the culture and rituals of Sport. The NHL playoffs have taken place in a ‘bubble,’ with great results. But of course, the pageantry is lost, the roar of the fans is now synthetic, and the overall atmosphere has been torn asunder. Major League Baseball has been soldiering on as well and with an even eerier vibe as seen in this photo:
Despite the absurdity of the times we live in, the teams play on. While the taps at the concession might sit dry, while no one is there to shout ‘Peanuts!’ and no one there to hear, and while no pop-flies will be caught by excited fans, the game goes on and the fans still cheer. As DeLillo writes,
The game and its extensions. The woman cooking cabbage. The man who wishes he could be done with drink. They are the game’s remoter soul. Connected by the pulsing voice on the radio, joined to the word-of-mouth that passes the score along the street and to the fans who call the special phone number and the crowd at the ballpark that becomes the picture on television, people the size of minute rice, and the game as rumor and conjecture and inner history. (43-44)
While things might look different, we play on for the love of the game. We, DeLillo’s remoter soul, all of us now, locked in-doors, huddled around our televisions and laptops, beer in hand, hope in heart, cheering for our team. Whatever sport you follow, whatever team you’re devoted to, we are all bound by our passion for passion—Our love and respect for those who dedicate their entire lives for one moment, one chance to win the championship. While our sense of community might have been diminished by the pandemic, our sense of camaraderie has not. And this year’s championships, with all their COVID idiosyncrasies, will undoubtedly fall indelibly into the past—never to be forgotten.