April 2, 2008: A moment with...
Author Nicholas Dawidoff began his career covering baseball for Sports Illustrated before branching out to write acclaimed biographies of Moe Berg ’23, a longtime major-league baseball player and World War II-era spy, and Alexander Gerschenkron, the author’s grandfather, who was a legendary professor at Harvard. This spring, Dawidoff is the Anschutz Distinguished Fellow in American Studies at Princeton, teaching a course called “Americans at Work and Play.” He recently spoke with PAW’s Brett Tomlinson.
Princeton alumni might know you best as the author of The Catcher Was a Spy, your 1994 biography of Moe Berg ’23. What intrigued you about Berg’s story?
I’m always intrigued by people who, in one way or another, find themselves on the periphery of American society and, by force of personal qualities but also an ability to master some uniquely American institution, enter the culture and in some way influence the culture. Moe Berg was not a typical Princeton student. He was Jewish, he came from a not particularly wealthy family in Newark, N.J., and as an undergraduate, he was both a terrific student of languages and a great baseball player. He became a prominent figure, first through his association with a great American university, Princeton; second, through his affiliation with a great American institution, baseball; and third, for his later career in institutionalized espionage, as a spy for the United States government.
You edited an anthology of baseball writing that includes works from Updike, Frost, Thurber, and other notable authors. Why is baseball so attractive to the literary set?
It’s always appealing when you have a big subject with a big audience, and also a subject that has a lot of history and narrative. America is a young country, and baseball is something that is nearly as old as America. Because everybody, at one point or another, probably has swung a bat or run around the bases, there’s a certain language that is available to everyone.
Will the steroids era change the way writers treat baseball?
I can’t say. I follow baseball in part to get away from the everyday grubbiness of the world, and an ugly proposition like steroids unhappily reminds me that baseball is not exempt from all that. [One] of the qualities that writers really like about baseball is that the players themselves look a lot like us. Basketball players are very tall, football players are frequently enormous, hockey players are on skates. Baseball players come in every shape and size, just the way the people you would see at the bus stop do. For players using steroids, their whole shape is changing. They’re becoming, to my mind, physically grotesque. You can feel sympathetic, at a certain point, because every man, as he gets older, is conscious of mortality, and using steroids is an effort to stay young. You can feel some sympathy for people who want to do that. To take such measures seems really discouraging. It makes me not want to read the sports section.
Has any great baseball writing been produced in response to the steroid scandals?
Not yet, but I’m sure there will be. Every other era in baseball has produced something interesting. Why shouldn’t this? As far as I know, it’s still out there — we’re waiting for the Shakespeare of the steroids era.
You are a longtime Boston Red Sox fan. Has life changed since the Sox started winning championships?
This was terrifying for Red Sox fans in the abstract: What would we do when our team actually became successful? We had so much invested in this notion of being fans of the team that was a lot like man — sort of fated and doomed by nature. It’s pleasurable to win, but I think for me, the pleasures of victory aren’t nearly comparable to the pleasures of process. For so long I had wondered what it would be like and how I would feel if the Red Sox won the World Series.
And what it felt like [in 2004] was the same as it felt like every year. I was glad that they won, and it was a nice feeling, but ultimately, I just missed baseball. I had to trudge on through the winter.
Your next book, The Crowd Sounds Happy, is about your childhood and comes out in May. What was your model for the memoir?
The book really is my version of the coming-of-age novels that I read as a child. Many, many people, especially people who grew up to be writers, at some point or another, think of their life and wonder if they’re going to be the hero of their own life story. I had the opportunity to think about that conceit and then decide, through my childhood, was I a David [Copperfield], was I a Pip, was I a Tom Sawyer? It was an incredibly fulfilling experience.
So, were you the hero?
I guess you’re inevitably the hero of your own life story, but I would not call myself heroic.