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A Philosophical Game: An Interview with Saul Steinberg


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Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1959, gouache, ink, pencil, and crayon on paper, 14 1/2 x 23″. Private collection. © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

The artist Saul Steinberg, who immigrated to the United States in 1942, was deeply preoccupied with identifying the essential threads of American life. For him, baseball was rich material. In 1954, he traveled with the Milwaukee Braves, taking them as subjects for his deft, sharp linework. The sketches from that trip are some of Steinberg’s most recognizable work, and were published in LIFE magazine in 1955.

In 1972, The Paris Review began an interview with Steinberg that was never published. The manuscript of some thirty-odd transcribed pages was catalogued by the Morgan Library archive staff and then left alone, until the Review recently rummaged through some folders and pulled it out.

Like Steinberg, this magazine has always had a soft spot for baseball. In 1958, our founding editor George Plimpton took to the pitcher’s mound to try out his fastball on the MLB’s All Stars, the first of his “participatory journalism” forays for Sports Illustrated. That experience would eventually become the book Out of My League. Though this transcript does not name an interviewer, we can guess with confidence that it’s Plimpton.

In his account of entering the field, Plimpton observed that it is “unbelievably vast, startlingly green after the dark of the tunnel. In the looming stands the stark symmetry of empty seats … after the reverberating confines of the corridors, the great arena seemed quiet and hollow, and you felt you’d have to talk very distinctly to be heard.” I can’t be certain that Saul Steinberg ever set foot on the field at Yankee Stadium from the players’ tunnel, but his drawings of stadia evoke the same effect: bright oases situated in the muted hodge-podge and discord of the city.       

Here Steinberg lays out for Plimpton (or whomever) what he has gleaned about nationhood through watching sports. Their conversation makes its way from whether American baseball is doomed to whether the eye grows weary of symmetry. 

Some notes on the text presented here: At one point, the tape cut out, and that spot has been indicated in brackets. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity, but has otherwise been kept true to the original transcript. 

 

INTERVIEWER

You were talking about baseball being a political game.

STEINBERG

Yes. Trying to figure out America, instinctively you look for the things that attract a great passion and seem incomprehensible to you on arriving in the States. There must be a secret. There must be a reason, a key to this passion. And the fact you don’t understand it means that it’s essential; you have to. I was brought up watching what’s called soccer here. It’s called football in Europe. And that was for me a very dear game. It looks very much like the primitive politics of a continental European country, and also like a continental primitive passion. What you have is a primitive situation of two groups trying to overpower each other and doing a direct damage that is physical: penetrating somebody’s goalpost. 

INTERVIEWER

What do you see the ball as?

STEINBERG

The ball has to be touched with the foot. Now, the foot is the most brutal part of the body. The two extremities enter in this game. One is the head and one is the foot. None of them enter for what they are. The head enters only as the foot … because you hit the ball with the head. Sure, there are all sorts of strategies and abilities and gimmicks like dribbling and so on. But it’s a very primitive game of overpowering the opposition and screwing the other side. Get the ball past the goalkeeper inside, and that’s it. And there are all sorts of mechanical things going on, like foul: touching with the hands is taboo. You know that game. The main thing about it: there is a constant action and there isn’t one moment of meditation like in baseball.

Now, what struck me about baseball was that I couldn’t figure out how a big crowd of primitive, simple people would sit down on their seats and watch no action … I was saying, What’s going on here? This was no entertainment. What are they doing? But later on I figured it out and I understood that people who watch the so-called “no action” of baseball, actually they are making their own strategy. They impersonate the manager of the game; they impersonate the pitcher. They go through all the sweating and the emotions of the pitcher. They try to impersonate the confrontation of the man at bat and the man on the mound in the situation. And the situation can be very complex. One has to know the score; one has to know the personal lives of the players… If you read really the stories in the paper day by day you can find out how certain family situations can upset the pitcher, or how certain situations can become dramatic because of jealousy or interoffice fights between managers and owners and competition between clubs. Or the fact that a certain pitcher is high-strung at this moment; he’s lost so many games. He had made the almost no-hit game and something went wrong, so his luck is running out. He has cold hands, sweaty hands … and you feel it with him. These are human situations—the situations which are interesting for a novelist.

These psychological situations, in other words, were extremely interesting for me when I understood them. It took me a long time to study the game to understand it. So, it’s far removed from the simplicity of football, of soccer, where the action is constant and direct. And there are all sorts of things that are the equivalent of European politics where you have a fight between two groups, a military coup, a palace revolution. It seems to me that the game of soccer—the way it’s played in Europe, the way I saw it—was more like tribal war. I can see that if we in New York would fight New Jersey, we’d have the same sort of simple rules … to do as much damage as possible.

The game of baseball, it seems to me, is nearer to a philosophical game where you have to reach the moment where some sort of inspiration will make the pitcher pitch the ball, and he has to figure out the mathematical moment when the man at bat may be upset for a moment. It’s the coincidence of staring at each other. Now, this situation is very profound humanly: outstaring somebody that’s showing not the physical muscle of the leg or of the head, but the muscle of what’s called guts or balls. So it’s something beyond playing physical power and speed.

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Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1954, ink, watercolor, pencil, and crayon on paper, 22 3/4 x 29″. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris; gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation. © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

INTERVIEWER

I have a theory about baseball which is rather different than yours. I can’t see it in terms of European politics. I think it’s a fascinating equation you make between the sport that a country plays and its politics. It always seems to me that baseball in this country is very much a nineteenth-century game. It deals with space, for example. It’s a non-martial sport. It’s not a martial art at all. Whereas, football is twentieth century. It’s mechanized. The only thing about baseball which reminds me of nineteenth-century America—not nineteenth-century Europe—is that it demands that an individual be faced with a particular problem. For example, a fly ball hit to center field. That man suddenly is the equivalent of the homesteader who has a problem to solve with no one to help him, with enormous space around him. It’s a puritan, early America, nineteenth-century space.

What really worries me about baseball … my favorite sport … I could go and watch baseball for days and days and never get tired of it. But I’m afraid we’re being told by the press in this country that it’s a dull sport, a boring sport, and that things are wrong with it. All the attempts to speed it up dismay me tremendously because part of the nineteenth-century aspect of the game is its solitude and its pace. It’s the only game I know of where the game can’t start until the pitcher throws something. There’s no other game that works that way. Most sports have a big clock where you know what’s going on. Football has a clock. Cricket is run by a clock. You stop at three o’clock for tea. Boxing—three minutes a round. Baseball … the pitcher can stand there forever, and he does not commit the game to the future until he winds up and throws something.

STEINBERG

And one has to win. In baseball one party has to win. You can’t have a draw. This is a nice idea. The city slickers are huddled together … and far away the good fellows from Nebraska in center field … [TAPE RAN OUT] I was saying the city slickers, the battery, the ward healers, tenderloins, the political hot-shots and the inner circle the way it is … the infield … guys like shortstops and first basemen and so on, together with the umpires who stay there, huddled to see something that represents the Supreme Court probably … the law that watches them … and far away in the wilderness, in the bushes, are the remote folks from Nebraska, from Vermont, from who knows where. But occasionally, they get the honor to catch a fly ball that shakes them from their sleep, from their dozing. But the reason for the slowness of the game and for the sleepy atmosphere … the whole field sometimes seems to have—the afternoon games especially in the summertime—there is something exotic about the thousands of people dozing, watching the game in order to, in the back of their minds, taste with more sweetness the true happiness of a homer, let’s say. When the wood hits the ball, everybody knows that’s a homer from the sound of it. Everybody perks up and wakes up with such vigor by contrast with the lethargy that had settled over the field. I would say there is no excitement if these would happen too often. You need this grayness for this flash to happen, to be more visible.

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Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1971–1972, charcoal and colored pencil on paper, 13 x 19 3/4″. The Saul Steinberg Foundation, New York. © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

 

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that baseball is doomed as an American sport?

STEINBERG

I don’t know. I understand they make it now with artificial grass inside; also they play it mostly at night.

INTERVIEWER

But you love the night games.

STEINBERG

I love the night games, but then I saw it on television and it is just as good if you start watching on television. There is some sort of a complex feeling that you have now. If you watch something on television, like a color TV ballgame, when you see it in reality it starts looking like television. The idea of baseball itself is the afternoon game … summer game … which was the important thing for me I think when I saw it first. It’s disappearing. Matter of fact, on color TV it looks like a billiard game … because of the green rug—green table, and you see all these balls moving. Anyway, I can’t think of it as being real. I don’t want to see it. I read it in the paper now.

 

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Saul Steinberg, Untitled, ca. 1980, pencil, crayon, and colored pencil on paper, 25 3/8 x 19″. The Saul Steinberg Foundation, New York. © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

 

INTERVIEWER

Which neighborhoods do you particularly remember? Did you go to Chicago on your Milwaukee trip?

STEINBERG

Yes, we went to the Cubs field. They had a beautiful view of some sort of Chicago skyline. From high up you see one thing, then you go low down and you see something else. This was such a long time ago, I forgot. I haven’t been there since. But to get there it seems you always go to a part of town you’ve never been before and don’t dream of going. You get involved in strange parking lots, curious subterranean ways of getting in. Of course the public ballpark can be something interesting. When I go out at the intermission of a chamber music concert I always see all sorts of people that I know. It’s a cocktail party. I kiss dozens of wives, and so on. But I get panicky when I don’t know anybody. The same thing with baseball. You start seeing people you’ve never seen before. After all, we go to the movies and we stay in darkness. The only people we see are those comical characters lined up to buy tickets! Sometimes I pass them in review, without the slightest idea of going to the movies, just to look at them because they are like a museum of cast figures, costumed couples and so on. As they stay lined up and they can’t lose their line, you can watch them from very near without staying outside the rope of course, without any qualms. It’s an occasion for watching people the way one watches birds. So I sit in the movies generally and I don’t see anybody.

But in the ballpark you see people. You promenade, you watch … And the only time I had this occasion to be with strange people was during the war maybe, when I was in the company of lots of people. Not the people that I knew, but strange people from Montana to Arizona … from all sorts of places. So going to a ballgame is a great occasion for seeing a variety of people, and it’s not like the subway. The subway is something else. You are in a room with people, and there is something sad about them. It’s like people you meet in prisons or police stations, or waiting rooms of dentists. They’re not real people. In order to watch people you have to see them at liberty, and that’s the occasion of the baseball field.

 

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Saul Steinberg, Baseball, from The Americans mural at the U.S. Pavilion, 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Musée d’art moderne.

 

INTERVIEWER

Have you been to Shea Stadium and seen the Mets?

STEINBERG

No, I haven’t seen them at all this year. I went out in San Francisco to Candlestick Park a few years ago. It is beautiful, but it intimidates me when I see a baseball field that starts looking like a Howard Johnson … like a premeditated architecture. Basically, the beauty of the baseball field was the fact that it was caused by what’s called maidan in India. It’s the empty space in between houses. Maidan is used in the parade ground where the army is called to order. It’s an international word baksheesh. It works better in this language because it reflects more this emptiness … very casual with all sorts of weeds growing … where you improvise a game. This is how children play. The lot hasn’t been built yet. When this thing existed in the Bronx, or maybe a house has been demolished and there is some space to play. I imagine that the baseball field was caused by a real estate combination where irregular forms could be used for this sort of thing. This is why it was always an interesting architecture.

Ebbets Field was very peculiar. It was like a skyscraper inside. It was very high, as I remember. The Yankee Stadium was much more professional. It was made to look like a cathedral. It had elements of the Eiffel Tower and the decorations and so on. But the one in Philadelphia was tops. And the Milwaukee field was a new one, I think … Well, anyway, the way they have the grandstands and … what are they called? the places in the sun? … the bleachers. They add some bleachers, and they add something to it. It’s improvisation. It’s part of the American vernacular in architecture to build a thing like this.

INTERVIEWER

The new stadia that look like Howard Johnson motels disturb you?

STEINBERG

They make me uneasy. It’s sleek. It’s symmetric. The eye gets tired watching these things.

INTERVIEWER

Is the eye tired by symmetry?

STEINBERG

Yes. It gets bored, not tired.

INTERVIEWER

What are some other examples of that?

STEINBERG

Lincoln Center is one of the biggest horrors of the world. It springs out of the drafting table of the engineers and architects … who love nothing more than making symmetry. He makes a center, and then goes left and right doing the same thing … a repeat performance. That’s of course boring. On top of it, they add to the symmetry something cruel—these water pools—where the thing reflects itself again in symmetry. So you have double or triple symmetry, vertical and horizontal.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve always had a feeling for rococo and non-symmetry. Railway stations fascinate you?

STEINBERG

Railway stations are interesting. They’re built from improvisation … sheds. They curve sometimes, come this way and that way. The oldest railway stations, like Victoria Station or Saint-Lazare, well, the moment they became professional and symmetrical like the railway station in Milano, it was the sign of the decadence. This is always the law of human progress. When something becomes professional, it’s the beginning of the end.

Lauren Kane is a writer and an assistant editor for The Paris Review.

George Plimpton was founder of The Paris Review and its editor until his death in 2003.

 

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Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1954, ink, watercolor, crayon, and colored pencil on paper, 22 3/4 x 29″. Museum Ludwig, Cologne. © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

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