Not Trivial, This Game of Baseball Trivia

Playing baseball trivia is an enjoyable pastime that should alarm neither loved ones nor psychiatrists. Gathering baseball trivia, however, is another matter, calling to mind Casey Stengel’s concern about his players’ chasing women long into the night—that it was the pursuit, not the capture, that wore his fellas out.

Knowing all there is to know about baseball may be about as useful and lucrative as being the best whittler in Punkinville. So the interesting question about this trivial pursuit is why we do it, why it feels like fun.

Even to its most ardent practitioners, baseball trivia is a curious form of play. If baseball is sublimated warfare, then trivia is sublimated baseball, in which the currency of skill is not athletic ability but memory, spurred by passion. Rattling off the names and dates of all the battles of World War I has yet to become a sensation and will not provide a sequel article to this one.

Some of the best baseball trivia players have photographic recall, are the sort of person to whom things attach without effort. Ever since they were little, these fortunate/unfortunate souls have amazed their cohorts by remembering everything. Other trivia stars are driven, nerdy types (not that there’s anything wrong with that; I wear the label proudly) who forage for facts for the sheer fun of it.

Playing baseball trivia is clearly different from playing baseball, but is it also different from being a baseball fan? Did people do it before the current era? Not in a competitive, game-playing sense they didn’t: a hundred years ago and more, the accumulator of baseball data was thought to be “odd” if not certifiable; some of the greatest baseball cranks and bugs were reputed to reside in insane asylums; their very nickname reflected the general sense that they were seized by mania. They would know all the stats, even inventing new measures to get at “the real dope” about the players. The players thought that such overinvolved, proud enthusiasts (including most sportswriters) truly knew nothing of the game and were mere tongues flapping without connection to their brains … hence the derivation of the name “fan” (forget what you learned about it being short for “fanatic”).

Fans originally reveled in the reflected glory of their favorites and longed for the opportunity to stand beside them with a bent elbow and a scuttle of suds. In this the old-fashioned fan’s relation to baseball players was no different from his attitude toward boxers or jockeys. But as radio and TV came along to create visual abstractions of the players—box-score heroes recreated almost in the flesh—it became easier for fans to form a relationship with ballplayers’ stats than with their physical beings. In the 1910s Hughie Fullerton had shown how detailed analysis of player tendencies might be good for predicting outcomes. But with the advent of mass media, the Ernie Lanigan types—sickly shut-ins—came to grip the baseball knowledge biz, gathering biographical data, keeping track of stats and inventing new ones, pointing out odd similarities and interesting tidbits … what we now call (but they never did) trivia.

Radio shows such as the Quiz Kids of the 1930s created the genre of mass infotainment, extending from an earlier period’s fascination with “Mr. Memory” tricksters of the vaudeville and variety-hall boards. In the 1950s television created a game-show boom—The $64,000 Question, or 21, or countless more—in which ordinary people who all their lives had uselessly known all about opera or astronomy might suddenly become rich and famous. Media made stars, but it was media that became the biggest star, fueling a pop-culture craze that remains with us. We admire someone who can sing perfectly the theme song from Davy Crockett or Gilligan’s Island or who can tell us the flip side of Ritchie Valens’ La Bamba. Not so long ago such people—the modern equivalent of the butterfly collectors and dotty antiquarians of yore—were freaks.

Baseball trivia is similar to but different from rock or movie or TV trivia, in that it goes farther back. It serves not merely to inspire memory of one’s own childhood but also connects us to a collective memory, the youth of our nation. Baseball trivia is not truly history, but it’s “in the ballpark”: closer to it than remembering who played Inspector Joe Friday on Dragnet. And in playing it, we are reenacting the once vital ritual of telling tales around the campfire to perpetuate the legends of the tribe—and even the tribe itself.

In our present age of factoid and short-form, high-speed life, telling tales around the campfire seems hopelessly archaic and wasteful of time. We feel anxious, that we must get to the point … even when the point is more in the telling than in the tale. In playing baseball trivia we are engaged in compact, symbolic story-telling, with substantial psychic payoffs. Proficiency gives water-cooler cred to a grownup, but it satisfies on a deeper level, reviving the imperative of youth—establishing mastery—at a time when aspects of our adult life may seem to be flying beyond our control.

A baseball trivia game can be as challenging as a spelling bee was to us once upon a time, or a PhD oral exam may be tomorrow. The trivia game is real life upside-down, an inversion by which the important is replaced by the unimportant while retaining all the trappings of exams, tests, trials—contests in which the stakes are genuinely high.

A good game of baseball trivia satisfies in just the same way that a good baseball game does. The pleasure lies in caring intensely about the activity while engaged in it but, because one knows at a deep level that the outcome is unimportant, caring not at all once it’s over, regardless of the outcome. To care intensely about something that doesn’t matter—to treat it as if it did matter—permits one to deflect real concerns and to engage in simulated combat with no real consequence. Such pleasures are part of civilized society, when not all one’s waking moments must be dedicated to securing the rudiments of sustenance.

In the end, it is not too much say that baseball trivia is not trivial, that it matters. Playing the game stokes the campfire, keeps the embers alive. It sustains our youth and our game.

2 Comments

The way that baseball facts seem to attract those with eidetic memories makes me wonder if it’s an inate gift–as with music prodigies–and that perhaps some people are just born to be baseball trivia savants.

I knew a kid in elementary school who seemed to have memorized the Baseball Encyclopedia. We could not stump him.

Thanks John for your insight on the joy of trivia. I am not one of tose who remembers everything well but I do et great satisfaction when I do get a question correct becasue it does connect me to the game and it’s history.

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