Cats kill pigs kin
Although I wrote this ten autumns ago, for the Woodstock Times, the point holds: that September and October are challenging months for baseball, as America’s other major sports kick into gear. In Nerdville, however,where I live much of the time, clocks are stopped whenever one may wish. Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. (By the way, this article has not appeared in print or online in the ten years since its appearance in our region’s weekly paper, so it will be new to you.)
If in spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, then the first chill evening of August sends his blood racing to the happy prospect of … football. Last weekend, in the heat of Olympic competition, ESPN.com conducted a poll of its cognoscenti, asking “What are you most interested in at this time of year?” Of 122,426 respondents, 19.3 percent cited the Athens Games, while 30.8 percent voted for baseball’s pennant races, building up a head of steam for September, the avid fan’s favorite month. The remaining 49.7 percent went for football: 27.8 percent for the college version, of which not a game had yet been played, and 21.9 percent for NFL preseason, in which the stars make cameo appearances and the games don’t count.
Maybe these numbers ought not to astound. Certain sports stir the soul, or species signals, at certain seasons. Anticipation can be delicious, and after a long winter’s nap baseball fans will awake in mid-February, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training in sunny climes, and they will be in full throat for opening day. But their numbers will not approach those of football, which has challenged baseball’s position as our nation’s pastime for forty years now and by nearly all measures has surpassed it.
What accounts for a dormant sport creating more buzz than one in the heat of competition? Gambling, in the form of the hugely popular fantasy-football drafts, is part of the story. But baseball too has its season of fantasy machinations, as do basketball and hockey. While the start of hockey training camps and regular-season play inspire Canadians of all ages, it leaves those in the United States cold … or hot … anyway, the wrong temperature for welcoming the substantial joys of this great game. Nobody gets percolated about NBA basketball until after the New Year, and the early-season hype about college hoops is patently contrived or downright loony, from the weekly rankings to the painted faces.
Golf? Well, the plaid-pants set may be expected to get schmaltzy about Augusta, the only one of the four major tournaments that is played at the same course each year, but in America the Scotsman’s game knows no season, and there’s the rub. You can’t stir a reawakening of the spirit if you never sleep. Auto racing? Yes, there’s Daytona to kick off the new campaign, but this is a sport in which the human shares the spotlight with his ride (the same may be said of horseracing, but at least there is the wager). Tennis? We’ll get to that in a bit.
There’s no denying the pigskin’s grip but what is the source of its power, and what exactly does it stir within us … memory, sentiment, hormones? Although both baseball and football are stop-action games, conducive to forming enduring memories, baseball is the best game for this because the action is out in the open. Some of football’s best plays and players are obscured in huddled scrums. Additionally, we can remember playing baseball with some measure of proficiency from ages eight through twelve. Last, because baseball is the American game that has changed least over the centuries, it provides not only a tether to personal memory but also to that of a nation.
For sentiment, baseball has the edge over football because we can view the strain of effort, the joy of success, the agony of failure; baseball players have faces. Alone among sports, baseball is imbued with the notion of an Edenic past, when men were men and ballplayers were giants. No one today believes that George Mikan could compete with Shaq, or that Don Hutson was superior to Jerry Rice; yet Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, are the incomparables of old, much as in Homeric times, when Odysseus challenged the Phaeacians but acknowledged that he could not compete against the “men of old.”
But for schoolboy reruns and raging hormones, football is the champ. The psychosexual stage of development of baseball fans may be pegged earlier than that of football fans, especially the old boys, for whom the first hint of autumn recalls not helmeted exploits so much as a broader variety of conquests, imagined and real. (Here I issue a personal disclaimer: I have always loved football, but I also proudly admit to arrested development — I still care about all the things that obsessed me when I was twelve, from movies to comics and rock ’n’ roll to sports.)
The onset of football, shimmering in the heat rising from the asphalt of August, conveys none of the seasonal associations of baseball, rising with the spring, reaching full flower in the summer, and fading with the fall. Instead we have grafted onto football a powerful seasonal affiliation by connecting it not with the harvest but with the return to school and its strange autumnal rites (bonfires, perky cheerleaders in pleated skirts, pompoms, hated rivals, homecoming … fill in the rest). Yet this is an amazingly recent development, not even 150 years old. For thousands of years football was played in the spring, as all ancient ball games were, going back to the vernal mud of the Nile, 4400 years ago. The only exception would be funerary ball games, played to ease passage of the dead into the next life, such as the Egyptian game of seker-hamat (“batting the ball”).
People played ball games in the spring to promote and mimic fertility, in the relentless pursuit of protein and progeny. These games were often staged between two halves of a community, or wedded versus virgin, in the form of bloody combat with sticks and stones in fight for possession of an effigy of the king, whose actual death was required at the conclusion of the most primitive of such games. Other variants involved kicking the head of an enemy across the field so that symbolically his blood would assure good crops. This is how the ancient Persian game of polo started and it is the origin of pagan football, too, surely an even earlier game of ball because it required neither horse nor mallet. (Similarly, the oldest games that required a ball to be struck in the air employed only the hand; implements like bats and rackets came later.) As Christianity slowly registered its triumph over its ancient rival cults, a leather covered ball, a symbolic head, became a Shrove Tuesday object of contest as early as 470 AD, in Clermont, France.
Games of mock combat like primitive football (two sides, struggling over an object in the center that for victory had to be kicked or carried to a distant goal) continued to provide bunged shins and cracked heads for the participants, with the occasional fatality, but the trend in such games (lacrosse and shinny to name just two) was slowly but surely toward sublimation of homicidal instincts. Games of bat and ball developed in Europe in the second millennium were sublimated too, from male and female anatomy. In such games the ball is the talisman we lose and must recapture—like the female aspect it symbolizes, it is the ball that has the magic within it, not the bat.
In one of the earliest of airborne ball games, “cat and dog”—with the “dog” being the bat and the cat being the ball, or rather, proto-ball, because it was not round. This was a game for three players, two of whom wielded clubs called “dogs,” with which they defend a hole from the player who attempts to toss the “cat” into it. The “cat” was a six-inch piece of wood narrower at the ends than in the center–making it twirl in the air when struck. This whirligig-shaped piece of wood could be tossed to the bat by a playmate or, in such games as trap ball, catapulted up into the air from a spring-like device with a lever that could be depressed by the batter’s foot.
The games employing a cat ranged from Flanders Cat, or Kaat, which may have come to our neck of the woods via the Huguenots, to one ol’ cat, an English game that, in its three-hole version with a ball taking the place of the wooden cat, gave rise to baseball as we know it today sometime in the 1830s.
In fact, the distinction, if any, between Cat and Kaat began to interest me about a year ago, when I read on the web, at the splendidly named epodunk.com, that the name of the hamlet of Katsbaan “derives from Dutch for ‘tennis court.” (I told you we’d return to the subject of tennis, but this is not lawn tennis as it is played at Wimbledon or on the municipal courts; this is “real tennis,” the ancient game also called “royal tennis” or “court tennis.”) More poking around on the web revealed that in the Frisian lowlands the residents play to this day a tennis-like game with their hands rather than with rackets, which they call keatsen, a degeneration of the Dutch kaatsen.
In the cramped but rich archives of Kingston’s Senate House, I was introduced to a volume titled A Large Dictionary of English and Dutch (Groot Woordenboek der Engelsche en Nederduytsche Taalen). Devised by Englishman William Sewel, it was published in Amsterdam in 1754 by Jakob Ter Beek. In this marvelous guide to the low Dutch spoken by Henrik Hudson and his crew, I found that a kat was, perhaps not surprisingly, a cat, i.e., a small carnivorous mammal of the family Felidae, domesticated or not. A kaats, however, was not a cat at all but a term from tennis or its handball predecessor jeu de paume: it was the “chase,” a line or groove marking the second bound of a ball that a player has failed to return. The chase line forms the target for the player who wins the next point if his second bounce falls nearer to the base line than the chase already laid. Accordingly, kaatsen is defined in the 1754 dictionary as “to play at handball” while, reflecting the shifting usage, tennis, the Dutch word for to play at tennis, which had already come into being from the French tenez, was also defines as kaatsbal or kaatsen.
Stay with me now. When the Half Moon sailed in from the Hudson to a creek, or kil, either the Esopus, Rondout or Catskill, might not the winding groove of the stream have prompted the name Kaatskil for the creek and the mountains toward which it flowed? Tennis or handball have given us our name, not mountain lions or panthers, not Indian tribes who had no name for the mountain range but rather a name for each hill as they paddled along the streams. Not Jacob Cats (1577-1660), the prolific poet whose wisdom the Dutch exalted.
Kaats. Tennis. Cut to the chase.