Academia as the Universal Baseball Association

Anyone who likes sports and baseball, in particular, should read (or re-read) Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. The book describes a fantasy baseball league designed by Henry Waugh and played with roles of dice and a series of charts that allowed Henry to simulate the complexities of the game. Henry played the game for years creating seasons, statistics, dynasties, and storylines that introduced personalities, character, and politics to the Association.

The game preoccupied Henry especially after a young, start pitcher was killed when he was struck in the head by a pitch during a game. This caused Henry to spiral into a deep depression and the border between the world that he built up around the game and reality began to blur. Soon, he started missing work and drinking heavily and becoming more erratic around his friends. This began to impact the game and the Association culminating in his efforts to include a friend in the playing of the game. Henry then manipulated a roll of the dice to kill the pitcher who though the lethal pitch. This effort to restore balance in the league made clear the enormity of Henry’s responsibility as proprietor of the league and keeper of both its statistics and narratives. The players in the league depended on Henry for their existence, but also for their autonomy through his honest rolls of the dice. 

As I spend more time in academia, I start to wonder how much of what we do exists in a kind of fantasy world where the players, narratives, and situations that inspire our work depend on our own imagination to have agency. This isn’t to suggest that our scholarship doesn’t have real consequences. As the death of a star player in Henry’s Association demonstrated, the worlds that we create spill over into our realities and shape our lives and the lives of other people. While many critics have seen in Coover’s work a commentary on free will and the divine (observing that J. Henry Waugh is very close to Yahweh, one of the names for God in the Old Testament). I wonder whether it might also be a commentary on academia, where so many of our arguments exist in this self-referential world that only sometimes spills over into the rest of our realities. Our expertise, our claims to knowledge, and our positions of social, political, or cultural authority all depend on the relationship between what we do and the existence of a meaningful reality outside of the limits of our game. 

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