How I Learned to Love ‘the Bomb’

This post is a condensed version of a larger analysis of the utopian impulse centered upon the ludic object in DeLillo’s Underworld.

The logic of ludic narratives is always a logic of climaxes. Nested within a basketball game (or, indeed, a basketball video-game) are scores of mini-buzzers, for shot clocks and quarter clocks and the final whistle. In baseball, perhaps the best known un-timed sport, the scarcity of pitches and at-bats creates climactic encounters in near-every inning, oft aided along by scoreboard  animations declaring “2 STRIKES!” or “STRIKE HIM OUT!” It is these climaxes that linger within the memories and parlance of the game-watcher, making legends of “clutch” players who come through in the big moments. Or, indeed, in any climactic moment, so long as it is climactic: a fifteen yard out route in the middle of the first quarter is a nice play, in a two minute drill it’s a highlight.

In the mythologies and narratives of American ball-sports— football, baseball, basketball, etc…— these climaxes are typified and memorialized by “bombs,” the long-distance, high-arcing, high-impact plays that reverberate for decades. These “bombs” provide the greatest drama, the greatest moments in ball-sports, and one which fictional ludic narratives are constantly chasing. But, in their creation and their treatment of climactic bombs, be they historical or wholly invented, these ludic texts find themselves in narratological quandaries: how can one create climactic drama, memorable pathos, out of a (seemingly) preordained event? To (re)create the ludic climax, these texts must focus and isolate the “bomb,” the ball itself. In so doing, the narratives materialize the semiotic shift of the nickname; the ball in flight is revealed to be an active and vital ideological bomb.

In the prologue of Mao II, DeLillo writes that “baseball… has resonance if you’re American, a sense of shared heart and untranslatable lore.” Even in it’s misdirected, nigh-perverse usage in that scene— the Yankee Stadium diamond turned into a wedding chapel for the mass marriage of religious fanatics— the game calls to mind a “democratic clamor” and “an openness of form.” For DeLillo, it is evident that baseball is freighted with significant meaning quite beyond the ludic. Despite the paranoia and fragmentation that pervades the postmodern America of DeLillo’s oeuvre, the game, indeed the ball, contains a utopian dream of community and presence. Nowhere is this utopian seed more clear than in the famous opening pages of Underworld, where a panoramic vision of the Polo Grounds on the last day of the 1951 National League pennant race culminates in a vision of that most famous of 20th century ludic “bombs”— Bobby Thomson’s ninth-inning ‘Shot Heard Round the World.’ That home run, tied quite explicitly both historically and textually to the Soviet’s testing of a nuclear bomb, is at once a moment of revelation and concealment. The text can barely contain the bomb within itself, resorting to a string of conjunctions and run-on sentences in its effort to retain line-of-sight on the ludic object. The “spinning” of the ball spins the text itself out of control into long sequences of “ands” and subclauses. It’s active nature within the narrative of the text is no less profound. The shot works almost theologically to make out of the disparate crowd of New Yorkers, street kids and Rat Packers, a euphoric congregation. As the crowd changes from “people thinking where’s the ball” to an ecstasy of “hands flashing everywhere” as it “appears,” one can feel a community created out of the fragments of the city. Where before there were many conversations, now the Polo Grounds has only the liturgy of the radio-man intoning “The Giants win the pennant…The Giants win the pennant.” They are, the text is quick to point out at once “crazy” and “a jubilation.” Most of all, though, they are a ‘they,’ a community and a presence united around the spin and arc and bounce of the home run ball. As the years and pages of the narrative continue on, traversing the rest of the 20th century, the importance of this sense of community is indelibly marked around the search for the baseball. In this first section, the utopian seed is the baseball itself. Indeed, in the prologue’s near-breathless account of the home run, the “five ounce sphere of cork, rubber, yarn horsehide and spiral stitching” becomes a utopian unifier arcing “indelibly” into the present.