Our two baseball teams have not been playing very artistically lately–not even when they win, which they’ve been doing about equally often. Nevertheless it has been a fine season for baseball art in the city. “Diamonds are Forever,” the baseball art exhibit put together by the New York State Museum and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, came to the library Cultural Center in July for a two-month run. Before that, the play Bleacher Bums became a Chicago classic with its revival in late May at the Organic Theater under the direction of its original coauthor, Joe Mantegna. Neither artistic display was overwhelming–from the standpoint of a baseball fan or from the standpoint of a discerning critic–but both had their strong points; both were in the end pleasant diversions, like the way things used to be at Wrigley Field before the yuppies took over and the team got good again, and the way things are, much of the time, at Comiskey Park these days. If the observer doesn’t like baseball, there is not much to be seen at any of the locations just named, but if he or she is a baseball fan there is not much of anything wasted in the invested time.

As a play, Bleacher Bums is a fairly sparse affair. Like so much of the theater in the city these days, it is a drama of scenes and performances, tied together rather meagerly by a moralistic theme. Its main strength is that it doesn’t let the demands of plot and drama get in the way of a good time. It’s a day spent in the bleachers watching a second-division ball team in late August, before the kids come up and give everyone a renewed sense of hope, that first glimpse of next year. That metaphor, by the way, is meant as a compliment, as any fan of the game should know. The hope that is manufactured in Bleacher Bums is churned out with all the knowing sense of real value that a bad Mexican restaurant puts into its tacos, and therein lies its saving grace.

In its 1989 pennant-race incarnation, Bleacher Bums reflects much more the despairing, self-deluding attitudes of the 70s Cubs than it does the newfound if shaky confidence of the 1989 Cubs, perhaps because Mantegna’s direction influenced the play in the spring, when the Cubs’ stay in first place was presumed to be short-lived. Now, the haunting lines of the play–“Nobody ever went broke betting against the Cubs after the Fourth of July,” and a reference to Chicago as a “town full of masochists” are almost too frightening. The deterministic sense of despair that somehow manages to warm the heart of this play–just as it warms Wrigley Field during those Augusts and Septembers when the team is plowing toward 90 losses or more–should be funnier than it is. That it’s not is not a reflection on the play or its performance, but instead on the ’89 Cubs and the impressions we bring to the Organic. We don’t expect to be set up for the kill quite so well, and it makes us wonder of the real-life Cubs, “Are they doing it to us again?”

What matters in Bleacher Bums–just as what matters on those dreary, hopeful afternoons during losing seasons at Wrigley–are the details, and here they are almost all in place. A lone child stakes a place in the bleachers and then is chased away when the grown-ups arrive, never to return. There is a sound and convincing distinction made between the left- and right-field bleachers. The sun, the sky, the ivy, the Torco billboard, even the lights are shown deserving reverence. And Harry Caray manages to put in an appearance–in his black-and-white Cub Fan-Bud Man incarnation. The lineup of the visiting Saint Louis Cardinals–on the evening I saw the play last week–appeared to have been written out by Whitey Herzog for tomorrow’s game, and even included a bleacher-bum reference to “E.T. McGee,” a moniker so on the mark it carries the play through the occasional errors, and there are a few. Mitch Webster remains in the lineup, Ryne Sandberg is still batting third, and Damon Berryhill has returned, miraculously, from a season-ending injury in record time–before the season has ended, in fact. Also, I could have sworn that the Cardinals took the lead in the ninth, amazingly, by a score of 6-5–not so amazing, except that the Cubs had once led 6-3. Yet these are all easily overlooked if one concentrates on the inherent sharpness of moments such as a bookie collecting a bet and saying, “Thank you, Mr. Cub.”

The betting angle that lends the play its alleged drama on the way to its final moral would be laughable if it weren’t treated with such hearty zeal right in the face of the Pete Rose scandal. What the play winds up conveying is not that betting is bad or dangerous–although its dangers are hinted at–but that it’s wrong to let the pursuit of money overwhelm the callings of one’s heartstrings. Such a sentiment is laughable, but Lou Milione almost gets away with it nevertheless in his final dream narration as the blind fan. Also strong are performances by Ron Dean as the fan with the sandpaper voice and–at this stage of the run–Brian Doyle-Murray as the savvy bookie Marvin and Robert Breuler as the small-time book who bets his heart. Breuler, in fact, is probably my favorite actor in the city right now. He was fine at Steppenwolf as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Pa Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and as the Jim Thompson character in Killers, and he was better than that as the Soviet diplomat in A Walk in the Woods. He’s not quite as good here, but only because there’s not much of a role to do anything with. As the steady business-executive’s bleacher fan, disrobing piece by piece inning by inning, wearing a variety of rally caps including one that gets him called “King Tut,” the only thing he lacks are the subtle gradations of tan on his arms and face. What more would anyone expect from a baseball fan who–unless I misremember one of my past issues of Stqgebill–once played Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith in a one-man show?

“Diamonds Are Forever” has already moved on to Oakland–where it has a better chance of being seen by baseball fans during the playoffs and World Series– and if one failed to see it here one missed a rousing, yet understated championing of the game. It was on the fourth floor of the Cultural Center, and it was set up–in its local incarnation–with loving care and a little tongue-in-cheek humor, which went perfectly with the art displayed, not allowing it to get too presumptuous while still presenting it with the same reverence most of the pieces showed for the game of baseball. Shocks of Astroturf on the floor–running up onto the wall in some places–were an especially nice touch. Ron Litke, a friend of ours who works in the mayor’s Department of Cultural Affairs and who also participates in the same Rotisserie League as ourselves, said the curator, Peter Gordon, was so charmed by the setup that he considered it the best job done so far. Again, it’s the details that matter, because no single work delivers the game in its essence, although some come close to various aspects. Elaine de Kooning has the festive professionalism of a routine Roy Campanella homer in Campy at the Plate, and there are elegant, stylized depictions of motion in James Daugherty’s Three Base Hit and Jacob Lawrence’s Strike. Walter Iooss Jr. turns up with his usual excellent sports photos, while Jim Dow has a series of wonderful photographic ballpark triptychs. Nickolas Muray’s postretirement portrait of Babe Ruth–easily the best photographic portrait and perhaps the best still photo in baseball history–turns up in three incarnations, like a classic soul song sampled again and again. Yet Clark Street turns up missing in one large picture of Wrigley Field, and grace is frequently lacking in so many of the paintings that attempt to re-create the drama of the game. Then there are lesser but still interesting works such as Jacob Kass’s Picking a Team, which makes its point by being painted on a saw blade, and the controversial Boys at Bat, by Eric Fischl, which–bad painting or not–manages to make some worthwhile points on the underlying implications of boys worshiping men playing at a boy’s game.

Most delightful of all the exhibit’s entries was a gathering of comedy routines on an endless half-hour tape, beginning with Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” and moving on to a pair of sight gags done in pantomime; where Jonathan Winters rubs up a baseball only to watch it disintegrate, and Robert Mein suggests that early baseball stars couldn’t have been very good because they look so clunky in newsreel footage.

The exhibit also includes a number of written remarks on the game, almost none of which will be specifically remarked on here because few deserve it, There’s the token Roger Angell excerpt and a bit from John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” neither of which–unlike a Walter Iooss photo–does justice to the greater piece of work it attempts to depict. There are also people cited just for name recognition, such as Stephen King, among others. Yet of all the writings that the exhibit quoted, the one that resonates the most–at this late date, as I look back on the departed exhibit by paging through the accompanying book–is an entry by A. Bartlett Giamatti, which begins, “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”

Baseball and so many things about it.