I've been a Peanuts fan pretty much my entire life, but it took the new Baseball as Allegory exhibit to finally drag my sorry butt out to the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif. I highly recommend the experience if you happen to be in the neighborhood, if for no other reason than to sit at the drawing board where the magic happened, or to just go out into the museum courtyard and stand underneath an actual kite-eating tree.
Perhaps no baseball team was as ineffectual as Charlie Brown's (if you don't count the current San Diego Padres). We're reminded of this in an entire hall dedicated solely to the Schulz strips that feature our nation's pastime, which he drew from the strip's inception in October 1950 through February 2000. Yet I also learned a couple of pretty amazing things. First, Charlie Brown's team actually won a couple of games, as evidenced in a strip where his team is "playing for the championship." And second, a series of his baseball-themed strips in the late 1950s pretty much changed everything in comics.
That series, which ran from June 9-19, 1958, involved Charlie Brown camping beneath a high fly ball, as his teammates gathered around to watch. Catch it, and he's the hero. Drop it, and he's the goat. The ball stayed suspended in air, out of panel, for seven days (in real time; only seconds in Peanuts time), the tension mounting with each strip as his teammates conjectured the outcome. Violet: "Isn't this exciting?" Linus: "What if he drops it?" Lucy: "If he drops it, let's all kick him!"
Such a thing had been unheard of in newspaper comics to that point, where the standard formula was as much action as possible, followed by a daily gag. People standing around doing nothing, forcing you to think in metaphor, rarely happened, and never for two weeks straight.
"Schulz changed the tone; he invented the modern comic," said Stephan Pastis, co-curator of the exhibit and creator of the comic strip Pearls Before Swine. "Charlie Brown's problems on the mound are emotional conflicts that everyone deals with. It's actually more Biblical than baseball. Charlie Brown is like Job; experiencing these enormous tragedies, yet he continues to strive.
"You see him out there on the mound during Biblical-sized floods, after everyone else has gone home, and he still wants to play," Pastis said. "At one point even his mitt floats away, yet he still won't quit. Schulz was the first cartoonist to work with those themes. Asking me if my work has been influenced by Schulz is like asking are you influenced by oxygen."
Baseball was the perfect sounding board for Schulz, placing his characters in a microcosm of hope, persistence, humiliation and disappointment.
"Peanuts was all about wanting things you don't get," said Nat Gertler, a comic book writer and publisher whose web site, Aaugh!, specializes in collectible Peanuts books. "Lucy wanted Schroeder. Schroeder wanted to be left alone. Neither got what they wanted."
Schulz himself was a dedicated baseball fan; although born in Minnesota, he lived most of his life in Northern California, and loved the Giants. He was also a hockey nut; and financed a large skating rink in Santa Rosa next door to what is now the museum. And out back of the museum is a bit of land which contains Charlie Brown Field, a Little League-sized diamond where kids are allowed to play year-round. It's probably the only baseball field in the country where, in the spirit of its creator, teams strive to lose.
"My own kids have played on baseball and softball teams like that, though, thankfully, never teams quite as hopeless as Charlie Brown's," said veteran comic book writer Tony Isabella. "They have played on very good teams, too. I loved watching all their games, win or lose. Because baseball is as much about the game itself as it is about the final score. Even in his misery, Charlie Brown gets that."
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