When it’s summer in America, there is baseball.
On the comics page, Charlie Brown was counted on as a lovable loser who got knocked off the mound as pitcher, struck out at bat, dropped fly balls in the field and got overruled as manager. His team rarely won during the comic strip’s 50-year run.
“Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz was a baseball fan his entire life, and he used baseball as an allegory from his first spring at work in 1951 until his death in 2000.
“I use it as a springboard,” said Schulz in an interview. “Charlie Brown’s problems on the mound are emotional conflicts that everyone deals with.”
Charlie Brown was the most tormented manager in all of baseball with a superstar beagle at shortstop, a piano player behind the plate and an outspoken outfielder who never caught a ball. The team’s at-the-mound discussions were always long and pointless. Charlie Brown’s horrendously bad pitching constantly left him dodging line drives, sometimes so mighty he lost his footing and his clothes. His team quit on him, over and over again.
Yet, baseball was everything, even the sun rising in the morning sky in one strip. Charlie Brown would count down the days to spring and the start of baseball season, then optimistically set out to field a winning team, but year after year he would fail to lead his team to victory. The losses were usually his fault.
“On the surface, many of Charles Schulz’s baseball strips appear to be a light-hearted look at the All-American pastime and can be enjoyed as such. However, on another level, Schulz seems to be commenting on important life themes,” Stephan Pastis, the cartoonist of “Pearls Before Swine,” told the Charles M. Schulz Museum. “The themes – hope, perseverance, humiliation and leadership – can be found disguised in the gang’s often ill-fated baseball games.”
While covering the losing streaks of Charlie Brown at the sandlot, “Peanuts” became arguably the most successful newspaper comic strip in history. It was read in more than 2,200 newspapers, including The Herald, in 75 countries and 25 language.
Schulz’s work is being exhibited in a traveling show at the Museum of York County until Sept. 3. “Peanuts … Naturally” explores the connection between the famous comic strip and the environment and nature.
Schulz was known for converting complicated issues into simple, clever funnies through Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and Linus.
His love of baseball began during his childhood. He told his wife, Jean, that when he was 14, the city set up a baseball league in his hometown of St. Paul, Minn. She, family and close friends called him “Sparky.”
“Sparky said that was the best summer he had, having an actual organized baseball team,” said Jean, who now leads the museum in Santa Rosa, Calif.
As a fan, he knew the rules and strategy very well, Jean said. He loved the dramatic lights-knocked-out, pennant-winning homerun ending in the movie, “The Natural.” As a father, he built a baseball diamond and would regularly hit fly balls to his children after school. He advocated gender equality in athletics.
Baseball was compatible with comic strips.
“Essentially, you can stand around and talk,” said Jean, unlike basketball, football and the cartoonist’s favorite sport, hockey.
With nine positions to fill on the baseball field, all the characters were able to interact, Jean said. The uneven scores possible in baseball were a bonus as Schulz drove Charlie Brown into despair, losing games by big, laughable margins.
Americans love baseball. “Post-World War II, baseball was the game,” said Derrick Bang, a freelance writer and “Peanuts” historian. “The players were national heroes.”
It was a mannered, romantic sport and provided plenty of storylines, he said.
Good Grief! 15 Wins, 274 Losses
Larry Granillo, who writes Wezen-Ball for Baseball Prospectus, a baseball blog, has gone through “Peanuts” strip by strip to tally Charlie Brown’s team stats. His research has become popular with the baseball community.
“It's undeniable that Charlie Brown’s love for baseball and the way baseball is always around helped me to connect with the comic strip, and it's one of the main reasons that I have gone back to the comic strips over and over again in my life,” he said.
About 10 percent of the 18,000 “Peanuts” strips are baseball related, Granillo said.
With direct references to wins and loses, Charlie Brown’s baseball record over 50 years is 15 wins and 65 losses. Using hints from the strip to assume the outcome of games and seasons, Granillo calculates his record to 15-274.
“Finding themselves on the wrong side of scores like 123-0 and 93-0 on a regular basis, the ‘Peanuts’ crew was just never the talented powerhouse that Charlie Brown hoped for. But boy did they try,” Granillo said. “Few managers, and few teams, would have the heart to go out there day-after-day against such odds, but Charlie Brown and his crew were forever optimistic. It was endearing.”
Bang said Schulz did not view Charlie Brown as a loser. He admires the character’s optimism.
“Charles Schulz said a true loser is somebody who tries, fails, quits and never tries again,” said Bang, co-author of www.fivecentsplease.org. “Charlie Brown never quit trying. He was always ready to pitch another baseball game.”
‘A ball?! What do y’ mean?!’
Schulz introduced baseball on March 6, 1951, the first spring of “Peanuts.” Charlie Brown was the catcher. His first appearance as a pitcher was Aug. 24, Granillo reported. In the strip, Charlie Brown winds up and pitches the ball, then yells at Snoopy the umpire, “A ball?! What do y’mean?! That was right over the plate!!”
His pitching was infamous. Over 50 years, Charlie Brown was knocked down by line drives 55 times, Granillo said.
The team’s first win didn’t come until April 2, 1953, when Charlie Brown realizes they are winning 83-79 and tells Schroder, his catcher, to take the ball and run home.
April 11, 1954, is the first time readers see Charlie Brown ignoring the pouring rain, a Schulz favorite that seemed to run every year.
The 1960 season is most depressing for Charlie Brown. He gave up a two-out, ninth-inning grand slam to lose the last game of the season, according to Granillo. The team record was 0-20. After the game, Schroder reveals the team stats, saying, “Last year our opponents scored 3,040 runs to our 6! They made 4,900 hits to our 11 and they made 19 errors to our 300...” The 1961 season begins with a 123-0 loss.
At a spelling bee in February 1966, Charlie Brown is asked to spell the word “maze.” He says, “M-A-Y-S,” after Willie Mays, the professional baseball player known for his power hitting and incredible catches.
‘Dear Stupid …’
Snoopy, the best player, makes the team in 1957. He is nearly traded to Peppermint Patty in 1967, and in 1973, memorably races Hank Aaron to surpass Babe Ruth’s homerun record. He receives hate mail – addressed to “Dear Stupid” – for being a dog, Schulz’s clever way of showing the reader that race does not matter.
“A lot of times, Charles Schulz used ‘Peanuts’ to comment on current times, though it wasn’t usually as overt as Hank Aaron,” Granillo said. “Hank Aaron got hate mail and death threats like Snoopy. The comic strips delivered a powerful message. It really showed what was going on with Hank Aaron and how silly it was.”
By the 1980s, Lucy’s follies in right field were popular content. Granillo said from 1978 to 2000, 51 percent of the baseball-related strips featured Lucy and her deficiencies in both skill and attitude.
“‘Peanuts’ is about living life. The reality of life where not everything is perfect,” Granillo said. “Charlie Brown expects to strike out everyone, but he gets knocked on his butt. It’s about getting back on your feet and trying again.”