Coincidentally: The Yankees and Wagner

In the shaky science of probability, it is considered bad form to ask, “How can you be sure?” The statistician cannot lose. If he says the odds against winning the state lottery are forty million to one (a suspiciously round figure), and someone wins, he can claim he was right. So too with the weatherman who speaks of a 95 percent chance of precipitation and, when the sun comes out, preens that this was the 5 percent.

The odds must be eight trillion to one that any two contemporary Major League baseball players, having pitched perfect games, will be found to have attended the same high school. Don Larsen pitched his for the Yankees on an October afternoon in 1956 against the Brooklyn Dodgers, and David Wells pitched his for the Yankees against the Minnesota Twins on a May afternoon in 1998. Both graduated from Point Loma High School in San Diego, Larsen in 1947 and Wells in 1982. In the realm of probabilities, this is more striking than the configuration by which Julius Caesar took 1855 Gauls captive in 55 B.C. for work in the Roman marshes, while in 1855 A.D. aluminum sold at $55 per pound.

The Point Loma High School phenomenon has been so publicized that it is too conventional for the connoisseur of coincidences. There still is one item that may have been neglected in the hysteria of May 16, 1998: that perfect game was the thirteenth to have been pitched in the 20th century. Fascination with the number thirteen has some foundation in the retinue at table on the night Christ was betrayed, but it has intimidated people as diverse as the Vikings and Hindus. The Turks harbor an especially violent dread of thirteen. Irrational fear of the number thirteen is known by everyone today as triskaidekaphobia. It drives hotels and hospitals to pretend the thirteenth floor is the fourteenth. Houses in Paris are not numbered thirteen, notwithstanding the Cartesian common sense of the French. But Mr. Wells should think thirteen a lucky number, like the ancient Mayans who considered it an indicator of special skill and power. Mr. Larsen should also be a triskaidekaphile, particularly since his perfect game was on the thirteen hundredth anniversary of the start of the Empress Saimei’s great canal in Japan, whose work force had two platoons of 13,000 each.

For Richard Wagner, thirteen had mixed connotations. His own name has thirteen letters and he was born in 1813, the digital sum of which is thirteen, and he died seventy years later on February 13. His mentor, Liszt, who first met him on September 13 in 1841, visited him on October 13, 1854 in Switzerland where Wagner had fled from Dresden on May 13, 1849 and where he was exiled for thirteen years. Wagner finished The Flying Dutchman on a September 13, premiered Tannhauser on a March 13, and the Ring of Nibelungen on an August 13. With a one hour intermission, the Ring Cycle lasts thirteen hours. Wagner first heard Lohengrin performed thirteen years after its completion, wrote thirteen stage works, was married to Cosima for thirteen years, and died thirteen months after finishing Parsifal on May 13, 1882.

This wizard of Bayreuth went dotty. The feel of coarse fabric was intolerable, so he only wore silks and satins and even covered his ceiling in Munich with silk; the corners of his rooms were rounded off because he could not abide acute angles. I know I open myself to charges of bias because I do not like that master of Nazi elevator music. Anyone who enjoys the entire Ring Cycle should be denied the right to bear arms. But even I cannot claim that he was more Turk than Mayan when it came to the number thirteen. Nor can I deny that the Yankees are the world’s greatest club since the Giants left the Polo Grounds.

Our nation was born of thirteen colonies, and the New York Exhibition of 1853 covered thirteen acres. Pope Leo XIII was the greatest Leo since the first one, and in 13 A.D., Drusus began his felicitous governance of Batavia. The year 1300 marked the acme of human civilization (if we cast a blind eye to the antics of Alexander III in Hungary) and each subsequent century has only added a splinter to the twisting spiral of decay.

Not one of America’s autochthonous sports commentators alluded to any of the above on May 16, 1998. They probably were also ignorant of the famous wager of the uncanonized patron of probability science: Pascal said that, given the odds, any sensible man should bet on eternal life. Had he lived today, great Pascal would not have failed to remark the digital sum of the 127 feet three inches regulation diagonal distance between first and third bases.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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