Linus: "Somebody said that sports are sort of a caricature of life."
Charlie Brown: "That's a relief. I was afraid it was life!"
When Charles Schulz was Charlie Brown's age, he and his buddies played baseball in a well-worn vacant lot in St. Paul. They played until they knocked the cover off the ball, and then wrapped it back together with black electrician's tape and played some more. If desire had anything to do with talent, they would have been pretty good, but one disastrous day Schulz and his pals challenged another neighborhood team. They lost 40-0. "We were overwhelmed and humiliated," Schulz recalls. "Everything seemed to be happening faster than it was. It was like playing in a dream."
At 63, Schulz is an enormously successful cartoonist given over to dreaminess and painful introspection. He has drawn Peanuts for 35 years, and Charlie Brown is still losing 40-0, 123-0 and 200-0. Peanuts is a child's garden of reverses, set in an eternal suburb where kids share the disillusion of the grown-up world, yet refuse to grow up themselves. Schulz's strips are full of nimble sagacity, coppery melancholy and a baseball team whose best player is a beagle.
December 23, 1985
Like his most famous character, Schulz has an easy face and soft eyes that radiate humility and self-doubt. He speaks with gentle humor, quoting Charlie Brown's warm, chuckly aphorisms as if they'd been uttered by a real person. "As Charlie Brown said," Schulz says mildly, "I thought I had life solved, but there was a flag on the play."
Sports may be the biggest thing in Charlie Brown's world. Certainly they account for Peanuts' undying popularity. Season after season, Charlie Brown takes the mound bursting with pride and hope; year after year, Lucy smirkingly yanks the football away just as he's about to kick it.
Sports allow Schulz to move freely from childish games to adult concerns. They provide him with an easy way to express frustration. He often twists sports clichés to make all sorts of little commentaries on life. "Winning isn't everything," Linus says consolingly. "But losing isn't anything," answers Charlie Brown.
Losing, in fact, is Peanuts in a nutshell. "Winning is happy," notes Schulz, "but happy isn't funny."
A theologian once observed that Charlie Brown's pose on the mound is not unlike that of Job on the ash heap. Schulz doesn't dismiss the parallel, but he doesn't dwell on it, either. He says simply that he likes the contemplative quality of baseball, of a pitcher rubbing the ball with two out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth.
Schulz himself has a sad and sentimental way of looking at the most innocuous event. Take, for instance, a ball game on TV. The home team builds an insurmountable lead; the camera pans the visitors' dugout and zooms in on a player. "I think, 'Is this guy really happy trapped with a miserable team far away from home?' " Schulz says. "He has to go back to a lonely hotel and brood about losing. How can he stand it? It bothers me. It's ridiculous, of course, but it bothers me."
How can Charlie Brown stand it? He's an eternal victim whose efforts to raise his team to respectability are doomed from the start. He never wins, he never even expects to win, but he's not reconciled to losing. "How can we," he asks, "when we're so sincere?" Even the one time Charlie Brown's team won, it had to forfeit its victory because its shortstop, Snoopy, bet a nickel on the other team.
But even in defeat, Charlie Brown is not defeated. He remains unbowed. "Rats!" he'll say. "I can't stand it." And he trudges back to the mound.
"What's the sense in our playing when we know we're going to lose?" asks Lucy. "If there was even a million-to-one chance we might win, it would make some sense."
"Well," replies Charlie Brown, "there may not be a million-to-one chance, but I'm sure there's at least a billion-to-one chance."
If Charlie Brown ever did win, says Schulz, he wouldn't be Charlie Brown. "It would be like John McEnroe suddenly being a nice guy instead of constantly disgracing himself," Schulz says. "You can't destroy your basic premise."
So his hero remains a schlemiel Sisyphus. He pushes on despite the apathy and ridicule of his teammates, making do on a combination of woebegone innocence and baffled optimism. One April Fools' Day the treacherous Lucy tells him Ted Williams is at the front door. She says he wants advice on how to manage a baseball team. In the end, Charlie Brown stands alone on the doorstep, saying, "It could have happened."
Lucy is his constant tormentor. When she pulls the annual placekicking stunt, she grins like a very pleased pumpkin. Tumbling through the air, Charlie Brown wears a wry, wounded look. It's said to be President Reagan's favorite Peanuts shtick.
"These children affect us because in a certain sense they are monsters," writes Umberto Eco, a novelist and professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna. "They are the monstrous infantile reductions of all the neuroses of a modern citizen of the industrial civilization."
Such rococo appraisals aside, Schulz does tend to see kids as little monsters, though he has had five of his own. Originally, he intended Peanuts to depict the battle for dominance in the playground; his very first strip showed the harsh cruelty kids can inflict on one another, and it did so without the leavening of humor he has developed since. "Well! Here comes ol' Charlie Brown," says a kid sitting on a curb. "Good ol' Charlie Brown.... How I hate him!"
"A lot of adults forget how difficult it is to be a child," says Schulz, who still remembers an incident 50 years ago when a playmate got slam-dunked in the face with a football. "I've always despised bullies. They never let us play totally at peace. They made the playgrounds dangerous."
Actually, Minnesota wasn't all that barbarous a place in the '20s and '30s, and Schulz grew up in a benignly innocent setting. His father was a barber who didn't have time for sports. Sometimes he would take his son to Mille Lacs Lake to fish. Schulz hated it. "I've done Snoopy fishing," he allows, "but the worms always attack his friend Woodstock and tie him to a tree."
Schulz learned to play hockey by swatting tennis balls at his grandmother while she gamely tended goal in the basement with a broom. "I like to think she made a lot of great saves," he muses. Golf he mastered by chipping the same tennis balls to his black-and-white pointer Spike with an old nine-iron. Spike, a gifted dog who fetched potatoes from the cellar on command, was the subject of a sketch Schulz sent to Ripley's Believe It or Not, with the caption: "A hunting dog that eats pins, tacks and razor blades." It was his first published drawing. Eventually, Spike became the inspiration for Schulz's best-loved creation, Charlie Brown's irrepressibly waggish beagle, Snoopy.
Unlike his master, Snoopy is more wishy than washy. From atop his doghouse he leads an elaborate fantasy life that often finds him competing in the Stanley Cup finals or on Centre Court at Wimbledon. But when he climbs down, he can be a hot dog, too, starting double plays by snaring grounders in his teeth and spitting them to the second baseman.
Snoopy is perhaps the worst sport in Peanuts, a trait that helps to keep him human. After a double fault, he smashes, wangs, boots, stomps, whaps and crunches his tennis racket into the court. Then he sits down at his typewriter and taps out: "Gentlemen: Under separate cover I am returning a defective tennis racket." At the rink, he takes advantage of the national anthem to score three goals.
Schulz played his hockey in the streets. He and his friends would wait until the snowplows had come through and then scrape off the loose snow to expose the icy road surface. They'd pile clumps of snow at either end of the block to mark the goals. Men drivers would always slow down and weave around the goalposts, claims Schulz, but women would roll right over them. "The men knew how important those clumps were to us," he says. "But the women just didn't understand."
Neither does Lucy, Charlie Brown's indifferent outfielder. Fly balls always drop in gentle arcs five feet behind her. "What in the world made you miss that one?" screams Charlie Brown.
"I was having my quiet time," she says.
Charlie Brown is such a devoted fan that he loses a spelling bee for spelling maze "Mays." He worships the hapless Joe Shlabotnick of the lowly Green Grass League. He's on hand the day Shlabotnick makes a bloop single, and cajoles him into autographing a ball. Later Charlie Brown discovers that Shlabotnick has misspelled his own name.
His obsession with the game takes a surreal turn when he reluctantly peers out his bedroom window to await the start of another day. But instead of a sun, a huge, beaming baseball rises in the morning sky. Soon everything he sees is a baseball: the moon, an ice cream cone; even the back of his head is laced with stitches. He consults a psychiatrist and inquires, "Is this the last of the ninth?"
Schulz knows the strange symptoms of baseball fever and the incurable longings associated with it. He played catcher on his neighborhood team, sometimes arriving two hours before a game to put on his gear. But he was never big enough to play for his high school team and resented coaches for not spending time with less gifted athletes.
So he followed the Triple A St. Paul Saints with religious zeal. One opening day, his high school principal announced that anyone who wanted to could skip afternoon classes. Schulz rode his bike to Lexington Park. Taking his seat behind home plate, he noticed a classmate two aisles away. She pored over a looseleaf binder in which a complete box score had been carefully ruled out in pencil. "Obviously the girl couldn't afford a real scorecard," Schulz says wistfully. "She was so earnest and dedicated that it saddened me. I should have talked to her but I didn't have the nerve."
Several years later, after he had been to war and taught a correspondence art course, he published his first panel. It ran in a magazine called Timeless Topix, and the caption said, "Judy, if your batting average was just a little higher I think I could really fall in love with you."
Today Schulz strips are syndicated in more than 2,000 newspapers around the world and his characters appear on everything from lunch pails to electronic games. He lives simply, his one indulgence the indoor ice rink across the street from his studio in Santa Rosa, Calif. He built the arena 16 years ago and ran it, at a loss, as a sort of philanthropic hobby. He organized a bunch of youth hockey leagues, with the provision that every kid who came out got to play, and for a long time he refereed games himself. "I took great satisfaction in protecting everybody and making sure all the calls were right," he says, sounding like the catcher in the rye. "And yet all I ever got was criticism." He was abused by the players, who slashed him, fans who spat at him and parents who yelled, "Hey, Schulz, we can't win because it's your arena." So he retired from reffing.
In November it seemed he would retire from the skating business, too. He had to close the arena because he couldn't get liability insurance. Last year's coverage cost him about $15,000. This year the insurance company would not offer a general long-term liability policy, and the arena was briefly empty. "Isn't it a pity we couldn't have a pickup game of hockey because of something dumb like insurance?" says Schulz, whose characters shill for Metropolitan Life in current TV commercials. "It's really a crime." Schulz had to settle for a one-year million-dollar policy at $150,000, and the arena is now back in operation.
Schulz complains frequently about the hypocrisy of the grown-up world, but adults have never appeared in Peanuts. The reason, Schulz says, is that they would intrude. "We live in a society of angry people," he says. "That's why they go to games, take their shirts off, drink 30 beers and yell, 'We're Number One.' "
Schulz worries that while his characters are developing, he's winding down. A few years ago while playing slo-pitch he misjudged a routine fly ball and watched it sail over his head. "I always prided myself on being a good fielder," he says. "It was so humiliating to have reached the age where I'd lost the knack of knowing where the ball was. It was my first realization that I was suddenly an old man."
"I used to be able to dodge those line drives," Charlie Brown tells Lucy after getting beaned by a batted ball.
"When you get old," she says, "your reflexes slow down."
But Schulz is still competitive about his strip. He pays close attention to the various polls that are supposed to determine which comic strip is the most popular. "Once you get caught up in them, you're running in a race," he says. "It's nice to be on top, but when I don't come in first I can rationalize it.
"I suppose it's like being an old athlete. It's a thrill to put on the Yankee uniform when you're a rookie, but when you've been putting it on for 15 years it gets to be old hat. Your ambitions change. You get old so fast, and as the world begins to open up, you ask yourself, 'Has it been worth it to be at the drawing board day after day doing cartoons?' Cartooning is not glamorous or important, but I've made it look like it is. I wonder if my ambition was a little misguided. But what else could I have done?
"Charlie Brown said, 'Life is full of choices, but you never get any.' I'd dearly love to have won the U.S. Amateur or the World Series, but what I've done, I think, is much better."
Amid all this soul-searching, Schulz has his consolations. "One thing I do well is hit fly balls," he says. "There's nothing quite like being able to hit towering flies." He pauses to savor the thought. "It's not like writing Beethoven's Ninth, but it's definitely in the top two."