The following is excerpted from LIFE‘s new special issue Peanuts: The World’s Greatest Comic Strip, available at newsstands and online.
Over five decades of solitary and deeply personal work, Charles Schulz drew 17,897 Peanuts comic strips, producing a body of work that constitutes not only the richest achievement in comic strip history but also the most resonant sports strip of all time. Thousands of Peanuts panels are filtered through Schulz’s love of sports, a collective subcategory that perhaps more than any other delivers the essence of his work.
The simple genius of Peanuts lies in Schulz’s ability to get to the heart of large matters (unrequited love, loneliness) and critical life questions (is there a Great Pumpkin?) through the lens of emotionally precocious children. The reason the sports stuff works so well is that sports, by and large, compels a part of us that has never grown up. In a strip drawn after the Giants’ narrow loss to the Yankees in the 1962 World Series, Charlie Brown and Linus sit silently and glumly on a curb for three frames. In the fourth Charlie Brown blurts out, “Why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball three feet higher?” It’s a movable lament for baseball fans: Why couldn’t Buckner have fielded that ground ball in 1986? Why couldn’t Bartman have backed off in 2003?
The events and relationships in Peanuts are for the most part events and relationships distilled from Schulz’s life. (Not long after a phone bill reveals to Schulz’s wife, Joyce, that he is having an extramarital affair, Charlie Brown prevents Snoopy from canoodling with a girl beagle. “And no more long-distance phone calls!” Charlie Brown warns.) And that distillation holds true in the arena of sports. Active as an amateur hockey player and organizer, Schulz was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 1993. In Peanuts we see Snoopy at times as a goalkeeper and other times as a hard-checking skater doing battle with Woodstock on the frozen-over birdbath. Both of these players, it emerges, can also drive a Zamboni. Schulz’s father buried soup cans in the lawn so that young Charles could practice putting. Snoopy, in turn, plays the Masters and outdrives Sam Snead and Ben Hogan; Charlie Brown is his caddy. Schulz famously uses football as metaphor through action—Lucy yanked the pigskin away from Charlie Brown once a year, every year, from 1952 to 1999— and also through words: “I thought I had life solved,” Charlie Brown says, “but there was a flag on the play.”
No sport proves more present or more resonant than baseball. As a child, Schulz played on and ran a sandlot team, which preoccupied him. In one series of strips, Charlie Brown awakens to see the sun rising as a giant baseball. Next it’s the moon, then an ice cream cone that’s a ball. Finally, Charlie Brown develops a rash in the pattern of a hardball’s stitching on the back of his smooth, spherical head, leading him to a pediatrician. “Doctor, am I cracking up?” he asks. “Is it the bottom of the ninth?” On another occasion he loses a spelling bee after spelling maze “M-A-Y-S.”
For Charlie Brown, baseball is the end-all; he’s out pitching in deep snow and pelting rain. On the mound he gets undressed (literally) by opponents’ line drives. In the field he prays under a pop-up, then misses it. His failures lead to self-reflections and laments— “every now and then I am plagued by self-doubt”—but they are overcome by his unbeatable optimism. “This is the moment of moments,” Charlie Brown says, standing on the field, his glove on his hand, his face covered in bliss, “the beginning of a new season.”
For the others in the Peanuts gang—think of Lucy in right field with her umbrella, Snoopy at shortstop with his supper dish—baseball is folly. This may be Schulz’s most valuable lesson to the impressionable child: In the end, sports don’t matter all that much. In one strip, after Linus tells Charlie Brown that he has been “the victim of a short and sad love affair,” we see Linus under a fly ball. “I got it!” he shouts. “At least I think I’ve got it! Who knows? Actually who cares? When you’ve lost at love, you’ve lost at everything… Nothing matters.” The ball drops.
Only a small portion of Schulz’s work gets into his sports side, but those strips convey a lot about the Peanuts gang, as well as about ourselves as fans. Some of the best baseball strips are gathered into book collections, including 1977’s There Goes the Shutout. The title derives from a strip in which the team falls behind 63-0 in the first inning. On the bench afterward, Linus says to Charlie Brown, “Well, there goes our shutout.” The game itself, by implication, is still within reach.