“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball” –Jacques Barzun

Grove City, PA. Opening Day, 2011 Dutifully following the links provided by FPR’s editors, I noticed that along with Wendell Berry at the White House to accept his Medal of Freedom was not only Wendell’s good friend and poet Donald Hall (fitting) but also Jacques Barzun (bizarre).  Bizarre not because Barzun is not deserving, but who knew that venerable man of letters could still be alive? I don’t really know Barzun’s work—so don’t ask—I know baseball. And Barzun wrote famously and forcefully about the emerald chessboard. Since Opening Day snuck up on us this year (to avoid any unnatural November World Series games), consider the epigraph above.

Right off the bat Barzun’s pitch about baseball strikes us now as coming out of left field. First asserted in the 1950’s, his famous assessment of baseball’s place in American culture then seemed to cover all the bases and was as uncontroversial as it was incontrovertible. Now, however, many voices would cry foul at Barzun’s claim and attempt to controvert him by either dismissing his thesis as off-base or by picking him off as a screwball French critic. But such bush-league de-mythologizers cannot help but whiff when they step up to the plate and  try to play hardball with a big league cultural historian such as Barzun who really knocked it out of the park by indentifying baseball as the heart and mind of America.

First, Barzun’s argument does not necessarily require baseball to be the national pastime.  For much of the twentieth century, and especially when Barzun wrote his God’s Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love, Spiced with a Few Harsh Words, baseball was unarguably how America passed its time.   No matter how one measured the cultural phenomena of baseball—playgrounds and schoolyards, inter-generational appeal to fans, professional attendance records, media attention—no single other sport or entertainment outstripped it. In the twenty-first century baseball finds itself in a far less privileged position: its status dimmed by the growth in marketshare of other professional sports, especially football, and more dramatically by the domination of entertainment media.

If the playground is the test, sure there may no longer be a backstop, but the kids aren’t playing on the gridiron either—or engaged in a sport at all. They are gaming. It’s the wii you got them for Christmas, the guitar hero as a birthday present that occupies their time. Or Facebook. Or whatever.com. The cultural shift that has occurred is not that football has replaced baseball as the national pastime but that nothing has become our national pastime. That is, no one sport or activity captures the whole-hearted attention of multiple generations of Americans the way baseball used to. So much for “pastime,” but what about baseball as at least still America’s Game?

The Amish have deemed one modern sport suitable for their community–baseball. Similarly, the spread of America’s game throughout the world in the twentieth-century was not by force but by the virtues of the game itself. Baseball as a game depends on distinguishing fair from foul. The countries who have successfully adopted baseball have adopted at least within the sport the best and most noble virtues that typify America—principally, the meritocratic and dynamic yoking of individual excellence with harmonious teamwork. These virtues, the virtues that are borne by the game between the white lines are what charmed Barzun. And what continue to charm.

The beauties of the game itself remain unchanged, and it is the timelessness of those beauties that make Barzun’s declaration timeless. These beauties are why baseball survived the Black Sox scandal, overcame racism and integrated on its own without government intervention, persevered despite the advent of the designated hitter, and will outlast the consequences of the steroid era. In its complicities, tolerations, repudiations, and expiations, baseball has mirrored both America’s vices and virtues. It can switch-hit.

For some, I realize, Barzun sounds like the ultimate seamhead—celebrant of baseball’s mythic and glorious past—and his reading of baseball as the ultimate allegory for America’s “heart and mind” no longer seems to be in the ballpark. But concerning the obsolescence of baseball, our language at least says it ain’t so. I have managed here in these few paragraphs a score of baseball idioms—baseball expressions that successfully convey meaning beyond the game itself for readers who have never played or followed the sport. We may not feel about baseball the way our fathers did, but no other game has so enriched the way we think. Moreover, the histories of baseball and of America are entwined forever and both are with us still. Barzun’s pitch about baseball, therefore, hasn’t really gone foul—we all recognize a mixed metaphor when we see one—but that pitch over the last several decades has changed speeds. Baseball continues to be relevant in our culture, for the Amish, and in our hearts and minds whether we realize it or not. Wouldn’t we all rather swing away than sacrifice? But aren’t we all called to sacrifice at times for the sake of others? Don’t we all long to be safe, to not to be put-out or to strike out, and to make it home? I’d say Barzun hit a home run.

 

12 COMMENTS

  1. It’s terribly individualistic, unavoidably elitist, thoroughly bourgeois, and complicit in who knows how many environmental and topographic crimes, but I cannot deny it: I still prefer golf.

  2. Thought Barzun’s, Dawn to Decadence was on the money (what I remember of it). The Amish play baseball? Wow, you learn something new every day.

  3. I dislike playing baseball when I was a kid, but I played anyway because that’s what kids did. Now a lot of them play soccer, which I probably would have disliked more. Either way, I don’t have strong feelings about the sports American-ness. But even I can admit that aesthetically, there is something extremely attractive about a well-wrought and well-tended baseball diamond. I had occasion to be in Williamsport, PA, last week. We drove past the national headquarters of Little League. The field itself is probably the most BEAUTIFUL sporting facility I have ever seen.

    As for the rest… the tendency of baseball fans to obsess over statistics does strike me as somewhat counter to the American psyche. I am more accustomed to American’s arguing sports in completely subjective terms such as, “Who’s the ‘best’ quarterback ever?” Statistics come into play, but are secondary.

  4. I personally grew a little bit tired of the idioms, but the point is well-taken. I’d never thought about how much baseball has influenced the language and American common expression.

    On a different note, I was much better at football and basketball growing up, but there are a few things about baseball that can’t be imitated in any other sport I’ve ever played. Your total reliance on teammates, both on offense and defense, can’t be covered over by one or even several superior players. This, in my opinion, is one of the great distinctive virtues of the game.

    Baseball camaraderie is also something very special. There’s a kind of battlefield fraternity in football that I haven’t encountered anywhere else, but some of the best times I’ve ever had with teammates is in the midst of the baseball dugout culture.

  5. Yes, the Amish play baseball, though it’s mostly young people who do it. I sometimes bicycle past a game in progress on M-66 in St Joseph County, MI. There is a ball diamond and plenty of room for buggy parking on the west side of the road somewhere in the vicinity of Nottawa prairie.
    Amish kids play basketball, too, at least in some Indiana communities, and can be pretty good at it. I’ve seen basketball hoops in Amish schoolyards in several places.

    Here is a summary of the topic at Erik Wesner’s blog:

    http://amishamerica.com/do-amish-play-sports/

    I often enjoy riding in Amish country just because one can see young kids playing together in the yards. Think of it. Kids outside playing games they organize themselves. No soccer moms. No video games.

  6. Barzun is fascinating, still kicking (don’t know if he’d like the soccer connotation) after 103 years because he’s always asking interesting questions and he always has something to say. Keeps one going.

    I think one could easily keep Barzun’s quote relevant by tracing the increasingly corporate and global nature of the game. It might turn out to be a microcosm for the culture and society at large over the last 37 years. It may be as American as apple pie, but the game is making major inroads in East Asia and maintains what some would argue are exploitative farm systems in Latin America. Despite the declining involvement from young kids which you rightly identify, baseball business is bigger than ever.

    The architects of the game have packaged the product ingenuously. They leverage our increasing addiction to screens to provide round-the-clock, vicarious access to the game. They provide pink baseball hats for those who have no real interest in the team. They indulge our consumption oriented psyches with $5 hot dogs and air-conditioned ballparks, all the while telling us we are a part of some entity known as “Red Sox Nation” (fill in your favorite team here). This last trick is my favorite. This “nation” is more ethereal to me than the bogeyman but apparently it is more meaningful than church if urban traffic patterns are any indicator.

    As the Barry Bonds’ trial comes to a close, I can’t help but sit back, look him and Bud Selig in the eye, and mutter along with my British friends: Brilliant!

  7. As if to confirm my carping:

    1. This morning I received a headline from my university which stated: “Red Sox Nation, Play Ball!”

    2. Reading The Independent here in Britain, it came to my attention that The Fenway Sports Group (who owns the Boston Red Sox) also purchased British Premier League Club Liverpool recently. Furthermore, they have successfully courted Lebron James of all people to become a minority stakeholder so that his celebrity can promote Liverpool in places like East Asia where the NBA is more dominant. Can’t wait to see if the football hooligans in Britain get their sweeties pink hats with the Carlsberg logo for Christmas…that would be brilliant.

  8. Having lived on Cape Cod and now Hartford, CT (two well known border communities in the Red Sox / Yankees superpower struggle here in the northeast) — Red Sox Nation is real. The fault-line runs right through my congregation — about 60% Red Sox 35% Yankee and 5% Mets (the Lithuania of baseball). If we were west of the river the numbers could be reversed.

  9. Great comments, Front Porchers!
    Gorentz, thanks for that link on Amish sports. A “corner ball” is soft enough not to need a mitt, by the way. And their approval of baseball is chalked up to the lack of violence and the teamwork just as Mr. Miner elaborates. Hoops they allow but don’t endorse as much because of the tendency of singular talent to dominate.
    Mr. Koefoed, excellent point about how globalization and baseball’s big business success further extends Barzun’s thesis. I forget who mentioned the Bonds’ trial, but more anon if the FPR editors are willing.

  10. Though I am not a big fan of watching the sport, or any sport for that matter, I love playing baseball. Ever since I was a kid in my small town, it was the sport you could play anywhere. We made stones into bases and sticks into bats. I have alot of fond memories of baseball. I know alot of people on here aren’t George Carlin fans but he illustrated the difference between baseball and football brilliantly.

  11. Although I do not care for baseball in the least, I will concede that “The Natural” is the greatest sports movie ever made. Long live football! (Soccer to most North Americans) Go Whitecaps!

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