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Positively The Last Word On Baseball
Forget football, basketball, and all the other sports that are artificially regulated by the clock. Only baseball can truly reveal our national character. Only baseball can light our path to the future.
August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
The other day I met a professor who said he was having some luck with a course called Physics and Sport. By following the action of a blocking back in the I formation, for instance, he found he could give students a feeling for how force becomes the product of mass times acceleration without their quite realizing that they were taking in serious information. It certainly seemed an improvement over those earlier ventures in “Physics for Poets,” which turned out simply to double the degree of difficulty for your average scholar. Also, the more I thought about it, it seemed to offer a useful way to get across other kinds of subject matter—history, for example.
Following the lead suggested above, I began to feel it might be possible to recover much of the essential information about this country’s past through a course on baseball. My project has not been carried forward to so satisfying a culmination as a syllabus and teachers’ guide. That is for others to do. But I have some suggestions and observations that might help them with their work.
Because “relevance” is now so large a consideration in the learning process, I suggest that it would be useful to begin with an examination of how deeply the technical terms of the game permeate our language: “Pinch-hit for,” “threw me a curve ball,” “out in left field,” “caught in a squeeze play,” “never got to first base,” “has two strikes against him,” “just a ball-park figure,” “fouled out,” “touched all bases,” “it’s a whole new ball game.” The list could be continued almost indefinitely.
As the game goes, so goes the Union: and like the Constitution, our national sport has stood the test of time.
Why is baseball’s terminology so dominant an influence in the language? Does it suggest that the situations that develop as the game is played are comparable to the patterns of our daily work? Does the sport imitate the fundamentals of the national life or is the national life shaped to an extent by the character of the sport? In any case, here is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of what I think 1 heard Reggie Jackson say in his spot on a national network in the last World Series: “The country is as American as baseball.”
It is not only the common usage of baseball’s technical terms. Over and over again, the observations of those associated with the game have been used to give a frame for our ordinary experience or a clearer focus for some of our national characteristics; that is, they have entered the culture. Consider these few examples: Yogi’s “I can’t think and bat at the same time.” which puts our continuing difficulties in finding the right relation between theory and practice as nicely as possible; Dizzy’s jaunty “Me and Paul can do it all.” which sharply defines the assumption, so significant in our past, that the impossible only takes a little longer; Branch Rickey’s opinion (made, 1 think, while reviewing the success of his farm system) that “luck is the residue of design,” which implies that while for some it may be better to be lucky than good, for those who are bound to rise it’s best to get your ducks in a row by cool and clear-eyed calculation. Then there is Leo Durocher’s “Nice guys finish last,” that bleak and generally accepted assessment of the qualities required to make room for yourself at the top of a competitive society. Finally, there is Yogi’s “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” This central finding could not be derived from any other major team sport, where the duration of the exercise is determined by the artificial means of the clock.
So much for relevance. It must be clear by now that as the game goes, so goes the Union. Now what about the game itself? Let us start at the beginning.
Everyone knows the story of Abner Doubleday. One summer 150 years ago in Cooperstown. New York, he established the controlling conditions for play. He laid out a space that, in accordance with the national tendency to gild (or in recent times to chromeplate) our artifacts, we think of as a precious stone—though it is in fact, and more appropriately for our national game, square. Within this configuration he worked out certain ratios among time, distance, and speed that provided a settled context for the coherent and constructive development of actions and intents. Put simply, on the basis of some experience and much logical deduction, he put together in a summer season a frame of government for the ordering of some human affairs.
Not everyone, to be sure, accepts the story of Abner Doubleday. This very magazine, for instance, three years ago printed an article cleverly designed to demonstrate that the man was somewhere else as the game was slowly evolving. Even while preparing this account, 1 received a learned paper from the president of Yale, one of the leading revisionists on this subject. With the aid of a good many literary allusions and a direct citation to a Princeton student’s use of the phrase “baste ball” in 1786, he concludes that something like the present game was played “before the birth of the Republic.”