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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
For various reasons I reject this view, though I do believe that when it is laid against the orthodox account the comparison can provide an interesting classroom exercise in the difficulties of obtaining correct historical inferences from limited and conflicting evidence—which is the name of our game. In large part I accept the authorized version because it feels right. At various times in our history we have had to look for appropriate ways to organize human activity. What we do then is seek a logical containing structure, devise rules to ensure sensible action within it, and get it all down on paper ahead of time.
For instance, fifty years before Cooperstown, men met at Philadelphia to create a new order of things. Interpreting experience in the rational temper of their century, fortified with the power of deductive thought, they produced in a short season a frame of government that has, ever since, enabled men to live together in a coherent and constructive way. From the Mayflower Compact to the covenant for a League of Nations put forward in Paris eighty years after Cooperstown. this instinct for prefabricated structures goes very deep with us, and on the whole has served us well. As Gladstone said, our Constitution is the “most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”
As with other ideas we have thought up and that have served us well, we tend to believe our way of doing things has made us Number One and should serve as an appealing standard for all others to repair to. This has sometimes—as the League of Nations proved—made for difficulties, and in any case there are other ways of going at things. As Gladstone also remarked, the British Constitution, another very useful frame of government, was a “most subtle organism which proceeded from progressive history.”
A study of the difference between a wonderful work devised in a moment of time (our Constitution) and a most subtle organism evolving through the ages (the British Constitution) should get us to the heart of our peculiar national character. It can be done in terms of political theory or social history, but a far more telling classroom instruction can be achieved through a comparison of baseball with the game of soccer. At the time Abner Doubleday was drawing up his neat program for controlling the play of the future American game, soccer in England was a “chaos” of odd maneuvers with a “blown bladder.” There were no written rules. A decade later some were prepared but soon mislaid and within a twelvemonth looked upon as lost. So the order of play, exactly like the British Constitution, went on “broadening down from precedent to precedent.” When, in the 1860s, these precedents seemed settled enough to print up in a “code of laws” for soccer, they contained an “offside rule” so complicated no one could interpret it. For half a century, therefore, it was applied to accord with the views of the spectators who roared the loudest. By such mutations soccer has become a “most subtle organism” that has to be seen to be believed.
That baseball “works” for us is obvious. That it does not work for almost anybody else is equally clear.
In the contrast between these two games—soccer with its messy origins and confusing flows of movement, baseball’s preprogrammed geometry and ordered action—there is food for further thought. First it should be pointed out that our national sport, like our Constitution, has stood the test of time. The major modifications in each that are required by changing conditions have been relatively few, and some of these, such as the Eighteenth Amendment and the Designated Hitter, have only gone to prove that the founding fathers got it right the first time.
That baseball “works” for us is therefore obvious; that it does not work for almost anybody else is also clear. In disconcerting fact, it is that other game of illogical design and flimsy structure that exerts an almost universal attraction. The competition for soccer’s World Cup actually takes place all around the globe and often brings together for the final contest such unlikely and disparate countries as Uruguay and Poland. What we like to think of as baseball’s World Series has not yet been conducted outside our own borders and only last November was played out between two cities located in the same state.
Such a condition of things should pose interesting questions for students who live in a land that seeks to be the managing partner for other lands. If we haven’t yet made the world safe for our national game beyond our continental limits, how can we hope, or should we even try, to transport the rules for our way of life to an unpersuaded world? To put it baldly and probably a little too specifically, if most humans have never made an effort to understand the infieldfly rule, what makes us think we can make them believe in something like Amendment XIV, Section 4, of the Constitution, which reads in part: “The validity of the public debt…shall not be questioned.” Especially at a time like this.
Or take a different kind of question for those with a more philosophical turn of mind: Does a wonderful work that perfectly fitted the time in which it was struck off have a better chance of useful survival in a future that looks increasingly untidy than a subtle organism that for centuries has accommodated itself to the confusions of evolving history?