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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
From such speculations we can turn back to the game itself. It is often said to be a sport of inches, but in fact it is subject to an infinite variety of nice measurements. It is therefore primarily a game of numbers—three strikes, three outs, four balls, ninety feet, nine innings set the fundamental structure. Batting averages, slugging averages, fielding averages, RBIs, ERAs report the nature of the action often to three decimal points. And you can go from these gross averages to the most esoteric particulars of performance—he hits .312 with men on base and .278 when the bases are empty; he averages six strikeouts a game played in the sun and eleven under the lights.
From all the accumulated figures, a man can tell in absolute terms how he is doing; where he stands in relation to his teammates; where he is placed among those who are now playing his position or have ever played it since they began to keep records. Probably in no other walk of life is the contribution of the single member to his community so accurately calculated and the errors he has made along the way so surely defined and carefully added up. And probably in no other walk of life is the essential truth of an endeavor so precisely quantified and the quantifiable truth so near the whole truth. They can even pin down an unearned run.
For those who live in a society where it is difficult to place oneself, to know how high is really up, where position is neither determined nor defined by birth or class distinctions, such measured evidence of what you’ve got, where you fit, and who the other fellow is must have its subtle, strong attractions.
The advantages of such clean calculations are not restricted to the individual case; the accumulated data in the immense data bank can be directly applied to the control of the individuals acting together—that is, to the conduct of the game. When, for instance, you know that a man on first base with one out has a 14 percent chance to score, you have a hard and ordering fact to work with. Or when there is a man on second, first base unoccupied, two outs, a man at the plate who is hitting .327 to be followed by a batter now hitting .234 and mostly singles—in that situation it is reassuring to know that you can control the developing action simply by playing the percentages, that is, in this case, by ordering your pitcher to walk the man at bat.
Enough has been said to establish the point that baseball is a game of numbers and mathematical expressions. The same can be said for the society in which the game is played. I once heard the great Yale philosopher F. S. C. Northrop assert that we had our very origins in mathematics. The Declaration of Independence, he claimed in a pyrotechnic hour, could not have been written had Thomas Jefferson not studied the calculus at the College of William and Mary. The line of argument need not detain us here; Northrop’s conclusion that from the outset we have sought to define and resolve issues through numerical means seems unassailable.
A few years after the Declaration, we dealt in the Constitution with one aspect of our racial difficulties by the calculation that one black man added up to three-fifths of a white person. For many years we distinguished between slavery and freedom by drawing a line at 39°43’. Later we subsumed a wide range of important political and social differences in the ratio of 16 to 1 for the coinage of silver and gold. Right now we take the percentage points marking the change in the growth of our Gross National Product during the last quarter as a reliable figure for our current state of grace.
The fact is that from 54°40’ to the fortyniners and the Fourteen Points, our political life has been shot through with numbers. Which may be taken as an accurate reflection of the way we go at all things both great and small. The whole westward course of Empire was set within the pattern of the 640-acre section. By his calculations of time and motion, Frederick Winslow Taylor altered the entire character of our industrial development and life. And when it became necessary to describe the attributes of a really high society, we settled on the “Four Hundred.” In a fuller and more careful survey of all the historical evidence, it can be made to seem small wonder that the nation is as American as baseball.
In any good standard history textbook, notice is taken of the fact that while most citizens hold public office, fight, and grow or make things, some write, draw, and compose. This notice is taken in a paragraph that, in listing names and principal works, suggests not much more than that these people were alive at the time. There has always been some difficulty in explaining how abstract expressions of music, static interpretations in paint or bronze, and the distillations of poetry connect with the statements on the bottom line. In any study of baseball these difficulties diminish because the game itself is an—and quite possibly the —American art form.