Jacques Barzun 100 jaar

Foto: Darwin Weigel




America's pastime

People who care less for gentility manage things better.They don't bother to leave the arid city but spend their surplus there on pastimes they can enjoy without feeling cramped. They follow boxing and wrestling, burlesque and vaudeville (when available), professional football and hockey. Above all, they thrill in unison with their fellow man the country over by watching baseball. The gods decree a heavyweight match only once in a while and a national election only every four years, but there is a World Series with every revolution of the earth around the sun. And in between, what varied pleasure long drawn out!

Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game - and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams. The big league games are too fast for the beginner and the newspapers don't help. To read them with profit you have to know a language that comes easy only after philosophy has taught you to judge practice. Here is scholarship that takes effort on the part of the outsider, but it is so bred into the native that it never becomes a dreary round of technicalities. The wonderful purging of the passions that we all experienced in the fall of 51, the despair groaned out over the fate of the Dodgers, from whom the league pennant was snatched at the last minute, give us some idea of what Greek tragedy was like. Baseball is Greek in being national, heroic, and broken up in the rivalries of city-states. How sad that Europe knows nothing like it! Its Olympics generate anger, not unity, and its interstate politics follow no rules that a people can grasp. At least Americans understand baseball, the true realm of clear ideas.

That baseball fitly expresses the powers of the nation's mind and body is a merit separate from the glory of being the most active, agile, varied, articulate, and brainy of all group games. It is of and for our century. Tennis belongs to the individualistic past - a hero, or at most a pair of friends or lovers, against the world. The idea of baseball is a team, an outfit, a section, a gang, a union, a cell, a commando squad - in short, a twentieth-century setup of opposite numbers.


Baseball takes its mystic nine and scatters themwide. A kind of individualism thereby returns, but it is limited - eternal vigilance is the price of victory. Just because they're far apart, the outfield can't dream or play she-loves-me-not with daisies. The infield is like a steel net held in the hands of the catcher. He is the psychologist and historian for the staff - or else his signals will give the opposition hits. The value of his headpiece is shown by the ironmongery worn to protect it. The pitcher, on the other hand, is the wayward man of genius, whom others will direct. They will expect nothing from him but virtuosity. He is surrounded no doubt by mere talent, unless one excepts that transplanted acrobat, the shortstop. What a brilliant invention is his role despite its exposure to ludicrous lapses! One man to each base, and then the free lance, the trouble shooter, the movable feast for the eyes, whose motion animates the whole foreground.

The rules keep pace with this imaginative creation so rich in allusions to real life. How excellent, for instance, that a foul tip muffed by the catcher gives the batter another chance. It is the recognition of Chance that knows no argument. But on the other hand, how wise and just that the third strike must not be dropped. This points to the fact that near the end of any struggle life asks for more than is needful in order to clinch success. A victory has to be won, not snatched. We find also our American innocence in calling "World Series" the annual games between the winners in each big league. The world doesn't know or care and couldn't compete if it wanted to, but since it's us children having fun, why, the world is our stage. I said baseball was Greek. Is there not a poetic symbol in the new meaning - our meaning - of "Ruth hits Homer"?

Once the crack of the bat has sent the ball skimmiting left of second between the infielder's legs, six men converge or distend their defense to keep the runner from advancing along the prescribed path. The ball is not the center of interest as in those vulgar predatory games like football, basketball, and polo. Man running is the force to be contained. His getting to first or second base starts a capitalization dreadful to think of: every hit pushes him on. Bases full and a homer make four runs, while the defenders, helpless without the magic power of the ball lying over the fence, cry out their anguish and dig up the sod with their spikes.

But fate is controlled by the rules. Opportunity swings from one side to the other because innings alternate quickly, keep up spirit in the players, interest in the beholders. So does the profusion of different acts to be performed - pitching, throwing, catching, batting, running, stealing, sliding, signaling. Blows are similarly varied. Flies, Texas Leaguers, grounders, baseline fouls - praise God the human neck is a universal joint! And there is no set pace. Under the hot sun, the minutes creep as a deliberate pitcher tries his feints and curves for three strikes called, or conversely walks a threatening batter. But the batter is not invariably a tailor's dummy. In a hundredth of a second there may be a hissing rocket down right field, a cloud of dust over first base - the bleachers all a-yell - a double play, and the other side up to bat.

Accuracy and speed, the practiced eye and hefty arm, the mind to take in and readjust to the unexpected, the possession of more than one talent and the willingness to work in harness without special orders - these are the American virtues that shine in baseball. There has never been a good player who was dumb. Beef and bulk and mere endurance count for little, judgment and daring for much. Baseball is among group games played with a ball what fencing is to games of combat. But being spread out, baseball has something sociable and friendly about it that I especially love. It is graphic and choreographic. The ball is not shuttling in a confined space, as in tennis. Nor does baseball go to the other extreme of solitary whanging and counting stopped on the brink of pointlessness, like golf. Baseball is a kind of collective chess with arms and legs in full play under sunlight.

How adaptable, too! Three kids in a back yard are enough to create the same quality of drama. All of us in our tennis days have pounded balls with a racket against a wall, for practice. But that is nothing compared with batting in an empty lot, or catching at twilight, with a fella who'll let you use his mitt when your palms get too raw. Every part of baseball equipment is inherently attractive and of a most enchanting functionalism. A man cannot have too much leather about him; and a catcher's mitt is just the right amount for one hand. It's too bad the chest protector and shinpads are so hot and at a distance so like corrugated cardboard. Otherwise, the team is elegance itself in its striped knee breeches and loose shirts, colored stockings and peaked caps. Except for brief moments of sliding, you can see them all in one eyeful, unlike the muddy hecatombs of football. To watch a football game is to be in prolonged neurotic doubt as to what you're seeing. It's more like an emergency happening at a distance than a game. I don't wonder the spectators take to drink. Who has ever seen a baseball fan drinking within the meaning of the act? He wants all his senses sharp and clear, his eyesight above all. He gulps down soda pop, which is a harmless way of replenishing his energy by the ingestion of sugar diluted in water and colored pink.

Happy the man in the bleachers. He is enjoying the spectacle that the gods on Olympus contrived only with difficulty when they sent Helen to Troy and picked their teams. And the Gods missed the fun of doing this by catching a bat near the narrow end and measuring hand over hand for first pick. In Troy, New York, the game scheduled for 2 P.M. will break no bones, yet it will be a real fight between Southpaw Dick and Red Larsen. For those whom civilized play doesn't fully satisfy, there will be provided a scapegoat in a blue suit-the umpire, yell-proof and even-handed as justice, which he demonstrates with outstretched arms when calling "Safe!"

And the next day in the paper: learned comment, statistical summaries, and the verbal imagery of meta-euphoric experts. In the face of so much joy, one can only ask, Were you there when Dogface Joe parked the pellet beyond the pale?

An American had been saying this, or some of it, once, to a British friend, on whose responsive face he saw signs of distress that made him stop. The American respected his friend's judgment and mistrusted his own headlong flights.

"Baseball," said the Englishman, "is an excellent game, no doubt. I can hear that smack of 'the pellet' in my palm, and almost feel it too. But aren't you a little unfair in taking all the credit for the game and calling it American? Shouldn't you mention the fact that baseball comes straight out of cricket, which is a wholly English game?

"I'd mention it," replied the American after a moment of deliberation, "if it weren't for one thing - the fatal flaw in cricket, which, to my mind, puts it right out of consideration."

"What is that?"

"Simply the fact that no one understands it, I mean knows what it is."

"You mean no one in the United States?"

"No, no. I mean no one at all, anywhere. Just between you and me, I don't think cricket has ever been played."

"What are you talking about?"

"It's my belief that at some time in the past an Englishman may have had the idea of a game to be played with bats and balls. He started to explain it - as many Englishmen have done to their American friends - but he couldn't go on. It was too complicated. What saved him and his idea was that he was talking to fellow Englishmen. They hate theory anyway, so they went ahead and got bats and balls - of sorts - and to oblige their friend, they stood around with them, running here and there very quietly from time to time, making believe they were playing the game. That's how the tradition started."

"What tradition? I'm lost!"

"The tradition that cricket is the national game and that every Englishman loves it. In a sense he does love it. 'Playing the game' means he wouldn't do a thing to dispel the general impression that there is such a thing - it's an exact parallel to what they call the British Constitution."

"You're pulling my leg. There is such a game."

"I assure you there isn't. You'll admit, surely, a thing that everybody knows, namely, that Englishmen don't know when they're beaten? Well, that follows logically from the fact that Englishmen don't know when they're playing. Name me another game than cricket which you don't know you're playing when you are?"

"You're juggling with words!"

"And you're blinding yourself to the evidence. Is it likely that people capable of inventing a game would make it consist of such objects as sticky wickets, creases, fast bowlers, overs, and centuries? One of their terms gives the show away: every so often they have a Test Match - it's to find out whether the game is possible or not."

"What do you suppose happens then?"

"After a few days on the field, the excitement dies down. The issue remains in doubt. Meantime - and this is conclusive - every British subject has a perfect right to say to any other: 'This isn't cricket.' How do you reconcile that with a set of rules for an actual game?"

"B-b-but, you can't be serious. I can make allowances for the fact that you've never seen a cricket match but you must have read about the game in Punch If you can't follow the sense of it, there must be some reliable source-"

"Would the Encyclopaedia Britannica do?"


"Well then. Get hold of the last British or fourteenth edition and look up cricket. What do you find? The history of the local clubs. Names of great figures. Older and modern style - style, mind you! Not a single word about the rules or who does what. No diagram, even - in an encyclopedia too. But no wonder - it's as I told you. The best you can hope for is that by watching our G.I.'s play baseball, some of your brighter fellows will find a way to make cricket come out. Compared to a real game it's in the chrysalis state."

Excerpted from: God's Country and Mine
A declaration of love spiced with a few harsh words.
By Jacques Barzun






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