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Positively The Last Word On Baseball

May 2024
15min read

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.

all star baseball
Seven of the 1937 American League All-Star players, from left to right: Lou Gehrig, Joe Cronin, Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg. Library of Congress

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.”

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?

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.

As with the ballet in Russia and perhaps the opera in Italy, in baseball the artistic word is made lively flesh, which also makes it easier to understand. But there is a lot more to it than that. Start with the lovely sight—that glistening greensward, exquisitely cared for and marked out with such exactitude from the tawdry urban sprawl surrounding it. In such a setting it may even be a diamond at that. But in any case it demonstrates that a form so precisely faithful to the function can, by knowing hands, be turned into something beautiful without the need for deprecating explanation or embarrassment. Then those uniforms—spotless, sophisticatedly simple, cut perfectly to fit the purpose. And then the exhibition itself; those instantaneous responses neatly accumulated into resolving interaction—fast enough to take the breath away, slow enough to take it all in. The form of baseball is determined by precise configuration, exact measurement, and satisfying ratios among different kinds of known quantities. Within this immaculate conception each can play his identifiable individual part and all can work together in amazing grace—even in the most routine transactions, like a putout at first or a double play.

Edna St. Vincent Millay held that Euclid alone had looked on Beauty bare. But anyone sitting in the bleachers on any given day can see the possibility of beauty (albeit appropriately clad) in the collective action within that nice geometry.

If it were only a lovely sight it would be no more than an aesthete’s pastime. If it were only a game, “winning,” as Vince Lombard! said, would be “the only thing.” But those who give their lives to it have a far larger point to make. Any legitimate art form, in paring away the muddle of reality, leaves the clean lines of an ideal state so the possibility of doing better with life is postulated and confirmed. The design for a more perfect union that baseball presents must have a continuing fascination for a people who have lived in a rational constitutional scheme, who believe in a government of well-defined laws and who like to fool around with numbers.

This concludes my effort to suggest that modern students may find in baseball the key to the storehouse where the historical treasures of the great Republic are contained. And perhaps, if I were wise, I would conclude at this point. But my love of the game—and my concern for the relevance of any instruction and my foreboding sense of the kind of future we may try to figure out—lead me to a few more comments that have not so much to do with the past as with the years to come.

Baseball has devised a scheme where men can produce results that are almost always interesting and often exhilarating.

I have suggested that baseball has served as some sort of ideal expression that our better selves could aspire to, a kind of model to work toward even though it could never really be. The fact is that in the past it could be no more than that. We had not accumulated enough percentages and numbers to put our very lives in so nice a framework. But in recent days we have reached enough exact assessments, assigned enough integers to known quantities, and worked out enough statistical probabilities to think of controlling experience through useful equations and ingenious numeracy, as it is now sometimes called. The power in all these new findings—as students know far better than their teachers—is marvelously multiplied by the computers.

In such conditions it may be useful to study baseball not as an ideal expression but as a kind of manual or handbook for the successful management of a numbers game. It is, I think, the only team sport in which it is possible to play a flawless exhibition and, because the nature of the {lawlessness is clearly stated in mathematical terms, to know that you have done so. These occasions, called “perfect games,” are rare, but they do occur—eleven times in the last eighty-five years. The definition of perfection is no runs, no hits, no walks, no errors. That is, you know you’ve got it exactly right only when absolutely nothing happens.

It would be quite possible to increase the incidence of these games by altering the structure of the play—reducing the allotment of strikes for the batter, shortening the distance between bases and so forth. But those in authority have realized that if they carried the numbers to their logical conclusions, all they would get was more zeros. They have resisted this temptation to push the game across the line of semiaridity.

From the beginning they have operated on a different premise; perfection, like Beauty bare or only winning, is an ignis fatuus for those in search of decent principles of human organization. In an obviously flawed world one can do no more than create conditions that enable people to do the best they can. And it must be recognized that the best is really never very good.

The finest hitters in the game are successful one time in three; the good infielder makes an error one game in four; a pitcher who wins twelve games and loses ten finds a place in the rotation; and all the daily play is stained with foul balls, wild pitches, dropped flies, and getting caught off base.

The achievement of baseball—what makes it the prototype for future organizations—is that while accepting all this ineptitude and untidiness, it provides a scheme where men at work can, with satisfaction to their selves, produce results that are almost always interesting and more often than not exhilarating. The beauty of this scheme derives from the way the precision of the structure, the logic of the rules, and the claims of the human potential are brought into invigorating consonance. I would cite the three determining principles on which this scheme is built: First, the fundamental dimensions of the composition are keyed to the known and measurable quantities in human potential—how fast a man can run, the speed of the ball he throws, how far he can hit a ball and all that. Second, since it is known that the human best is not very good—or at least very predictable—carefully calculated routine opportunities for a man to show the stuff that is in him are ingeniously created within the settled total composition. For a single simplified instance, the controlling context of three strikes and four balls is found to give a batter a reasonable amount of room to prove his truth by his endeavor (getting a hit), especially since the context is enlarged by the fact that a foul ball is never counted as a third strike unless it is a foul tip caught by the catcher. That such arrangements to give appropriate accommodation to the needs of the human potential have been worked out so firmly, so clearly, and in such detail is one of the primary sources of strength in the total composition.

And finally, in that composition a place is made for those things in the human condition that no one can figure out. There is the two-week slump that sets in when a man unconsciously changes his batting stance or when there is trouble at home. There is the shining moment, the little miracle of Coogan’s Bluff, when Bobby Thomson’s homer turns a whole season around. And there is the demonstration every day that those “intangibles” Stinky Stanky had can be used by anyone to upend the controlling influence of the percentages.

Now what, in the fewest possible words, does all this prove? Briefly, it appears that all our students will be going out to shape a society that will be increasingly organized by the skilled manipulation of the numbers, by the enlarging capacity of the brain for quantitative thinking, and probably, in time, by the sharpness of artificial intelligence. The record shows (and as Casey Stengel used to say, “You can look it up”) that baseball has had more experience and success with ordering a society such as ours than any other agency. And the record further indicates that the way to make the programs fit and the statistical probabilities appropriately apply and the numbers fall into the right place is to start with what the players are like- insofar as you can tell. As Casey Stengel also almost certainly said, “You hafta know your players and what they can’t do before you start your thinkin’.” If you can get that point across in an introductory course to enough students, it is even possible that we might have a whole new ball game.

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