March 18, 2006

THE HEART KNOWER (via Leo Wong):

Jacques Barzun, part two (Tim Wiles, Letters in the Dirt)

Now, back to Jacques Barzun, a Frenchman in America, describing the national pastime in 1954. When last we left off, Barzun had been describing the mental action and physical choreography of the game, comparing it to chess. Let's continue in his words:

"Baseball takes its mystic nine and scatters them wide. 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 it's 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."

Whew! What an amazing description. The genius of calling the shortstop "A movable feast for the eyes," or of calling the pitcher "a wayward man of genius, whom others will direct!" Besides getting to the heart of the matter, Barzun's writing has an almost sensual quality of what his countrymen call "le mot juste," or "the perfect word." Ironmongery, indeed. Here he expounds on the catcher: "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." This passage foreshadows a later description by the great baseball writer Roger Angell. "Any baseball is beautiful. No other small package comes as close to the ideal in design and utility. It is a perfect object for a man's hand. Pick it up and it instantly suggests its purpose; it is meant to be thrown a considerable distance--thrown hard and with precision." How about a game of catch between these two?

Barzun gets inside the soul of the game in a way perhaps that no native could, since we are freighted with our collective knowledge of the game, blinded by the normalcy of the game around us. Here's another nice Barzun quote for the ages: "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." And yet another: "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." Hey, Madison Avenue, sign this guy up as a spokesperson for the game!

On October 3rd, 1951, Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants hit a home run which, though viewed by only a half-capacity crowd at the Polo Grounds, has come to reverberate in the nation's consciousness so that it is known as "the shot heard round the world," and a hefty literary tome by Don DeLillo uses it as a starting point for limning the second half of the century. Again, writing in 1954, Barzun was an early commentator to grasp the significance of that home run: "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!"

Jacques Barzun, part one (Tim Wiles, Letters in the Dirt)

"Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of American had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game, and do it first by watching some high school or small town teams." So goes Barzun's most memorable quote from the essay. But to read that quote in context is a distinct pleasure. It continues: "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."

Some interesting responses come to mind about the fuller quote. First, it is interesting that Barzun considers the big league games too fast for the beginner. When Barzun wrote the essay, there was no cable television, no remote control, and no channel surfing. Today, the game is often criticized for being too slow for the television audience. But I don't think we are talking about the physical speed of the game here. Rather, I think Barzun has correctly pointed out that baseball at the big league level involves so much thinking on the part of players, managers, and knowledgeable fans that its depth cannot be perceived while channel surfing. Barzun divides potential fans into natives and beginners. This was perhaps natural for him to do, as a Frenchman in America. To update the analysis, we could perhaps divide Americans up into two groups: the initiated and the innocent. To the innocent, baseball seems to lack the reckless, headlong action of football, hockey, or basketball. To the initiated, the "scholars" as Barzun alludes to them, there is much, much more going on in a baseball game than in any of these other sports.

To this type of fan, it is natural to compare the game of baseball to the game of chess, an extremely intricate world of actions, consequences, and reactions. Perhaps Barzun was the first to do so: "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."

Reading through coverage of the All-Star Game in the Rocky Mountain News, of Denver, earlier this summer, I noticed an observation which supports the chess analogy. Science fiction author Dan Simmons was quoted as saying that he "...likes that when Craig Biggio's knees move one way in the batter's box, Juan Gonzalez shades him to the line, Derek Jeter moves over and Jim Thome backs up." Barzun earlier used the word choreographic, and baseball is also frequently compared to ballet, for its "moment to moment beauty and grace," as the movie shown daily in the Hall of Fame's Grandstand Theater attests, and also for its flashes of action.

Mr. Wong has a blog celebrating Mr. Barzun's 100th year

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 18, 2006 9:07 AM

For those of you who've never read it, his baseball essay is great and well worth a read. You can find it reprinted in this book, used copes of which you can get for as low as 91 cents plus shipping.

Interesting that the blog celebrates Mr. Barzun's centennial considering that he will (hopefully) turn 100 in 2007. Here's a great picture of him at the Baseball Hall of Fame that the blogger put up.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 18, 2006 1:31 PM

Television can never do baseball justice, for with baseball you have to be able to see the whole diamond and the outfield, yet still see the individuals - a wide shot and a closeup at the same time.

Hockey is a cavalry chrage.
Football is a contest between phalanxes.
Baseball is a seige.

Each has its own attraction, but baseball is more given to consideration.

Posted by: Mikey at March 18, 2006 4:13 PM