March 11, 2018


The Republic of Baseball (Joseph Sobran, 3/11/18, Imaginative Conservative)

Ted Williams began his autobiography by saying that when he was a kid, his only ambition was to have people say, as we walked down the street, "There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived." My own autobiography could start the same way. It would end differently, though.

In this I can confidently speak for millions of American males. Every little boy has his dreams of baseball glory from the first time he feels the delicious shock in the wrists of bat smashing ball and sees the ball rocket away into the outfield, faster and farther than he knew he could propel it. That's enough to keep him going through the long summers when he's picked last in the sandlot games, assigned to bat last, and ordered to play right field, where he gets yelled at by his teammates when he lets an easy grounder roll past him.

Not to play means missing out on the common experience of the male sex. And once you get into it, it's easy to get absorbed. In Ypsilanti, Michigan, I spent long winters studying baseball statistics to while away the endless cold grey days until the snow melted. Then, around mid March, we started our new season in the park, or any empty field. At that time of year it didn't feel good to connect. In the chill, hitting the ball stung your hands, and catching it hurt worse, so that you'd suck your breath through your chattering teeth. You tried to snag the ball in the webbing of your glove, even if you were a good fielder, because having it smack your palm was almost unbearable.

Our neighborhood games were played with no more than seven boys on a team: slow pitch, no catchers, no umpires. We'd lob pitches in so that everyone could hit and put the ball in play. Anyway, we were all afraid of fast pitching, though this fear was one of those things you didn't confess, like wetting the bed or getting beaten up by your sister.

But we had to face fast pitching in Little League, which turned out to be the fatal hurdle on my way to Cooperstown. [...]

Baseball is a deeply orderly game. The distinctiveness of its component actions -- pitching, hitting, fielding, and base-running -- makes them available to separate attention, measurement, analysis, and judgment. Every player's contribution to every play is recorded and given value. The statistics are rarely misleading. If you want to know who the American League's best second baseman of the Thirties was, well, as Casey Stengel used to say, "You could look it up." Try that with defensive linemen.

Other sports thrill; baseball also absorbs. It's the most discussable game, and it's the national pastime largely because we can talk about it so volubly long after we can play it. No other sport binds the generations the way baseball does.

Because it's so thoroughly recorded, baseball has a genuine history. It also has a continuity that the other major sports don't have. "The NFL keeps changing the most basic rules," Thomas Boswell observes. "Most blocking now would have been illegal use of the hands in Jim Parker's time. How do we compare eras when the sport never stays the same?" In fact, none of the other three sports is the same game it was as recently as the Fifties, for all sorts of reasons. Wilt Chamberlain's season scoring records will never be broken, simply because nobody will ever play against as many white players as Chamberlain did. (If you want a sure-fire laugh, ask a basketball fan whether Michael Jordan is as great as George Mikan.)

The statistical discreteness of individual performance, set against the game's stable history, gives achievement in baseball a permanence and stature other sports can seldom confer. And even racial integration hasn't devalued the records; in fact, most fans -- including experts -- doubt Henry Aaron was a greater slugger than the man whose supreme record he broke. Lawrence Ritter reckons that with as many times at bat as Aaron, Ruth would have hit 1,064 home runs. Be that as it may, heroism in baseball is more perduring than in other American sports, and does much to account for the splendid literature baseball has produced. Nearly every fan has read John Updike's description of Williams' last game.

Posted by at March 11, 2018 6:37 AM