FROM ISSUE NUMBER 2 ~ WINTER 2010 GO TO TABLE OF CONTENTS
America at the Bat
There are very few photographs of my dad as a child. The only two I have seen are his christening picture — a baby boy engulfed in a lacy white dress — and another of him, aged 7 or so, with his father, both in baseball uniforms. My grandpa Earl, of the Northwood Team, is down on one knee, leaning on a massive wooden bat. Young Russell, meanwhile, stands beside him wearing the baseball outfit his mother sewed for him, one hand on his dad's shoulder, the other holding a slimmer bat, grinning ear to ear. Religion and baseball — those were the two commemorated moments of cultural transmission.
There are oodles more pictures of me as a child. But two of my favorites are baseball photos: one of me, less than a year old, cradled in my dad's arm, watching a baseball game; another of me and my sister in our Minnesota Twins jackets being taught to throw — not like girls — by our dad.
The experience of things baseball is a legacy from fathers to sons (and sometimes daughters). Selections in the Library of America's volume Baseball: A Literary Anthology confirm the role of fathers. Annie Dillard, in her memoir An American Childhood, begins a riff on baseball lingo by conjuring the following scene: "One Sunday afternoon Mother wandered through our kitchen, where Father was making a sandwich and listening to the ball game." Stephen Jay Gould's essay "The Streak of Streaks" opens this way: "My father was a court stenographer. At his less than princely salary, we watched Yankee games from the bleachers or high in the third deck."
In an essay on her brother Paul's appearance in the World Series, "Coming to the Plate, One Family's Ethos," Molly O'Neill tells of a baseball-mad father who "never seemed to remember any of his sons' names until he heard them announced over the public address system at the Little League park." The most powerful testimony comes from Amiri Baraka, the radical black nationalist and Marxist, who recalls that "the specialest feeling was when my father took me down to Ruppert Stadium some Sundays to see the Newark Eagles, the black pro team. Very little in my life was as heightened (in anticipation and reward) for me as that....A little big-eyed boy holding his father's hand."
Because of the way in which baseball links the generations it has been a channel through which vital traits of American character are instilled. The health of baseball concerns all of America, and the health of America — perhaps especially the American family — finds itself reflected in the state of our national pastime. Baseball is a mirror of American liberty and of the virtues necessary to sustain it.
This sport of fathers and sons is under strain in those precincts of our culture where fatherhood itself is in trouble. And unfortunately, the experience of the young Amiri Baraka is becoming all too rare. Many commentators have noted the marked decline in the number of African-Americans watching and playing baseball. The data from Major League Baseball are the most readily available: By 1975, almost three decades after Jackie Robinson arrived, the proportion of African-American players reached a high of 27%. That number then fell off for the next three decades, reaching a low of 8% in 2007. Meanwhile, the percentage of white players has remained fairly level since the 1970s, with the difference being made up by the influx of Latinos and Asians.
As for spectators, they are increasingly and overwhelmingly white. This was never true in the past. Before 1947, during the era of the Negro Leagues, play was segregated, but audiences crossed the color line. Whites freely attended Negro League games and blacks attended Major League Baseball games (albeit in segregated seating). Baraka, at that point still known by his birth name of LeRoi Jones, says that he "remained a Giant ‘fan,' cause me fadder was, even when J.R. came on the scene [Robinson played for the rival Dodgers]." Thus, until the last incarnation of the Negro Leagues folded in 1960, African-Americans often had double baseball allegiances. Baraka explains: "Those other Yankees and Giants and Dodgers we followed just to keep up with being in America. We had our likes and our dislikes. ‘Our' teams. But for the black teams, and for us Newarkers, the Newark Eagles, was pure love." Today, you'd be hard pressed to find a black barbershop in the land where the TV or the conversation was tuned to a baseball game.
The trend has been noted, lamented in some quarters, but nowhere adequately explained. My strong hunch is that the declining interest and involvement in baseball is a consequence of the absence of fathers in the black community. The out-of-wedlock birth rate among African-Americans held right around 30% from 1930 to 1954 (much higher than the white rate, but still such that the majority of black kids grew up in two-parent families). The elite athletes in the cohort of black boys born in 1954 would have started to enter the majors in the mid- to late '70s, when black participation peaked. The precipitous rise in black fatherlessness began in the late '50s, and a quarter-century later the decline in the number of black ballplayers became noticeable. Today, it is estimated that 80% of African-American children are raised without a father in the home.
It is striking that there has been no similar decline in enthusiasm for basketball or football; the racial compositions of the NBA and NFL have held steady at 75% and 66% black, respectively. What accounts for the dramatic discrepancy? For starters, we might note that baseball is an acquired taste, whereas the other ball sports have a certain natural appeal. Jacques Barzun, in his essay "God's Country and Mine," observes that in baseball, "The ball is not the center of interest as in those vulgar predatory games like football, basketball, and polo." To put it bluntly, kids don't need fatherly guidance to appreciate "vulgar predatory games." Football, in particular, as a collision sport, is the stuff of adolescent male fantasy. Football is to baseball as heavy metal or rap is to classical or jazz.
Some commentators have claimed that the disappearance of American blacks from baseball is rooted in economics. The argument runs that because baseball requires more expensive gear than basketball and more infrastructure (tended fields, leagues, and such), impoverished black youths have perforce given up on the game. This explanation doesn't wash for football, however, which is the most gear-laden of sports. Little League has left the inner cities, but Pop Warner Youth Football has not. There is also a lot of speculation about differences in the routes to professional-level play, focusing on how the various drafts work and how that might affect a young person's choice of game. This strikes me as rational-choice theory gone haywire. When youngsters head out to shoot hoops or play catch, they aren't calculating the odds of professional success (if they were, they would concentrate on school instead). Kids play what they love, which is not determined by rational calculation, nor foreclosed by poverty (at least not in the case of a democratic game like baseball). In the past, city kids without resources were resourceful enough to play stickball — and a farm boy like my dad learned to stitch together the leather on his one baseball to keep it playable.
Kids play what they love, but those loves can be cultivated. Moreover, the higher and finer loves that are the fruit of cultivation can lose out in competition with the weedy natural growths. Without fathers, there is no baseball, only football and basketball. As Mark Anthony Neal observed in a Baltimore Sun op-ed, "among the current black ballplayers in the majors a significant number are sons of former major leaguers, including John Mayberry Jr. of the Phillies, Gary Matthews Jr. of the Angels and Prince Fielder of the Brewers." Neal also mentions the brothers Young (Dmitri and Delmon) and Upton (B.J. and Justin): "Both sets of brothers talk about how their fathers were instrumental in their careers, with baseball serving as the common language that bridged the generation gap." For all too many black children today, there isn't a generation gap to be bridged; there is just profound absence — the men who impregnated their mothers are missing, murdered, incarcerated, incapacitated, or unknown. For them, baseball is a bridge to nowhere.
The fact that in days long ago the children of many immigrants picked up baseball on their own (because their fathers, though present, had no familiarity with the game) does not invalidate this hypothesis. For those first-generation youngsters, the longing for assimilation — together with the cultural dominance of baseball — were sufficient to transmit the love and lore of the game. Today, baseball is more than ever dependent on fatherly initiation — like that given to Willie Mays, who, as George Will tells it, was taught to walk at six months by his father, "enticing him with a rolling baseball."
For the past 20 years, Major League Baseball has tried to compensate for the deficit with a program called Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI). Just last year, Cal Ripken launched his own Baltimore-based effort, Swing for the Future, with a promise to build five youth development parks in underserved neighborhoods. These are both worthy undertakings, but like all such attempts to engineer substitutes for fathers (whether mentors, "villages," or government bureaucrats), the odds of success are lower than the natural odds.
Admittedly, the decline of baseball is not the worst effect of fatherlessness: Drugs, delinquency, and despair are all worse. Nonetheless, black alienation from baseball is part of the collateral damage. And if, as I believe, baseball has a moral and civic dimension, then indifference to baseball is not just an unfortunate byproduct of fatherlessness, but a serious loss in its own right.
BODY AND SOUL
Preferring to be non-judgmental, Americans don't give much thought to the moral effects of various sports and games. Of course, we have a general notion of sportsmanship. Good sportsmanship is a virtue that can be displayed in any activity that involves victory and defeat (although it may be that some sports have evolved in ways that seriously erode the notion of fair play — hockey, for instance). But there are also more subtle effects on character wrought by how we exercise our bodies. Inasmuch as human beings are compounds of body and soul, there is no such thing as a purely bodily pursuit.
Thomas Jefferson, who thought deeply about the formation of republican citizens, addressed the question of proper exercise in a letter to his 15-year-old nephew, Peter Carr. After admonishing him to moral behavior (one gets the sense that Jefferson had cause to be concerned) and detailing a course of reading in ancient history, poetry, and philosophy, Jefferson instructed him to spend two hours a day exercising:
A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks. Never think of taking a book with you. The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far. The Europeans value themselves on having subdued the horse to the uses of man. But I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained by the use of this animal. No one has occasioned so much the degeneracy of the human body. An Indian goes on foot nearly as far in a day, for a long journey, as an enfeebled white does on his horse, and he will tire the best horses.
Clearly, Jefferson had a number of concerns about exercise. For the body, he recommended moderate (but sustained) exertion rather than violent effort; for the mind, he wanted relaxation and refreshment (secured through the diverting observation of nature); for the character, he preferred vigilant self-reliance rather than conformity to team spirit. For the same reasons, Jefferson advocated an agricultural mode of life — marked by steady habits, mindful cooperation with nature, and independence — rather than a commercial or manufacturing life driven by ambition for gain, divorced from natural limits, and dependent on the decadent desires of others.
Against Jefferson's wishes, Americans soon became both a commercial and a ball-playing people. (Indeed, even the Native Americans, whom Jefferson so admired, played lacrosse.) Most of us have exchanged the serious solitude of the streams and forests for the camaraderie and competition of the playing field, the sociality of the stadium, and the mediated connection of the screen. Unlike Jefferson, we believe that being part of a team — including rooting for a team — can be good for us.
What results do the soccer moms expect to see? Certainly, they hope their children will be healthy and fit, will develop specific athletic skills, and perhaps will acquire beauty of form and movement (on field and off). Beyond physical excellences, they hope for character training — all that is implied by words like practice, effort, discipline, and concentration. They hope their kids will learn not to be either a ball-hog or afraid of the ball, not to be either a boaster or a coward. Perhaps they sense the benefit of games — which are highly rule-bound, man-made constructions — as a preparation for self-government, where one lives as a citizen under laws that the community has given itself. Perhaps they hope being part of a team will allow children to experience the subordination of the self to a larger whole engaged in a noble endeavor.
Granting that a wide variety of sports can help inculcate virtues of body and soul, we still ought to ask, are some better at it than others? Are there qualities of character that belong especially, perhaps even uniquely, to some sports? Moreover, do the virtues cultivated by a sport have any political valence? Baseball was once overwhelmingly the national pastime. Was that purely accidental, or was there a connection between the national game and the national character? Baseball is clearly in decline among African-Americans, and arguably so for the rest of the country. Does it matter?
Jefferson's opinion that ball games "stamp no character on the mind" may well be accurate with respect to soccer. The virtue-neutral aspect of soccer is consistent with its universal appeal. Soccer is played in all manner of regimes, from the radically secular to the theocratic, from dictatorships to democracies. Hordes of American kids now play soccer even though the game figured not at all in the childhoods of their parents (particularly those aging Boomer parents). Lacking any feel for the game, these mothers and fathers nonetheless happily cart their children to practices. Why? Because their kids can buzz around in a confined area for an hour, get plum tuckered out, and run not much risk of humiliating themselves (other than the rare "own-goal"). Of course, if the kids keep at it, they eventually need to acquire some ball-handling skills — but soccer is never psychologically demanding or politically formative in the way that baseball is.
For a beginning player, baseball involves long stretches of boredom interrupted by moments of heart-stopping terror. The punctuated pace of baseball requires the development of coiled attentiveness (it is estimated that Cal Ripken assumed the ready position 21,000 times a season) and unflappable self-control. There is no flow as in basketball or soccer. Flow can hide a multitude of mistakes. In baseball, each moment is distinct and features one individual. (John Updike famously dubbed baseball "an essentially lonely game.") The whole team is counting on that player in that moment. The possibility of utter humiliation does not disappear even at the professional level — think of Bill Buckner's fielding error in the 1986 World Series.
Of course, there are key moments in other games: You get the ball in the final seconds and must score. But often those moments can be scripted or engineered; a coach goes to the player he thinks can deliver. In baseball, however, the offense is fixed from the start by the batting order. It's your turn and no one else's. Although there are strategies involved in setting the batting order, there is also an inescapable element of chance in how the order plays out in any particular game. It is a lottery — and lottery is the quintessential democratic mode. The assumption behind the batting order is that each individual deserves an equal chance. (The violation of that fundamental assumption is why the designated hitter is an abomination; it points in the repellant direction of football-like specialization: the pitcher as special-teams player.) There is no taking turns in other ball sports. Kids will naturally feed the ball to the best players or their friends; in other words, they adopt either the aristocratic or the oligarchic principle. Baseball's batting order is salutary in that it insists upon and demonstrates just how difficult democracy is. Especially at the younger levels where natural inequalities are more pronounced, stronger hitters must learn to cheer on their teammates and weaker hitters must learn to conquer dread, learn to draw the walk, learn to bunt, learn even to "take one for the team."
THE DEMOCRATIC GAME
Just as everyone bats, so too everyone takes the field. A baseball team is like a citizen militia rather than a professional military with distinct ranks and services. There is no division into fully separate offensive and defensive squads as in football (or offensive and defensive players as in soccer); there is nothing remotely like a quarterback, barking orders. The array of skills — batting, throwing, catching, running the bases — that must be mastered by each player in baseball is truly daunting. No one makes a high-school baseball team who hasn't been playing for many years. By contrast, a player can come to the game of football much later on the basis of athleticism alone. It might also be noted that many commentators regard hitting a pitched ball as the most fearsome and difficult feat in athletic competition. A golf ball sits still; a tennis ball is softer, moves slower, and is hit with a racket face many times the area of the ball's face. By contrast, a fastball capable of killing a batter reaches the plate in 0.417 seconds. A batter has two-tenths of a second to decide to swing, and two-tenths of a second to do so. The pitch exists in a hittable position for just 15-thousandths of a second.
The democratic individualism of baseball is also on display in the shape and dimensions of the field, which allow each player — and each spectator — a sovereign view of the whole. Home plate is a vortex from which radiate foul lines stretching (theoretically) to infinity. Updike speaks of an "immense and tranquil field sparsely settled with poised men in white." These are the respectable distances of self-government, where each action is ideally transparent, seen by all, understood by all.
The experience of football is the opposite. The gridiron illustrates the fog of war. If you are one of the grunts on the front lines, you slam the guy facing you. You know the planned movement as it appeared on the sweeping arcs of the general's map or the coach's diagram, but you don't witness its execution or failure. The perspective of football players is partial. That's why they have to pore over the game films, so they can retroactively figure out what happened. Not even the spectators have a full view. The crunch of it all obscures vision and knowledge. After a fumble, you wait to find out which team will emerge from the pile-up in possession of the ball. As Barzun says: "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." That verdict is seconded by George Will: "The fact that football fans have coarse characters and frayed moral fibers cannot be a matter of mere chance. The explanation has something to do with a fact noted here before: Football combines two grim features of American life, violence and committee meetings (huddles). It also has something to do with football's lunatic fascination with technology."
Of all the major sports, baseball has been most resistant to the inroads of technology, both in equipment (contrast baseball's preservation of the wooden bat with the game-changing evolution of tennis rackets) and in the use of the instant replay, which seeks to replace fallible human judgment with scientific accuracy. Baseball was the last major sport to allow a role for such technology, and it has kept that role strictly limited. In general, the status of the umpire — especially the home-plate umpire — is different from the referees of other sports, who mostly police infractions and dole out occasional penalties. Referees are like the policemen that every regime must have, but the home-plate umpire is more like the independent judiciary that is unique to liberal democracies. In baseball, every pitch requires a judgment call. What the umpire does differs in both degree (the frequency of his calls) and kind (calling balls and strikes is qualitatively different from calling violations like offside or traveling). The umpire is integral to the game to an unparalleled degree. Not surprisingly, umps come in for more abuse from players, managers, and fans than do refs. Indeed, George Jean Nathan suggested in a 1910 Harper's Weekly essay, "Baiting the Umpire," that the real, distinctively American sport is "killing-the-umpire":
Other countries have tried baseball, but they have not tried killing-the-umpire. That is probably the reason why they have not waxed enthusiastic over baseball. For baseball without umpire-killing is like football without girls in the grand-stand.
Once again, the situation in baseball can be analogized to our political life. In the American republic, the attitude toward the law is complicated. Law-abidingness is a virtue, and a duty since you have consented to play by these rules. At the same time, standing up for your rights, speaking truth to power, and resisting bad government are admired. Justice is not reducible to obeying the law. Baseball embodies this duality. It encourages deference to judicial authority by enshrining judgment behind the plate (the official rules state: "No player, manager, coach or substitute shall object to any such judgment decisions [on the part of an umpire]"); but it also, by the unwritten rules, tolerates a fair bit of raucous questioning of authority. It doesn't permit civil disobedience (no game could — and it's a serious question whether any polity should), but it does put up with obedient incivility. Hurling invective at "His Umps" readies one for bad Supreme Court decisions.
One thing an umpire does not control is the clock. There is no clock in baseball. By contrast, games played within the bounds of large rectangles — basketball, soccer, hockey, football, lacrosse — usually play by the clock. Busy middle-school parents sometimes steer their boys away from trying out for baseball because of this. Even though games at that level are shortened to six innings, you're still looking at a 60-minute soccer game (those, too, are shortened for kids from the normal 90-minute game) versus a two-hour-plus baseball game, upwards of twice a week. Moreover, there are no ties in baseball (contrast
soccer) and no quick, sudden-death mechanism to resolve a tie (contrast basketball). You just keep playing. (The parents of young soccer players love ties — it's so much gentler on the psyche with no winners and losers.)
Games played on the clock suit the hectic pace of modern life: Dash to the game where the kids dash around for an hour then dash to the next lesson or appointment. Baseball, though, insists upon its own internal rhythm; innings are infinitely variable (a side might bat around or it might be three up, three down). Fascinatingly, one of the dictionary definitions for "inning" is "an opportunity for action or accomplishment." Whereas a quarter is a fixed increment, an inning is shaped by the action itself. An inning is a timeless, alternate world of human agency.
Other evidence of the unbounded character of human aspiration in baseball is that the foul lines are not absolute. In the rectangular games, out-of-bounds means out-of-bounds. Nothing of significance (other than injury I suppose) can occur there. In baseball, by contrast, foul balls on the fly are playable. Fielders are encouraged to make stunning catches in foul territory, virtually leaping into the stands or diving into dugouts. The same lofty ambition is possible for batters. The home run goes beyond the dimensions of the outfield, sailing over the wall and even out of the stadium altogether. The home run is out-standing. Thus, baseball rewards achievements that technically transcend the horizon of the game. In no other sport can you score outside the lines.
Perhaps because the pace is slower (in what other sport is a special break, the seventh-inning stretch, provided just for the spectators?), it is sometimes asserted that baseball belongs to pastoral America. George Will emphatically rejects this attempt to link baseball to an idealized earlier era, when life was supposedly unhurried. He counters that baseball is a dynamic, high-tension game of "blazing speeds" in which the "pace of the action is relentless: There is barely enough time between pitches for all the thinking that is required." That may be true, but it is also compatible with the claim that baseball is fundamentally "leisurely."
It is the self-contained, world-unto-itself character of baseball — and not silly sentimentality — that is conveyed by a descriptor like "leisurely." Among the Greeks, the proper use of leisure was worthy activities, among them politics, prayer, philosophy, and play, engaged in for their own sakes. Real leisure takes one out of time and self. Baseball's exemption from the clock encourages this salutary forgetfulness. It is old-fashioned in the sense that freedom is understood and experienced not as license but as transcendence. It's no wonder that baseball — along with religion and philosophy — is endangered in our profoundly this-worldly, un-contemplative time.
Remember, Barzun had deprecated as vulgar and predatory those sports whose focus is solely on the ball. In soccer and basketball, a score results from the position of the ball (in the goal, through the hoop). In football, a score can result either from the position of the ball (between the goal posts) or from the combined position of man and ball (man with ball in end zone). In baseball, however, it is man alone who scores. As Barzun put it, "man running is the force to be contained." Being instinctively focused on the ball, kids don't realize this. Think how often Little League coaches shout: "Don't watch the ball! Run!" The game is constituted by exceedingly complex interactions between what is done with the ball and what happens on the base paths. In other sports, the television crawl just gives the score and the clock (football adds the down and yardage count). In baseball, the crawl includes the score, the innings tally, how many outs, how many men on base and which bases, and the pitch count (a separate box often provides the stats on the batter). Those constantly changing variables must be known to each player at each moment, or he will do the wrong thing with the ball should it come to him. Baseball is the most mindful of ball games.
Because the object in baseball is not to put the ball in one fixed place (the basket, the goal, the end zone) but to get men "on base" and then "home," there are unique possibilities for team play. Most revealingly, in these other ball sports there is nothing equivalent to a sacrifice fly or sacrifice bunt, where an out can advance the runner. Of course, there is teamwork in all team sports, and young people gradually learn the value of making the pass that leads to the shot on goal. A sacrifice fly, however, conveys deeper lessons about the subordination of self than an assist does. The cooperative virtues taught by baseball are of a higher order.
Sports are often analogized to warfare. Football may teach the martial virtues of pain and discipline, but a baseball player might be more likely, upon an instant, to take the individual initiative to fall on a grenade for the sake of his buddies, so they can return home. Moreover, the baseball diamond — with its injunction to "bring 'em home" — teaches the priority of home. Baseball knows that war, though both necessary and ennobling, is for the sake of peace. The offense in baseball is non-imperialistic in character. There is no unseemly gloating at home plate as there is in the end zone of the enemy.
Another element of baseball's greater thoughtfulness is its devotion to numbers. As George Will has quipped, "baseball people are Pythagoreans." The allusion is apt — for it reminds one of the difference between ancient and modern mathematics, with the ancients experiencing the sheer revelatory delight of numbers while the moderns look always toward practical, and especially technological, applications. Of course, some of baseball's stats are useful in a managerial sense, but many others are just for the fun of it. They further pure theoretical understanding. They are a great boon to teachers as well — what pizza is to simple fractions, the batting average (not to mention the earned-run average) is to more advanced calculations.
Because baseball is a game of statistics, it is a game of "records" and the record book. Baseball's Pythagoreans are also historians. Just check out the Baseball Records Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research, for whom records are made not to be broken but to be discovered, catalogued, corrected, and analyzed. Sabermetrics is an academic study that has as its goal "discovering objective knowledge about the basic principles that underlie the game." Baseball records reach back into the distant past. My son, who plays soccer and baseball with equal devotion, can still name only one famous soccer player from the past (Pelé). By contrast, he has heard the names of scores of old-time baseball players, has a handful of their cards, and has read books about legendary figures who died well before he was born. Baseball lengthens memory.
By encouraging reverence, baseball goes against the dangerous democratic tendency to forget the past and celebrate the new. Democracy is precarious because it so often undercuts its own moral underpinnings. Paradoxically or not, it turns out that conservative virtues are needed to sustain the democratic experiment. Baseball shows the way: It has a constitutional soul that secures the future by preserving the past. If there has been anything positive about the steroid scandal in baseball, it is the talk of asterisks in the record books. This is an example of constitutional vigilance, protecting the game's structural integrity and fidelity to history. I suspect that a youngster who has read a biography of Lou Gehrig would be disposed to respond to James Madison and the other stars of the nation's founding Triple-A team. To put a somewhat more partisan spin on the matter: A youngster who mentally puts an asterisk next to Barry Bonds in deference to Hank Aaron should be predisposed to set aside the dishonest distortions of the "Living Constitution" school of interpretation and opt for an originalist approach.
Along with mathematics and history, there is a related discipline for which baseball constitutes a preparation: the art of storytelling. From the point of view of the spectator, many of the superiorities of the game culminate in the uniqueness of baseball's scorekeeping. No other sport offers the same level of participation to its fans. It's also worthy of note that women are prominent in the scorekeeping ranks. Soccer moms provide transportation and snacks, but in Little League, it's usually a mom who is entrusted with the official scorebook. In the mind, if not on the field, there is gender equity in baseball. Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her memoir Wait Till Next Year, describes her initiation:
When I was six, my father gave me a bright-red scorebook that opened my heart to the game of baseball. After dinner on long summer nights, he would sit beside me in our small enclosed porch to hear my account of the day's Brooklyn Dodger game. Night after night he taught me the odd collection of symbols, numbers, and letters that enable a baseball lover to record every action of the game....By the time I had mastered the art of scorekeeping, a lasting bond had been forged among my father, baseball, and me.
Scorekeeping is a form of translation; the action is translated into symbols which can then be translated into a narrative. What better preparation for a life of scholarship than to learn that exciting stories can be lodged in, and then extracted from, curious markings? A child introduced to scorekeeping is primed to greet documents and texts of all kinds — whether natural or man made — with enthusiasm. From the fossil record to voting records, from the songs of grasshoppers to the dialogues of Plato, there are esoteric meanings and truths to be puzzled out. Goodwin had a good teacher in the art of reading between the lines:
My father pointed to the second inning, where Jackie Robinson had hit a single and then stolen second. There was excitement in his voice. "See, it's all here. While Robinson was dancing off second, he rattled the pitcher so badly that the next two guys walked to load the bases. That's the impact Robinson makes, game after game. Isn't he something?" His smile at such moments inspired me to take my responsibility seriously.
I too was taught by my dad to keep score. While my parents worked in the yard, gardening and building stone terraces, I sat at the picnic table taking down the Twins game from the radio. Because of its narrative quality, baseball is especially suited to radio. Political pundits often mention Ronald Reagan's career as an actor (usually with a discreditable implication), but his years as a radio sportscaster may have been more important for the development of his skills as a political orator.
Baseball and language belong together. American speech is rife with baseball idioms, as a glance through The Dickson Baseball Dictionary will reveal. Wordsmiths have always been drawn to baseball: From the vernacular (the specialty of players like Dizzy Dean, Satchel Paige, Casey Stengel, and Yogi Berra) to belles lettres, memorable language has surrounded the baseball diamond. That the national game should be so word-drenched could hardly be more appropriate, for the United States is a nation founded by and upon words, from the bold pronouncements of the Declaration to the written Constitution (the world's first). We are a nation with a narrative.
A NEW BIRTH OF FREEDOM
Narratives of course have beginnings, middles, and ends. Here the baseball metaphor perhaps breaks down, for although both individual games and seasons end in either victory or loss, baseball renews itself each year. Not so with governments. So far as we know, all political orders perish. But here again, baseball speaks in a salutary way to our hope that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Baseball is a game of surprises, extra innings, and, should all else fail, the promise of spring. Baseball is a hopeful game.
It is sobering to realize that the perpetuation of our polity has certain moral preconditions — preconditions that may be in danger of eroding. So too the perpetuation of our national pastime depends on certain qualities of character in both players and spectators. However, it turns out that both sets of requisite virtues may be prompted by the very activity of playing ball. Happy thought: "Play ball!" could become the rallying cry of American moral and civic renewal. Whereas Thomas Jefferson counseled against ball games, Abraham Lincoln had a baseball diamond built behind the White House and often joined his sons and their friends in playing ball — testimony to the homely wisdom of Father Abraham.
Diana Schaub is a professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland and a Little League scorekeeper. She is a member of the Hoover Institution's Boyd and Jill Smith Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society.