Quoting Baseball: The Intellectual Take on Our National Pastime

By McAfee, Skip | Nine, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Quoting Baseball: The Intellectual Take on Our National Pastime


McAfee, Skip, Nine


F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed that baseball was "a game played by idiots for morons." (1) In this paper I will examine the views of the intelligentsia--erudite, "cultured," but nonbaseball individuals, including prominent artists, historians, scientists, statesmen, educators, philosophers, humorists, novelists--as they interpret what baseball is all about. We all know about Twain's observation of the "drive and push and rush" of baseball in the "raging" nineteenth century, and Longfellow's rage for "ball, ball, ball" that can rid Bowdoin students of their "torpitude," and Whitman's "hurrah game" that fills our lungs with oxygen. (2)

But Whitman also had his reservations. In a discussion with his friend Tom Harned in 1889, Whitman asked: "Is it the rule that the fellow who pitches the ball aims to pitch it in such a way the batter cannot hit it? Gives it a twist--what not--so it slides off, or won't be struck fairly?" On Tom's affirmative Whitman denounced the custom roundly: "The wolf, the snake, the cur, the sneak, all seem entered into the modern sportsman--though I ought not to say that, for the snake is snake because he is born so, and man the snake for other reasons, it may be said." (3)

This is reminiscent of Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard, on why he wished to drop baseball as a college sport: "Well, this year I'm told the team did well because one pitcher had a fine curve ball. I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard." (4)

"It is impossible to understand America without a thorough knowledge of baseball." No, that's not Jacques Barzun, but artist Saul Steinberg, who wrote: "Baseball is an allegorical play about America, a poetic, complex, and subtle play of courage, fear, good luck, mistakes, patience about fate, and sober self-esteem." (5)

"Anyone who does not understand the game cannot hope to understand the country." No, again not Barzun, but George Grella, University of Rochester English professor, who wrote: "In its theory and practice baseball embodies some of the central preoccupations of that cultural fantasy we like to think of as the American Dream." (6)

This is what Barzun should have written: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind and greed and selfishness of America had better learn baseball." (7)

What cultured American wrote the following?

I've gotten so disgusted with baseball, I don't follow it anymore. I
just see the headlines and turn my head away in shame from what we have
done with our most interesting game and best, healthiest pastime.... The
commercialization is beyond anything that was ever thought of.... Other
things are similarly commercialized and out of proportion. But for
baseball, which is so intimately connected with the nation's spirit and
tradition, it's a disaster.

Answer: Jacques Barzun. (8)

And back to President Eliot in the 1880s: "I think baseball is a wretched game.... I call it one of the worst games, although I know it is called the American national game." (9)

Gore Vidal's father, Gene, a pioneer aviator: "Baseball is the favorite American sport because it's so slow. Any idiot can follow it. And just about any idiot can play it." (10)

Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt's daughter: "Father and all of us regarded baseball as a mollycoddle game. Tennis, football, lacrosse, boxing, polo, yes: they are violent which appealed to us. But baseball? Father wouldn't watch it, not even at Harvard." (11)

Journalist and humorist Kin Hubbard: "Knowin' all about baseball is just about as profitable as bein' a good whittler." (12)

Television critic Marshall McLuhan: "Baseball will always remain a symbol of the era of the hot mommas, jazz babies ... and the fast buck." (13)

Vannevar Bush, prominent scientist: "Is baseball a scientific game? …

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Quoting Baseball: The Intellectual Take on Our National Pastime
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