excerpts from: "Birdland: Two Observations on the Cultural Significance of Baseball"
by Gerald Early

American Poetry Review, July/August 1996, pp. 9-10

It has become a commonplace for baseball enthusiasts, for anyone writing about baseball, to quote Jacques Barzun's famous line from his book, God's Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.... This is quoted almost as a self-evident truth, although I am not sure in the end why baseball is America's game or why it should say more about our national character, the true subject of the Barzun book, than football, basketball, or boxing. After all, baseball is an intensely popular sport in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Japan, to name just a few countries. Has it made these countries more American, imbibing American cultural values through playing and watching this sport? Or can we learn about Cuban national character, Dominican national character, or Japanese national character through studying what baseball means to these various peoples? Is baseball American because it contains something clearly understood as American values, whatever they happen to be, or because it is an allegorical transparency through which any people wind up seeing themselves as they wish themselves to be?

In his book, Barzun discusses baseball for several pages, culminating with a satirical conversation with a British friend about the relative merits of baseball and cricket. Baseball wins out because it is truly a game and not simply the gestures and rituals approximating a game, as the American speaker describes cricket. Baseball is, to be sure, an American cultural declaration of independence, and written, as this book was, during the age of the Marshall Plan, there seems little reason for American institutions to take a back seat to Europe anymore. Barzun's discussion is limited exclusively to the aesthetics of the game, to its content as a spectacle. He says, for instance: "Accuracy and speed, the practiced eye and the 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." But baseball not only, according to Barzun, expresses the nation's character; it is the best group game ever invented, the game of the twentieth-century:

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. It is of and for our century. Tennis belongs to the individualistic past--a hero, or at most a pair of friends or lovers, against the world. The idea of baseball is a team, an outfit, a section, a gang, a union, a cell, a commando squad--in short, a twentieth century setup of opposite numbers.
Barzun's book was published in 1954, a time when this type of national character meditation was popular as in intellectual exercise, and a time, during the intense, anti-Communist, anti-leftist insurgency movement or mood, when a preoccupation with defining the national self might be expected, particularly defining the national self within the framework of a tradition that is so culturally centrist. That is, baseball is individualistic but does emphasize teamwork and community; it is anti-intellectual but cannot be won through sheer brute force or strength or emotion but through cleverness, thought, guile, and technical mastery of small details; it is mute like dance, but far less aesthetically and intellectually self-conscious, yet it has attracted far more intellectuals to write about it than dance ever has; it is a mass game played by children and adults but has enough intricacy to satisfy the most snobbish devotee; it has the most intense historical consciousness and historical pretension of any sport, a near prototype for the historical obsessions of other popular-culture inventions like Rock and Roll and Hollywood film, yet it readily abandons tradition for commercial advantage. Baseball has the image of stability and conservatism, yet it has been rocked by more labor disputes and unrest than any other popular-culture industry except journalism. It is the perfectly balanced centrism of its values--which historians Robert F. Burk and David Hackett Fischer argue reflect baseball's puritan origins--more perhaps than specifically what its values are, that makes baseball so meaningful to Americans as a cultural expression of the national character. There is something about baseballís checks and balances that mirrors those checks and balances of the Constitution, of Enlightenment rationalism, of liberalism as a nineteenth-century ideology of organization and discipline, the great metaphor of self-interested individuals as self-interested association, the invisible hand of perfected design. Adam Smith as the Great Commissioner of Baseball.

Major League baseball, always a powerful sign and symbol of American civic religion, truly became the national game with the integration of the black player in 1947. One natural result of this was that the game became a more effective propaganda weapon in the Cold War. With integration, the talk about baseball symbolizing American democracy became more intense, if not necessarily more convincing. It used to be argued that a man of any background or any size could learn to play this game on the highest professional level. After 1947, it could be argued that a man of any color could, in association with any other group of players. Indeed, it was the associational power, the associational myth of baseball as a team sport, that made racial integration of the game the powerful cultural event that it turned out to be. I do not wish to argue with Barzun's interpretation of the characteristics of this game reflecting both its own superiority as a game and the superiority of American civic traits by being a mirror of them. I wish only to point out that Barzun confines himself to the game on the field. He does not mention the management of baseball, baseball's history as a mode of capitalist production or commercial ingenuity, or how the game came to be what it is either as an aesthetic or commercial enterprise. He does not talk about the reserve clause, trading players, the existence of leagues, the power of team owners, or any of the bureaucratic or managerial structure of baseball. Baseball, like most other professional sports, has a medieval aspect, operating, as it does, as a cult, a guild, a cartel. It has exclusivity and mystique. In short, for Barzun, as for many others, baseball is not an activity in itself to be understood but a complete and self-sufficient allegory to be explicated. That is to say that baseball, for Barzun and others like him, functions as American culture's practical criticism, as the artform that tells us what is right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, good and bad about American cultural values and the dissent they generate. This is not an untoward consideration when one remembers, after all, that Barzun was, in the 1950s, an historian of some popularity and stature which means he was both a cultural guardian and an explicator. But baseball is not a game that simply emerged through the magic of American cultural virtues, which is all a merely allegorical reading of the sport would say, or at least the sorts of allegorical readings we have become accustomed to. The fact that Barzun's comments assume this, in the end, makes his remarks, no matter how touchingly or effectively poetic, or skillfully interpretative as a rhetorical act, largely predictable. His remarks have been made before, and it is only because he is an historian of some intellectual weight that his insights, such as they are, have any worth at all and their worth is obvious: further intensifying the national myth of this game. What Barzun's baseball comments represent is that, by the middle of the twentieth century, baseball as an unquestioned symbol and performance-ritual of the best qualities of something called Americanism was an entrenched truism. Barzun, in effect, offers a tautology. That is why baseball enthusiasts like to quote him.


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