From the President's Desk
And Now for Something Completely Different!
As I start to compose this column, both Major League Baseball league championships are underway. The National League match-up between the Philadelphia Phillies and the San Francisco Giants particularly has my attention, having been a Giants fan most of my life. In 1954, my father took me to the Polo Grounds in New York to watch a World Series game between the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians. The Giants won that game and, eventually, the Series in four straight games, and I thought this was just wonderful and perhaps the way it was going to be every year. Well, 56 years later, I am still waiting for the Giants to win another World Series.
But here they are again in the post-season, and, who knows, they could be eliminated by the time this issue comes out. But the fact that they are in the playoffs has me thinking about why this game interests me so much, why it is so fascinating and captivating to so many. So, please indulge me while I talk a little baseball, instead of another commentary on budgets, enrollments, parking, etc. Perhaps you’ll enjoy the respite from such matters, too.
First, let me say that I love baseball. I offer no apologies for my passion, no embarrassment for my admission, and certainly no regrets that I shifted my attention as a historian from where it began, in American diplomatic history, to where it now rests and thrives, in sport, especially baseball.
I just love this game, this marvelous combination of strategy and skill and chance, mutual encouragement and individual achievement. This simple game, as Paul Richards, a former Baltimore Orioles manager, pointed out: “Just throwing and catching and hitting and running. What’s simpler than that?” Indeed.
For almost a century and a half, folks have been trying to figure out what makes baseball so appealing. In the late 19th century, the great American poet Walt Whitman wrote: “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game—the American game. It will take our people out of doors. Fill them with oxygen … and be a blessing to us.” Columbia University philosopher Jacques Barzun advised in the mid-20th century that “whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”
Folklorist Tristam Coffin may have said it best: “Satisfying though played day after day, sufficiently complex to fascinate the poet, sufficiently obvious to please the peasant, it’s hard to play well, yet easy to learn. It is fun to watch, yet challenging to study.”
Like no other game, baseball’s appeal is rooted in language and story and memory.
These expressions can be through poetry: “The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day…,” “Who’s on First,” “These are the saddest of possible words, Tinker to Evers to Chance …,” “And the umpire’s throat fought in the dust for a song ….”
Baseball’s voice can also be heard in song, like no other sport: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” “Centerfield,” “Van Lingle Mongo,” “Move over, Babe, here comes Henry,” “Cheap Seats.”
And testimony: “Holy cow.” “Bye, bye, baby.” “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” “Today I consider myself to be the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” “If you build it they will come.” Of course, my favorite: “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” Or just simply, “Play ball!”
I love the promise of the game in the spring, when everything else begins again, when it migrates north from Florida and Arizona, when every team and fan are hopeful no matter how disappointing the previous year. I love its joy in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings with sweet sounds and good company. And the heartbreak of the fall when the summer game ends, the chill winds arrive, and we’re left counting the stranded runners and blown saves that frustrated the championship season that could have been. Oh, well, wait 'til next year.
I love its certitude. Ball or strike. Safe or out. Win or lose. There are no ties in baseball.
The game, however, is not without ambiguity and unanswered questions. Like the strike zone. Does a tie really go to the runner? Should Shoeless Joe or Pete Rose be in the Hall of Fame … or Barry Bonds? What was the point of the asterisk that accompanied Roger Maris’s 61 homeruns for so many years? What if the Majors had included Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston in their prime? Why was Bill Buckner playing first in the ninth inning of the sixth game of the 1986 World Series? But who cares? The Red Sox won in 2004 and atoned for the sins of the Puritans, if not all humankind.
I love its peculiarities. The balk. Pepper. Fungo. The Mendoza Line. The infield fly rule. Pine tar rags and resin bags. Hit the bull and win a steak dinner. A 20 hit and a 400 out. An unassisted triple play. The Abner Doubleday creation myth. Oops, sorry if you haven’t heard about that.
And its heresies—dot racing, the wave, $10 beers, the designated hitter.
I love its places and chronicles. Dugouts and bullpens. Power alleys and foul poles. Lead-off and clean-up. Scorecards and box scores. Field boxes and bleacher seats. Cooperstown and Williamsport. A sandlot in San Francisco. A ballpark in Chico. A cornfield in Iowa.
And the memories in those landscapes and locations. For, after all, this is a game about memory. It’s in our national memory as the oldest of the nation’s team sports, a game that has been remarkably stable, undergoing few substantive rules changes since the organization of the Cincinnati Red Stockings as the sport’s first professional team in 1869. Memory is in the shadows of Fenway Park, and the marker at Bedford and Stuyvesant in Brooklyn where Ebbets Field once stood. It’s in the sounds of the game—the anthem, a ballpark organ, a hotdog vendor, the crack of the bat, groans and cheers, boos for the umpire, and the steady, anxious hum of the crowd between pitches and innings.
And it’s about the memory of sunshine and high skies. And youth and dreams. And no one has said it better than Roger Angel:
“Baseball’s time is seamless and invisible, a bubble within which the players move at exactly the same pace and rhythms as all their predecessors. This is the way the game was played in our youth and in our father’s youth. And even back then—back in the country days—there must have been the same feeling that time could be stopped. Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly: keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.”
I wish for all of us to remain forever young. See you at the ballpark. And Go Giants!
—Paul J. Zingg, President
(PS: A prize for anyone who can correctly identify all the references in this piece!)
Public Affairs and Publications