Baseball, America, and the 21st Century
"Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball"
Right off the bat, Jacques Barzun’s pitch about baseball strikes us today as coming out of left field. First asserted in the 1950s, his famous assessment of baseball’s place in American culture then seemed to cover all the bases and was as uncontroversial as it was incontrovertible. Now, however, many voices would cry foul at Barzun’s claim and attempt to controvert him by either dismissing his thesis as off-base or by picking him off as a screwball French critic.
But those bush-league voices can neither de-mythologize baseball nor play hardball with a big-league cultural historian such as Barzun. In truth, Barzun knocked it out of the park by identifying baseball as the heart and mind of America.
First, Barzun’s argument does not necessarily require baseball to be the national pastime. For much of the 20th century, and especially when Barzun wrote his God’s Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love, Spiced with a Few Harsh Words, baseball was unarguably how America passed its time. No matter how one measured the cultural phenomena of baseball—playgrounds and schoolyards, professional attendance records, media attention—no single other sport or entertainment outstripped it. In the 21st century, baseball finds itself in a far less privileged position: its status dimmed by the growth in market share of other professional sports, especially football, and more dramatically by the domination of entertainment media.
If the playground is the test, sure there may no longer be a backstop, but the kids aren’t playing on the gridiron either—or engaged in a sport at all. They are gaming. It’s the Wii gaming console you got them for Christmas, the "Guitar Hero" as a birthday present that occupies their time. Or Facebook.com. Or whatever.com. The cultural shift that has occurred is not that football has replaced baseball as the national pastime but that nothing has become our national pastime. That is, no one sport or activity captures the whole-hearted attention of multiple generations of Americans the way baseball once did.
That accounts for the pastime, but what about baseball as at least our national sport?
Can baseball still reveal "the heart and mind of America" when its Opening Day arrives, and no one seems to care? Those who try to brush-back baseball’s American pedigree love to point out that America did not even compete for the recently completed championship round of the World Baseball Classic (Japan beat Korea). Add that baseball has become the focal point of the sporting world in Cuba and the Dominican Republic more so than the United States. The question arises: are these countries becoming more American because they have taken to baseball with such ardor? The answer is simply, yes. That baseball arose in 19th-century America was not a historical accident, and that baseball has acquired such cultural hegemony in such scattered locales across the globe by the end of the 20th century is similarly no accident. Some would call it cultural imperialism, and not fail to notice the traces of American political and military domination in both post-WWII Asia and Central America. But in all cases, Cuba included, it must be qualified as a glorious imperialism.
Just as England celebrated the return of Charles II to the throne in 1660 as "The Glorious Revolution" because it was accomplished without bloodshed, the spread of America’s game throughout the world in the 20th century was not by force but by the virtues of the game itself. Baseball as a game depends on distinguishing fair from foul. The countries who have successfully adopted baseball have adopted at least, within the sport, the best and most noble virtues that typify America—principally, the meritocratic and dynamic yoking of individual excellence with harmonious teamwork. These virtues, the virtues that are borne by the game between the white lines, are what charmed Barzun. And what continue to charm.
The beauties of the game itself remain unchanged, and it is the timelessness of those beauties that make Barzun’s declaration timeless. These beauties are why baseball survived the Black Sox scandal, overcame racism and integrated on its own without government intervention, persevered despite the advent of the designated hitter, and will outlast the consequences of the steroid era. In its complicities, tolerations, repudiations, and expiations, baseball has mirrored both America’s vices and virtues. It can switch-hit.
For some, I realize, Barzun sounds like the ultimate seamhead—celebrant of baseball’s mythic and glorious past—and his reading of baseball as the ultimate allegory for America’s "heart and mind" no longer seems to be in the ballpark. But our language at least says it ain’t so. I have managed here in these few paragraphs well over a dozen baseball idioms—baseball expressions that successfully convey meaning beyond the game itself. We may not feel about baseball the way our fathers did, but no other game has so enriched the way we think. Moreover, the histories of baseball and of America are entwined forever and both continue to thrive. Who is to say that Barzun is no longer in the ballpark because he already hit a home run?
Dr. Andrew Harvey is an associate professor of English at Grove City College and a contributing scholar with The Center for Vision & Values.
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