Baseball in the Mind

by The New Republic | July 23, 1977

Sometimes it seems, in these days of contract squabbles and franchise shifts, that baseball is a game best played in the mind, in what Roger Angell once called "the interior stadium." At the very least, it is a game peculiarly suited for recollection. Across our minds, on winter nights and summer mornings, we recapture the images of marvelous moments: of Willie Mays flying back to haul in Vic Wertz's smash in the '54 Series, of Carlton Fisk popping one out to win a game 21 years later, and so on. My own cherished image is of Sandy Amoros racing to the left field line to catch the slicing liner hit by Yogi Berra at Yankee Stadium in 1955, then wheeling to catch Gil McDougald off first base, and thereby to preserve Johnny Podres's shutout and the first World Championship for my beloved Bums.

Baseball writers have always delighted in recording these memorable motions, and no other sport is so easily retained in the mind. That is the secret of baseball. Esthetically it's the simplest of games, some have said, because all its action is comprised in the convergence of two lines, all its successes in getting to the point of convergence first, all its failures in not getting there in time. Berra's swing meets Podres's pitch over the plate and flies toward left; Amoros runs and runs to his right so that he can catch the screamer in his mitt before it hits the ground; his throw to Reese and from him to Hodges at first base arrives before McDougald can dive back. All the rest we know of that moment--that Berra seldom hit to left, that Amoros was among the weaker outfielders in either league, that the runs saved would have tied the game--can be ignored for the moment as we contemplate the sequential plane geometries of the diamond game. The whole beauty of baseball is tied up in these fortuitous meetings of bat and ball, ball and glove, foot and base.

The motions are clearly recorded for posterity. Every "at bat" is a chance to hit or miss, every ball hit at a fielder is a chance to catch it or miss. These simple verdicts, handed down a thousand times a game, express also the fundamental individualism of baseball; within given plays each player stands revealed: the only question, as Casey Stengel used to say, is "can he execute?" Thus, baseball statistics, usually phrased as "percentages" of hits or bases or errors against the total chances, are really accurate measures of performance. Football and basketball records, by contrast, reveal the degree of success in any given endeavor, and they have built-in problems in separating the contribution of one player (say the running back who gains 100 yards) from another (the linemen who block for him). Baseball rules prohibit players from hitting, catching or throwing a ball together; the only teamwork is one of getting the sequence of motions lined up properly (as in the double play). Baseball records hence speak to a man's reliability. Or rather, not reliability exactly, but the likelihood of cashing in on a speculation. Even the best hitters, after all, connect safely on only one of three trips to the plate. To the manager in the dugout, and to the fans in the stands, though, such a "consistent" hitter is a far better investment for one's hopes than the man on the bench who hits only .250, or once safely every four times.

Baseball records go back almost as far as baseball itself, and typify the way the sport is rooted in the emerging 19th century romance with enumeration and calculation. (In the sandlots where 1 first played, the ability to do long division was an important qualification for being the team captain.) Baseball is probably the only sport, possibly the only competitive activity, which can be almost perfectly reconstructed as a board game. With three dice, a pencil and plenty of paper, an entire season of runs batted in, balks, rained-out games, injuries and other marvels, can be reconstituted in exactly the same proportions as they occur in the annual pennant campaigns. You can make up your own varieties of this enterprise, or purchase one advertised in Baseball Digest and other newsletters for dopesters. Dice baseball, say Woodward and Bernstein, was David Eisenhower's Falstaff when his father-inlaw's reign was threatened in 1974. Each commercial version of dice baseball is sold by testimonials of its remarkable ability to repeat past experience perfectly.Unlike the boxed "war games," which also sell prodigiously, the idea here is not to chance the reversal of the outcome of historic struggles like Stalingrad or Poitiers. Dice baseball, in essence, is only a sophisticated version of the child's experimental flipping of a coin a hundred times to see whether heads or tails comes up most often.

Why grown people should play these games requires some explanation, and I think the explanation tells us something about baseball itself. The action of a baseball game takes place only when the pitcher throws, or more especially, when the batter connects with the pitch. After that, while the ball is "in play," all the fielders and all the men on base enact a highly stylized performance of their predetermined roles. The roles are built into the rules of the game--fielding a particular position, running the basessafely. The ball triggers the loyalty of all the players to the ultimate authority, the rules of baseball. In a way, every pitch in a baseball game, like every toss of the dice in its board game version, is a willingness to put oneself on the line, individually, in the process of playing out some predetermined yet unrevealed history.

What we seek in this encounter with determinism is to demonstrate the orderliness of the whole system (called "the law of averages"), on the one hand, and the possibility of individual excellence (making one s own record), on the other. Though it is too much to say that baseball is a Calvinist's game, still it's hard to imagine such a sport emerging from a society less imbued with the Calvinist image of the sinner meeting his Maker all alone.

But the authority in baseball is never arbitrary, as the dice baseball Creator discovers in Robert Coover's splendid novel. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.: J. Henry Waugh, Prop. In fact, baseball is a cultural invention of the period in American history when divine authority was being wrested from the Calvinist Godhead and enthroned in the social norms of a capitalist society which valued individualism, regularity and modest speculation above all else. So though each player seems to play out his destined role in game after game and season after season, his aim is not to glorify the game but to make his own fortune. Thus it is that baseball, unlike religion, is a contest in which one team's victory is contingent upon the other's defeat. To the team at bat, the little white ball, hit safely and dancing with a wild joy to the outfield wall, is the "holy spirit" which allows its souls to reach home; to the team in the field, the ball is at the same time a kind of unleashed "sin" which must be tamed, used to tag runners out, and then retrieved to the pitcher. Still, these different perceptionsdo not diminish the shared respect of both teams for the rules. So well does this principle operate that the philosopher George Herbert Mead, among others, turned to baseball as an ideal metaphor for the way individual personality arises out of social interactions.

That baseball is in decline these days says much about the way Americans are abandoning these habits of mind. Football, clearly on the upswing, is far more suited to an organizational society; it is a game of almost ceaseless technical innovation and specialization, in football, strategic planning has expanded so much that the snap of the ball, ratherthan yielding conventional motions like those of baseball, reveals newly projected "x's" and "o's" from the coach's game plan. The plays are thus "sent in" from the sidelines, even in one case from the White House via the Redskins' coach in the Super Bowl. Put 18 men on a baseball diamond, and the eternal rhythms of the old game would begin to throb of themselves. Twenty-two football players would, in a similar instance, consort only to pray for outside guidance. In baseball the major strategic decisions are fairly minor risks like a hit and- run play or a sacrifice bunt, or they are the substitution of specialists for specific situations, usually near the end of the game. That was appropriate for the commercial society in which baseball began, but it is less so for the planned universe we now inhabit, in which we have become suspicious of all scorekeepers, scornful of alt natural limits, and less willing to measure our grace or gracelessness in the summer sunshine.

Richard Rabinowitz is a historian who stays in Belmont, Massachusetts when he is not living in Fenway Park.

By Richard Rabinowitz

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