Jacques Barzun, perhaps the most famous and accomplished cultural historian to date, died Thursday night at 104 years old, according to The New York Times. Barzun was by no means a man to be remembered primarily for his opinions on baseball. However, one of his most famous quotations concerned the game, and I want to unpack and reexamine it here.
Anyone who wants to know the heart and mind of America, had better learn baseball.
Barzun wrote those words in a 1953 essay ascetically entitled “Baseball.” They rang unassailably true then. The essay came two years after Bobby Thompson’s pennant-winning home run, a watershed moment that epitomized a decade-long ascension by the sport to absolute preeminence in American cultural life. It was six years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier and helped ignite a struggling Civil Rights movement. At that moment–at the height of the Yankees’ second dynasty; with national TV still used almost exclusively to broadcast the World Series; a half-decade before the diaspora of the New York teams; and a full decade before the emergence of football and basketball as viable competitors to baseball on a professional level–Barzun was absolutely right about baseball’s role in American life. He felt, rightly, that immigrants and outsiders in the sprawling culture of the post-war nation had a single best window through which to learn what it would take to effectively assimilate. Baseball was a mechanism of inclusion.
That was true when Barzun wrote it, but for much of the 60 years since, it hasn’t been so. Baseball has gotten markedly more white in the last 20 years. Ticket prices have soared as stadium capacities have dwindled, somewhat disenfranchising poor and lower middle-class fans. Baseball did a better job from 1970-2007 of reflecting the nation’s habits, preferences and prejudices than it did of shaping or celebrating them. Like all other institutional entertainment in this country, baseball has brought down a kind of curtain between itself and its fans. Players struggle to relate to fans, and so are often less relatable than their predecessors in the other direction. The game somewhat cheapened itself in the 1990s, perhaps not fatally or permanently, but saliently, by adding teams and playoff rounds that muddled the hard, cold integrity of the long season. Its stewards today are not the devoted servants of public interest their forebears were. The league even participated, in its way, in the real-estate bubble problem, as most teams milked public financing for new stadia from their state and local governments, artificially inflating local property values but failing to deliver the promised economic boosts. Labor strife and low-grade fraud (read: steroids) pockmarked that era, too. Meanwhile, Michael Jordan happened, then ESPN, 9/11, and the explosion of the digital age, all of which contributed to baseball ceding its place at the forefront of sports in the U.S. to football. Baseball was just another product for some time after the 1994 strike, often not a very good product, and never a really important product on any level, except perhaps in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
It seems to me that is changing again, and for the better this time. Barzun’s passing came on a night when Sergio Romo closed a Game 2 win for the San Francisco Giants in the World Series. Romo, like an exponentially growing number of baseball’s Hispanic stars, is American-born, the son of two Mexican immigrants. He went to a high school in California and college in Alabama. He’s now famous for his dugout hijinks and his scraggly beard, but is also singularly stylish on the mound. He provides something Mexican-American youths can look to very directly, and as Barzun very well knew, it’s important that one have positive influences as directly comparable to oneself in terms of experience and detail as possible. Romo is thoughtful, funny and exceptionally talented, and if the playoff beard movement for which he is the latest poster boy is somewhat incongruous with the traditional, decades-old sponsorship Gillette lends to the MLB playoffs, so be it. Romo embodies cool on the mound, and although athletes should never be used as role models for personal comportment, his background makes him a worthwhile example for young people like him, of whom there are millions.
The two cities in which the Series us being played this year also illustrate baseball’s reemergence as a viable mechanism for community betterment and bringing people together. Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch spent grandly on this team, feeling he could lift the spirit of spiraling city if his club could be the catalyst. They have made good, and Ilitch (who was ready, even eager, to accept a financial loss in the ledgers this year) now seems likely to see a profit. In San Francisco, meanwhile, a fan culture has emerged that surpasses what’s expected even of fans of perennial contenders. Better than that, though, is what the organization gave back to its community tangibly. AT&T Park has become one of the rare success stories in the annals of public funding for such things, due largely to the team’s willingness to move into a fairly depressed area of town and build from the ground up.
Football has run into its own massive set of problems. Basketball is a game so markedly different in what it endeavors to offer that it would feel strange to even draw direct comparison or contrast between it and baseball. It seems that what Barzun knew as America’s pastime might be that again tonight, and although he opined less on sports as a vehicle for public edification and diversion in recent years, I suspect he would approve of what the game has done, and of what it’s capable of doing.
Baseball is with you every day, six months out of the year, seven if your team is very good. The structure of the league rewards focus and diligence over a long schedule, the sort of everyday passion that, if mimicked elsewhere in life, will be met with respect and admiration. This remains truer of baseball than any other sport, despite the ever-expanding Wild Card-based postseason, a measure I hate but one that doesn’t compromise the essential integrity of the game. Baseball is less violent and less corrupt than football. It is inherently more competitive in terms of balance within games than its competitors for top billing in sports. It is both the most strategic and most skill-heavy of the major sports. It demands attention to detail, craftsmanship and an agile mind. Games don’t feel like cataclysm in action, until they should. Increasingly, the game is reaching out to new fans and new fan bases. Barzun believed decadence was threatening Western culture very gravely, though I have not read anything in which he directly linked the declining influence of baseball to that perceived societal degradation. Perhaps now, even as he has left his legacy in our hands, the game that declined in visibility over the second half of Barzun’s life will rise again, and bring part of its culture back upward, too.
There remains much work to do, but the time is ripe for baseball to regain the prominence it enjoyed 60 years ago, when Barzun praised it so, and I feel it would be good for our culture as a whole if that happens. Barzun also wrote that writing accessibly to a general audience was a “responsibility of scholars.” That’s important for baseball writers to remember. The game should be fun, and the greatest number of fans will be reached if those who cover baseball marry heady, keen analysis with genuine (not merely convenient) human interest and an artful reminder of what it is that makes this game an instructive sort of joy.2012 World Series Game 2: San Francisco Giants Beat Detroit Tigers Behind Madison Bumgarner
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