Sports and War, Baseball and Innocence: An Opening Day Meditation
Don gets misty thinking about “our celebration of the human need to seek transformation and renewal.”
As you may already know, this column (entitled “Swinging From The Heels”) is
more about the verb in that title than the prepositional phrase. Though I dearly
love ballplayers who will take a pitch, my job in this space is not to draw
a walk. As valuable as that may be on the baseball field, it’s not a workable
concept in writing. Following an odd connection between things—as I’m
about to do now—might well be seen as “bad-ball hitting,” to be sure.
But possibly I’ll wind up with a hit anyway. Let’s see what happens.
Linking the two phrases in the title evolved from a chance encounter with two
books that compete with thousands of others for my fleeting attention in my
vertiginous library/office. The first—sports and war—came from my
dipping into The Paths of History (Cambridge, 1999), by noted Russian
historian Igor Diakonoff.
In his book, which is a sweeping overview of the evolution of world civilization,
Diakonoff makes one very interesting reference to sports and its function in
the more recent stages of culture:
Putting an end to wars, which satisfied the social need for
aggression, must lead to the growth of aggressiveness in everyday life, as terrorism
and crime, and of the popularity of such sports as football, hockey, field athletics,
Diakonoff, of course, touches upon themes here that are at least as old as
Plato. We might ask ourselves how organized sport in modern times differs in
its structural relationship to society than its analogue in ancient Greece.
More relevant to us at this point, possibly, is to consider why sports came
to be invented in the first place, and how their professionalization has affected
our view of them, especially in the last 150 years. The incessant use of the
term “warrior” in conjunction with professional athletes (even occasionally
in reference to women athletes) is but one superficial reminder of the connection
between these two forms of aggression.
Diakonoff refers to (post-)modern society’s need for controlled, “safe” violence
when he makes his commentary on the decline of war that he envisions as a consequence
of mankind’s development of nuclear weapons. It’s interesting to note that he
omits several sports from his (admittedly cursory) list.
One of those, of course, is baseball.
Less violent than any other major sport, baseball was also the first to be
professionalized in the modern sense. Possibly in 1870 the game was violent
enough for a country that had just endured a bloody, culture-wrenching civil
war. In 1970, the game was considered passe by many of America’s most influential
sports pundits. Too boring, they said. Not enough action.
Thirty years later, war and our views and memories of it have changed. (Diakonoff
writes that while we are not guaranteed of an end to warfare, he describes an
emerging phase of thought that operates as a strong deterrent to future prospects
for global warfare.) Baseball’s most violent wars of the past forty years have
been fought in the press and at the negotiating table. Despite all this, the
game is close to its all-time level of popularity.
Why has this happened? There are some partial explanations to be found in Richard
Skolnik’s Baseball and the Pursuit of Innocence (Texas A&M Press,
1993). Baseball has always appealed to that segment of the fan population with
an intellectual bent—the sabermetric movement that blossomed in the 1980s
has a long, subterranean pre-history. On a more primal level, though, baseball
manages to combine two elemental principles of life into a uniquely aesthetic
quality. (There are a proliferation of poets who have been attracted to baseball
as a subject; prior to the invention of rap, few if any rhyme-makers focused
their attention on football or basketball.)
Those principles, as Skolnik explains, are “innocence” and “order.” Baseball’s
relationship with innocence is more consciously manipulative today than it was
in past times, as it uses its rich and unique lore to blur the distinction between
innocence and nostalgia; despite this, however, “innocence” is still resonant.
And this is true in spite of the off-field wars that escalated to the point
of seeming self-destruction in the 1990s. Baseball’s unique connection to “innocence”
may yet prevail as a means of avoiding its equivalent of a “nuclear winter.”
Skolnik captures this best in the following passage:
Baseball, a game respectful of traditions, has managed somehow
to retain at least the flavor and fervor of an era now long gone, one with fewer
shadings, more stringent requirements, exacting standards and greater commitment
to matters of individual responsibility.
What’s interesting here is the strong undercurrent of “order” that creeps into
any discussion of innocence. To be free of society’s rules and regulations is
to be considered “innocent” in a Edenic sense; baseball’s appropriation of “innocence”
is much more secularized than that. There is the lingering sense that baseball
is a game played by boys who grow into men, while all other sports are played
by adults. One of the dissonances in the game today is that this notion, which
always involved some amount of suspension of disbelief, is increasingly harder
to achieve in the context of labor strife and increasing salaries.
Yet somehow, most of us find a way to do that. There is comfort in the interplay
of these elements, and this curious conflation of “innocence” and “order” gives
us some respite from darker matters, and from the increasing din of life itself.
Baseball appears to have survived the encroaching shadow of more aggressive
sports, and with any luck it will survive its own internicine struggles. While
we may wonder how the game will “play” in the century to come, we are best advised
to immerse ourselves in the “play” of the game on-field.
Whatever draws you to the game, feel free to examine it, and feel free to append
your own thoughts on this subject as we celebrate the beginning of another baseball
season—an event that affirms, as both Diakanoff and Skolnik suggest in
their quite different contexts, our celebration of the human need to seek
transformation and renewal.
Posted: April 04, 2001 at 06:00 AM | 1 comment(s)
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