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A Brief Note on Misattributed Quotations, Centenarian Intellectuals,
and the Hearts and Minds of Americans

By Tom Brennan

One of the most familiar but often misattributed (including previously by this writer) quotations in sport is the one about needing to understand baseball in order to understand America. Incorrectly credited to literary figures ranging from Alexis de Tocqueville to Oscar Wilde to Mark Twain, it actually appeared in a book by Jacques Barzun titled God's Country and Mine, published in 1954 by Little, Brown and Company.

Lest this bit of trivia send baseball fanatics scurrying to the dusty storage bins of academic libraries (where I found it), I should point out that only a few pages are devoted to baseball, and the rest is about Barzun's observations on American culture in general at the midpoint of the twentieth century.

Jacques Barzun was born in France in 1907, immigrated with his parents to America at the age of twelve, and eventually became a professor of cultural history at Columbia University. He has been a respected commentator on American society and a prolific author for the better part of eighty years. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003 (along with Roberto Clemente), and celebrated his one hundredth birthday last November 30.

Since his famous observation about baseball has been misattributed, misquoted, and misunderstood, it is instructive to ask what exactly did Barzun say and what was he talking about? The actual sentence reads as follows: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game—and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams." He thought major league games moved too fast for a beginner to understand, something that is seldom a concern these days.

Unfortunately, a reader looking to Barzun's book for a substantive discussion into exactly how baseball embodies the hearts and minds of Americans is apt to come away disappointed. He writes glowingly of the reasons why baseball is an excellent game and finishes by recounting a very strange conversation with an Englishman comparing baseball and cricket, but doesn't quite spell out a precise justification for connecting baseball to the essence of the American character.

So what are we to make of it? We could simply dismiss it as the ramblings of a professor gone dotty, since Barzun's assertion, later in the same book, that Americans have the best table manners in the world, suggests a certain imbalance. But if we consider the context of the chapter where the quotation appears, we begin to see what he is getting at.

The relevant part of the book is a discourse on how Americans entertain themselves and what should be the purpose of entertainment. In Barzun's view, it should achieve "recreation, refreshment, and reverberation," and precious little of it does that.

Like many in his field, Barzun is mistrustful and suspicious of science, particularly what he calls "applied science" and "the way of the machine." He sees this applied science as a dictator of method, technique, and conformity, where everything follows a prescribed formula, a cookie-cutter world with little room for the unexpected. When this approach is applied to entertainment, there is no real creativity, nothing that stimulates the mind, nothing that makes us feel we have experienced something out of the ordinary. He cites such disparate examples as Hollywood stars who fit specifications for everything from hairstyle to the shape of their nose, and fishing, where a specialized rod is recommended for every species. I wonder if he knows they even use sonar to find the fish now?

But baseball! Every pitch is unpredictable, every swing of the bat can bring an unexpected result. No two plays are exactly alike. The very essence of the game is the ability to use a multitude of skills to cope with any situation, whether things go according to plan or spin dreadfully out of control. It is carried out by a team, but one where each member has his own special and very different talents. The members of the team form an intricate mechanism, but are so widely scattered across the field of play that each still operates as an individual, recognized for his triumphs and held accountable for his mistakes. To Barzun, these are the "American virtues that shine in baseball" and the reason why the game "fitly expresses the powers of the nation's mind and body."

So what Barzun was really talking about was the character of competition in an immigrant nation, each participant bringing his own abilities to the table, fired by individual ambition but willing to work together to seize opportunity or cope with disaster—and to pay the price for failure in a game where there are no ties and no one is saved by the bell. To see baseball from that point of view gives us an insight into what constitutes the vigor and resilience of America. The ideal isn't always realized, but that doesn't change the nature of the game.


TOM BRENNAN is a retired Dickinson College professor who apparently has a lot of time on his hands during the off-season. He has written previously for EFQ and various sporting magazines and scientific journals.

© 2008 Tom Brennan


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