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The Laughable, the Divine, and the Baseball Diamond

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by Sarah Skwire

Both economists and writers, then, are drawn to baseball by its rich complexities, and by the sense that this game, somehow, is bigger than us, yet also tells us something about what it means to be human and to make choices.

I think my favorite part of last week's episode of EconTalk is how Bill James and Russ Roberts share such a deep appreciation for the complexities and the unpredictabilities of baseball and the way the game mirrors in miniature the complexities and unpredictabilities of human life. As Bill James says: "in baseball the universe is small enough and closed enough that we have a *chance* to figure it out. Whereas real life is so messy and so complicated that we have little chance to figure it out."

The unofficial poet laureate of baseball, Marianne Moore, has similar praise for the intricacies of baseball:


Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing.
You can never tell with either
how it will go
or what you will do;

baseball.jpeg
That idea of baseball as a marginally more manageable microcosm of the complicated and unpredictable real world that attracts economists to the sport is, I think, part of what attracts so many writers to it as well. Baseball is, for both groups, something of a model of how the world works, but on a smaller scale and with a tighter narrative.

Besides, how can any writer resist the appeal of a game first played in Hoboken at a place called Elysian Fields? The combination of the laughable and the divine seem, again, like a perfect microcosm of human life.

It's no accident then, that when Philip Roth sat down to write the book he titled "The Great American Novel" he chose baseball as its theme. On his fictional diamond the racial, religious, and political rivalries of America are worked out by the worst baseball team in history, a group of players who will do anything and everything possible to score a run. These players are, as he puts it,

"the weak and the lowly and the desperate and the fearful and the deprived, to name but a few who come to mind...the ordinary fucking outcasts of this world - who happen to comprise ninety percent of the human race!"

But with last names like Mazda, Gofannon, and Gamesh (first name "Gil") these hapless losers are also gods on earth. Once more, Hoboken meets the Elysian Fields!

The same sense of epic concerns being worked out on a smaller scale pervades Bernard Malamud's "The Natural." Here, a young player's first major league hit ends not only a team's drought, but also a drought plaguing the natural world.

"Wonderboy flashed in the sun. It caught the sphere where it was biggest. A noise like a twenty-one gun salute cracked the sky. There was a straining, ripping sound and a few drops of rain spattered to the ground. ...Somebody then shouted it was raining cats and dogs. ... By the time Roy got in from second he was wading in water ankle deep."
Both economists and writers, then, are drawn to baseball by its rich complexities, and by the sense that this game, somehow, is bigger than us, yet also tells us something about what it means to be human and to make choices. We return and return to it, hoping that its rich data set will tell us who we are and maybe help us find a way to think through our troubles.

But when Russ Roberts and Bill James move to a discussion about how to make baseball games shorter, I suspect the novelists and poets will lodge some objections. For them, there is beauty in the idea that a ballgame could--in theory, at least--go on forever.


William Carlos Williams writes of the crowd at a ballpark that they are moved:

by a spirit of uselessness which delights them--

all the exciting detail
of the chase

and the escape, the error
the flash of genius--

all to no end save beauty
the eternal--


Katherine Harer's poem "The Cure" claims bluntly that "baseball is a good antidote for death."

Economists might see the benefits to a quicker game and speedier play, but writers don't want the game to be any faster. We don't want October to ever come. And surely, it can't be time to come inside just yet.

... today

the sky is blue,

summer is in our bones,

and so many things don't count yet.


--Mark Lukeman, from "Playing Stickball with Robbie Shea"


Sarah Skwire is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc., and the co-author of the college writing textbook, Writing with a Thesis, which is in its 12th edition. Sarah has published a range of academic articles on subjects from Shakespeare to zombies and the broken window fallacy. She writes regularly for FEE and blogs occasionally for the Fraser Institute and Bleeding Heart Libertarians. Sarah's work on literature and economics has also appeared in Newsweek, The Freeman, and in Cato Unbound, and she lectures for IHS, SFL, and other organizations.


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CATEGORIES: EconTalk , sports economics




COMMENTS (5 to date)
Steve Trinward writes:

Lovely column; did not know you had an appreciation for the best sport in the world. Tempted to ask if you have an older sister or a youngish aunt with the same wisdom. (Oops, was that too boorish?)

ColoComment writes:

For a somewhat different perspective on America's game:
http://a.co/crlzC05

You don't see much of the umpires when watching a game on TV, but next time you go to the park, watch them closely as the action unfolds to pick up their choreographed movements.

Jon Murphy writes:

A beautiful column.

Faze writes:

I needed this today, in the chilly midwest. I wonder, does cricket inspire similar poetry in the hearts of those nations where it is played?

Daniel Shapiro writes:

Beautiful. Thank you!

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