Why Baseball Matters
by Susan Jacoby
Yale University Press, 2018
Susan Jacoby, author of such brilliant, skeptical books as Strange Gods, The Great Agnostic, and Freethinkers, is a die-hard baseball fan, which is probably why she considers it acceptable to give her latest book, Why Baseball Matters, a presupposition right there in the title, before a single word of special pleading or witness-leading has commenced. The sputtering carper who might ask “Before you tell us why baseball matters, don't you have to prove that baseball matters?” will get no hearing in these pages but rather will receive a wet Bronx cheer and a jeered invitation to go play some chess.
Very well: in a marked tone-shift, Jacoby is here preaching to the converted. This is the prerogative of every baseball fan, and in her defense, not that she needs one, she's no more complacent in this book than in any of her other books. She's worried about the game she loves, the game former Major League Baseball commissioner A. Bart Giamatti described as having “such a purchase on our national soul.” She's worried about its relevance in a culture so addicted to hyper-stimulation; she's worried about its communicability in international settings increasingly divorced from the humble realities of neighborhood play; and despite the stadium throngs, she's worried about the game's very survival.
“The capacity of baseball to reinvent itself at certain crucial points in American history,” she writes, “– even when the reinvention has proceeded to slowly – is the essence of the game's importance as the bellybutton of our society.” Long-time readers of baseball books will be familiar with this kind of malarky; I myself have seen baseball equated with the brain, the heart, the soul, and even the liver, so bellybuttons are no great stretch – and if a less star-struck reader might be tempted to compare the game to that internationally-infamous biological icon, the overflowing American belly, such a reader would once again be told to go play some chess.
Nevertheless, Jacoby is courageous enough to address the wheezing, schlerotic elephant in the room: how boring baseball is. Or rather – to avoid possible Bronx cheers – how boring it is often perceived, no doubt erroneously, to be. We live in an age more consumed by monetizable media and saturated advertising than any other, and this presents a packaging problem for a sport with so many … how to put it? … somnolent interludes as baseball. This was never a problem for getting it to play in Peoria, because in Peoria, as everywhere else in the US, it's “our game.” But it does indeed present a problem for getting it to play in Erbil or Quillota or Kinshasa, where “our game” is soccer, and where restaurant patrons, catching a snippet of this odd American game on TV, will likely be struck first by how seldom the portly gentlemen on the field actually move.
Advertisers have proposed possible solutions, including shortening the standard length of a game and other ways to disguise its lack of tempo and structural incompatibility with commercial breaks that may accidentally blot out a rare blip of activity on the field. Jacoby is sanguine about such changes: “I feel safe in saying that almost no one in a noncomatose state sits and watches a game on television for three or more solid hours, unless it's a game with the sustained tension of the decisive Astros-Mets contest in 1986,” she admits with characteristic honesty. “Like many fans, I am not even aware of the length of commercial breaks because I never watch commercials.” Less zealous fans, beginning a question with, “But if you're admitting that somebody would need to be comatose to watch ...” will doubtless be told to go play some chess.
The real title of Why Baseball Matters might well be How Baseball Survives. Jacoby indulges in a thought experiment designed to imagine what the game will be like to a potential fan born in 2006. Will it be more corporate? Faster-paced? “Baseball is hospitable to fans in a wide variety of formats and platforms (how easily digital language seeps into a sentence about a nondigital subject),” she observes, “but the game cannot prosper in the future as it prospers today if it does not attract the fans who are missing not only from ballparks but from the camaraderie of watching with friends and family in their own homes.” But will it need to sell its soul in order to reach those new fans? Jacoby, true fan to the end, hopes not. And readers tempted to quip that you can't sell what you never had will promptly be told to go play some chess.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.