With the coming of spring and new hope and new adventures, I’ve pulled a few old baseball books off my shelves, dusted them off, and cracked them open, searching for wisdom. I’ve owned this copy of Baseball and Philosophy for probably 6 years or so, and never managed to get past the first inning. (The book is divided into innings instead of chapters, with two essays in each. Nice.)
The book is a collection of essays written primarily by college professors, who examine various philosophical questions raised (for some) by baseball. Questions such as:
- Is it rational to believe in the Cubs, or in any religious faith?
- If and when everyone is cheating, is it still cheating?
- Does a team have an ethical responsibility to play ball?
- Is the intentional walk unethical?
Yes. Serious, thought-provoking questions indeed, and I’m sure questions that all of us baseball fans have considered at some time, if only subconsciously.
Despite these hard-hitting questions, the book in the past just didn’t resonate with me, for some reason. Despite the fact that the first article in the bottom of the first hit very close to home, a piece called “Minnesota’s ‘Homer Hanky Jurisprudence:’ Contraction, Ethics, and the Twins,” by Paul Horan and Jason Solomon. This is where I always got hung up – perhaps because the top of the first — “There’s No Place Like Home!” by Joe Kraus — also did not capture my attention so much, and, well, sometimes it’s two strikes and you’re out.
However, this being spring, fresh starts, new beginnings, I gave it another chance, and this time I steadily made my way through all nine innings and then the post game “press conference” pieces. This time I generally enjoyed the book — though with any collection of essays you’re going to find some you regret and some that shine.
This time, for some reason, I found the bottom of the first to be of more interest, as the authors discussed the legal and ethical issues raised by the foul, nefarious, dastardly and underhanded attempt of Major League Baseball, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, and, it must be said, even the Twins’ kindly owner, Carl Pohlad, to contract the Major Leagues and erase the Twins and the Montreal Expos from the roster of Major League teams.
Whereas, in the past, this article lost me somewhere in the second page, this time I persevered, and found it to be a nicely illuminating essay. Perhaps I was over-tired when I picked this book up in the past. (Not an unusual state of being for me.)
As some of you may recall, in late 2001, the owners voted 28-2 to eliminate two teams from the major leagues. (I’m not sure who the two nay-sayers were, but I imagine them to be, for appearance sake, the owner of the Expos and also Carl Pohlad.) “The teams to be contracted have a long record of failing to generate enough revenues to operate a viable major league franchise,” sayeth Mr. Selig.
This, naturally, created something of a stir. A lot of pointed questions were asked, and, in fact, in December of 2001, Commissioner Selig appeared before the House Judiciary Committee, where he attempted to weasel his way out of some of these pointed questions.
League financial data was turned over to the committee, which revealed, according to Mr. Selig, that Major League Baseball was in Terrible Financial Shape, and that 25 of the 30 major league teams lost money the previous year. Congressman Mel Watt of North Carolina raised the point that it sounded like most of the teams were failing to generate enough revenues to operate viable major league franchises, and then asked how contracting just two of the teams would fix baseball’s large systemic problems.
As the hearings went on the talk turned frequently to the generous tax subsidies given to baseball, and to their anti-trust exemption, and, well, things became increasingly awkward for Snidely B. Selig.
(Riveting video of these congressional hearings on the CSPAN website! Representative Watt appears at about 1:36 in the video.)
Major League Baseball (Mr. Selig) was essentially arguing that this contraction thing was just a simple business decision, an accounting problem, a question of income and outrun. Sound financial management by the guardians of our national pastime.
Minnesota Superior Court Judge Harry Seymour Crump looked at things a little differently, however, and on November 16 Judge Crump issued an injunction that ordered the Twins to stay in Minnesota for 2002, saying basically that this was not just a dollars and cents issue, and that the citizens of Minnesota would suffer irreparable harm if the Twins did not play their 2002 season in Minnesota. Judge Crump, according to the authors, picked up on baseball’s unique position in the law, which rests in part upon a utilitarian notion of the public good. Baseball, and the Twins, provide intangible assets to the community that no monetary damages can possibly recompense.
In a particularly low point for team public relations, the Twins and Major League Baseball appealed the decision, and the essay points out the awkward position they found themselves in. After years of claiming a special legal standing and status, they were now claiming, oh, hey, we’re just a business, just like everybody else… except for our anti-trust exemption. Other than that, just like anybody else. Business as usual. Nothing going on here. We aren’t so special, really. Uh, well, in some ways we are, but here, no, not in this case. You see?
All in all, I found this to be a nice little article about baseball’s odd position in the law and it’s requisite responsibilities.
The best article in the book was written by Professor Ted “The Panther” Cohen, of the University of Chicago, “There Are No Ties at First Base.” This seemed the most personal and heartfelt essay in the book, and it was also the funniest.
Ted is a guy who knows the rules of baseball, and he oversees a pick-up game for kids and parents in a local park. In one game there is a play at first base, and the runner and the ball arrive at the base at the same time, and a bit of an argument ensues:
Then an adult loped in from the outfield and with calm, good sense, and an intention to soothe, spoke softly but firmly, commanding immediate quiet and attention. “It was a tie. Let’s let him be safe.”
It was a perfect remark. It was generous and also fair. It was paternal but not patronizing. It satisfied all the children: the batting team was given a runner at first, the fielding team was given respect.
But it was wrong. I alone knew it was wrong, and had anyone else known it, I would have been alone in feeling the necessity of saying so. “If it was a tie,” I said, “then you don’t have to let him be safe; he was safe.”
The other adult turned his calm on me: “I know it’s a convention in baseball that ties go to the runner.” With that remark he put me with the children, I suppose, as if I were a perverse child and perhaps a bright one, but a child still. I had a brief thought of letting it go at that, but that thought faded like a weak throw from the outfield, and I became the kind of child-adult who is too much for any sensible man to handle. “It’s not a convention,” I said. “The rule says that the runner is safe unless the ball arrives before him. If the ball arrives at the same time, then it doesn’t arrive before him, and so he is safe.”
The other adult was silenced. The older children were in awe. I was trembling with a sense of moral triumph. I can remember nothing else from that game.
I reallyenjoyed the Panther’s quiet sense of humor in this piece. When one second baseman’s father says to him, “You’re being obnoxious,” Cohen writes:
“All the children who play regularly know this about me… but they sense that this goes with the order I give to the game…. They seem to like the structure I supply, the umpiring, and the authoritative commentary on the rules, and I think they are attracted by my obtuse scholasticism.”
After the initial “rhubarb” regarding the tie at first base, Cohen realizes that he must check the rules. “I had spoken with confidence, but I was not really sure.” He discovers, unfortunately, a contradiction in the rules, which state:
A batter is out when after a third strike or after he hits a fair ball, he or first base is tagged before he touches first base.
Any runner is out when he fails to reach the next base before a fielder tags him or the base, after he has been forced to advance by reason of the batter becoming a runner.
In the first instance, the ball/tag has to beat the runner. Tie goes to the runner.
In the second instance, the runner has to reach the base before the tag. Tie goes to the tag!
Cohen, naturally, finds this troubling.
“With all that charm, and with their natural appeal to my philosophical sensibility, the rules had won me over. Now I found them wanting at their core.
On the other hand, I anticipated that statutory immortality that would be due me. I would effect a change in the rules. It was unlikely that I would be given a footnote in the rule book, but I might well find myself in a Roger Angell essay…”
Well, I’m not going to tell you how this all works out. Perhaps the title gives you a clue. But it was a delightful read, and I learned later that it won a Pushcart Prize in 1991.
All in all, this was a worthy little book of baseball, if not of philosophy. Sometimes it was a bit difficult for me to catch the philosophical nuances. Sometimes it seemed like they were stretching a bit. The articles on the Zen of Hitting and Japanese baseball were pretty interesting, as was the article on Baseball, Cheating, and Tradition. Some of the Press Conference pieces at the end seemed a bit cursory.
Ted “The Panther” Cohen passed away in 2014, at age 74. Good game, Panther.