It’s a minor-league mind that chooses to make sport of sports. Not that there aren’t major-league authors who do so, among them George Orwell (“Serious sport is war minus the shooting”) and H. L. Mencken (“It is impossible to imagine Goethe or Beethoven being good at billiards or golf”). Their thinking hurts the ball club. As a nation, it is through the prism of sports that we frame our ethical values, remember our history, envision our future, and find the figures of speech that create our common culture and define our national identity. Walt Whitman once whimsically described American democracy as “athletic”; history has borne out his observation in more ways than he could have foreseen.
Even the most effete and non-sports-minded Washington policy wonk has referred to a certain political candidate as a “dark horse,” asked whether or not to “cut and run” from the Iraqi desert. An abusive, anachronistic husband doesn’t have to play cribbage to “take his wife down a peg,” and a cockamamie idea need not be born in a ballpark to come “straight out of left field.” Because we are always playing, competing, scorekeeping—a game always in progress somewhere, at the arena or onscreen, live-blogged or streamed to an iPhone—the turns of phrase come as confidently and fluently to mind as did the Latin tags and Biblical verses that once furnished the infield chatter of eighteenth-century statesmen and nineteenth-century preachers. We decide elections by means of a race, champion sexual conquests as scores, characterize self-inflicted blunders as fumbles. A faux pas is off-base, and a second-rate talent is a jabroni (a lexical gift from professional wrestling). The failure to pick up a lady at a bar—a loss of esteem if not of a match or a round—is a strikeout, even though it doesn’t preclude one from immediately stepping up to the plate again and taking another swing (advisedly, against a different pitcher). A salesman’s last-ditch attempt to close the deal, to pull a win from the tomb of defeat, is a Hail Mary pass. And during moments of confusion and doubt, we take comfort in the story line of the noble underdog, trusting that from the “real world” of our depression, hopelessness, and “wait till next year” defeatism, we can depend for rescue on the Dream Team or Cinderella Man.
Our infatuation with the come-from-behind victory draws from the optimism and enthusiasm of Walt Whitman, who, ostensibly, as America’s first modern sportswriter, thought real life a substitution, albeit a poor one, for sports. As extravagant in his rhetoric as Grantland Rice or Red Smith, Whitman grasped the “rah-rah” quality of sports and found something inherently American in the unfettered boosterism of fandom. “The hurrah game!” he said of baseball to Horace Traubel in 1889.
Well—it’s our game: that’s the chief fact in connection with it: America’s game: has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere—belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.
Where Mencken scoffs, Whitman applauds, his effervescence opening the door for a nation to be transformed—transfixed, really—into a culture of literate, if not literary, fans. Whitman’s words about temporal action on the field prepared the ground for permanent memories in the mind, the after-the-fact account of the action, allowing the joy of the game to transcend time and insinuate itself into history.
Canadian subscribers add $10; All other international subscribers add $40.