Friday, February 11, 2005

I Take it All Back!

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Baseball's cultural historian sends his apologies

By Douglas McDaniel

You'd see it in italics, right before any baseball writer tried to wax poetic about the game. This oft-repeated quote by cultural historian Jacques Barzun has served as a mantra for books and magazines covering baseball for 41 years: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and reality of the game."
Barzun wrote those words in a book of essays, "God's Country and Mine," in 1954. Those were good days for baseball. They were also good days for cultural historians, who were needed around to say clever things because America, in general, was less inclined to pummel the public with televised sound bites. As perhaps the most famous commentary of the sport, Barzun's lavish, lyrical essay is one of the greatest intellectual pep rallies for baseball ever expressed.
Sure, in '54, the game was on a roll. In '54, major league baseball was in the full glory of the golden age of Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Stan Musial. Ebbets Field was still standing. The collective soul of Brooklyn was still intact. That year, Willie Mays made his famous "catch" in the World Series and the Cleveland Indians were a contender. The Indians were expected to go to the World Series.
Oh, how things have changed. Two years ago, Barzun, an 85-year-old professor emeritus at Columbia University, took it all back. Speaking like a man betrayed, he said: "I've gotten so disgusted with baseball, I don't follow it anymore. I just see the headlines and turn my head in shame from what we have done with our most interesting and best, healthiest pastime."
His biggest gripe: greed.
"The commercialization is beyond anything that was ever thought of, the overvaluing, really, of the game itself. It's out of proportion to the place an entertainment ought to have.
"Other things are similarly commercialized and out of proportion. But for baseball, which is so intimately connected with the nation's spirit and tradition, it's a disaster."


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