Joe Posnanski interviewed the always wonderful Bob Costas on his podcast a few days ago, and listening to Costas got me thinking, of all things, about the discipline of history. There’s more to come in a future (and considerably longer) post, but for now I’ll just make the point that I’m increasingly concerned historians have essentially abrogated our responsibility to inform the public. This is sometimes out of frustration with the kind of narratives that appear to gain traction, it is sometimes a symptom of a wider problem with the way we approach our disciplines, but regardless of the reason I’m convinced that many historians want to reach out to the public but do not know how to do it. See, for example, my last post on public history.
More of that to come. For now, I recommend listening to the podcast because Posnanski and Costas are both great. They really remind me how I got into baseball in the first place, and why so many academics in the US love the sport so much: baseball is nerdy.
I mean, nerdy. Deep and intensely nerdy. I’m not talking about Sabrmetrics, either: the numbers bring in an additional kind of nerd, but further insulate the nerds already there. In truth, it merely expanded the frontiers of the sport’s nerdy flock, while perhaps antagonizing others just enough. Sabrmetrics brings in the numbers and stats people; the lack of a clock and the duels between pitchers and batters bring in the kind of people who like to read (and write) books about that kind of thing; baseball’s deep commitment to its history brings in people like me. Considering the first love of my sporting life is dominated by people who want to pretend the world began in 1992, this is a big deal. Sure, your average young football fan can cite Maradona, Cruyff, Pele, perhaps (and hopefully) Puskas and Matthews. Baseball fans on the other hand talk about Cap Anson as if he was still manning first base.
It’s great. Ken Burns built his documentary Baseball around interviews with intellectuals, writers and other elitist purveyors of reading for fun and similar perfidious acts. It cannot be a coincidence that I developed a true interest in the sport while I was studying for my PhD. Then again, the sport wouldn’t exist as any kind of financial endeavor of course without all kinds of trappings of modern games from aggressive, cocksure giants to performance enhancing drugs, and it’s not like your typical fan at a baseball game brings his or her copy of a Herman Melville poetry anthology to peruse between innings. We should likely be grateful for that.
Baseball has that nerdy core, though. That’s important, I think. It’s a sign that we haven’t completely fallen into depravity as a culture more broadly. It is perhaps a sign too that America will always embrace the gaudy and the great. Burns’ interviewees sit in study rooms and intone the names of greats in suitable reverence, but they don’t hesitate to grab themselves a hot dog and cheer at the home run fireworks. It all has a home. I am curious to see where baseball goes next, amid all the entirely valid fears of aging fans and the difficulty of the sport to match the ad-friendly violence and slow, brutal killing of men on fields provided by the NFL to so much popular acclaim. Let’s hope instead: let’s hope that baseball is not the final dying of an older America and instead the early indicator of America’s future: the victory of the nerds.