Why Baseball Is Great

added 2/9/2011 by Patrick Hajovsky

The passing of the Super Bowl is a joyous event. Not because the game is great (it usually isn't, although this year's was particularly good). Not because it's good that football is finally over. And not because basketball now takes center stage, with March Madness right around the corner.

The reason it's a joyous event is that football, basketball and the other "lesser" sports are about to give way to baseball. Pitchers and catchers report in less than ten days from the time I write this, and the minutes cannot possibly go slower as the anticipation for the new season (and, for the Astros, new stars to emerge) starts to build.

Why is baseball such a superior sport, I'm often asked (mostly by people that don't like or care about the game overly much)? I'm one of those folks who love to delve into the numbers of the game. Certainly, I don't do it as much as many of my friends, but it is an endless source of enjoyment to pour over the numbers and be amazed at how people can achieve such greatness. But it's not just the numbers that make baseball great. It's much more.

I think the underlying reason why baseball is such a superior sport is that it is truly the free and democratic game - individual freedom of action in support of team goals, in competition with other teams in an equal exertion of their individual freedom.

The recent Hall of Fame debate on these and other pages focused, unfortunately but, of course, inevitably, so much on the particular person that the player's contribution to the team is often left out of the analysis. The media love to make heroes out of common folk, and sportswriters rarely resist the siren call of an easy write, usually made even easier by the player's eye-popping numbers.

But the essence of a Hall-of-Famer, in my view, is that he made other players better while he himself shone as an individual. The halves of that statement are inextricably linked. To accomplish that is a rare thing in any field of endeavor, but baseball seems to be specifically created to permit this to happen. Indeed, no team can win even one game if that does not happen. Free, individual exertion in support of a larger goal, even sacrificing oneself and one's person to make that happen, is the essence of baseball.

This is not to say that baseball players, even Hall-of-Famers, are greater than the weakest member of the military, or the frailest person who goes to work 12 hours a day to support her family. But it is to say that baseball models this heroic ethic in a way that other sports cannot match. Athletes are not heroes, but every once in awhile, an athlete can move beyond his or her sport, and baseball's platform provides an almost perfect stage to remind us of the best (and worst) of ourselves on a daily basis.

This morning on my drive in to work, I listened to a recorded essay of Jackie Robinson. In the 1950's, Edward R. Murrow had a series entitled "This I Believe", where individuals, some more well known than others, gave a three or four-minute address on that topic. Robinson's was one I happily downloaded and one which I couldn't wait to listen.

I wasn't disappointed. The Astros have been called out as having retired too many numbers among their players. Of course, two numbers are retired because of tragic deaths, but it's certainly fair to say that at least one and perhaps two numbers should not be up on that wall. In contrast, Robinson's number, retired by Major League Baseball, deserves to be up there; not because he was a better player than anyone else at the time (he certainly wasn't), but because he, almost more than anyone in the history of the game, exemplifies the true nature of the game itself.

Below is a transcript of Robinson's address, recorded in the middle of his major league career in 1952 (which can be found, with all the other "This I Believe" essays at www.thisibelieve.org). When reading it, I'd merely like you to put yourself in this position - every day at your job, the grocery store, in any public place, you are screamed at with the most vile of terms. You are an intelligent person - college educated, decorated military veteran. You are supportive of your co-workers - and even some of them despise you, and publicly for all to see. You are embarrassed and hurt by the public humiliation of it all, but you still exercise your personal freedom and individual effort to retain your faith and optimism, and help all of them find the better angels of their nature, even if they refuse to realize your help.

And now consider whether the daily exercise of a simply game, which essentially codifies self-sacrifice and individual achievement in support of a larger goal, makes your overcoming of daily hate and viciousness possible. And then ask yourself again whether or not baseball is the quintessential American game.

Below is his essay and Go Astros!

At the beginning of the World Series of 1947, I experienced a completely new emotion when the National Anthem was played. This time, I thought, it is being played for me, as much as for anyone else. This is organized major league baseball, and I am standing here with all the others; and everything that takes place includes me.

About a year later, I went to Atlanta, Georgia, to play in an exhibition game. On the field, for the first time in Atlanta, there were Negroes and whites. Other Negroes, besides me. And I thought: What I have always believed has come to be.

And what is it that I have always believed? First, that imperfections are human. But that wherever human beings were given room to breathe and time to think, those imperfections would disappear, no matter how slowly. I do not believe that we have found or even approached perfection. That is not necessarily in the scheme of human events. Handicaps, stumbling blocks, prejudices - all of these are imperfect. Yes, they have to be reckoned with because they are in the scheme of human events.

Whatever obstacles I found made me fight all the harder. But it would have been impossible for me to fight at all, except that I was sustained by the personal and deep-rooted belief that my fight had a chance. It had a chance because it took place in a free society. Not once was I forced to face and fight an immovable object. Not once was the situation so cast-iron rigid that I had no chance at all. Free minds and human hearts were at work all around me; and so there was the probability of improvement. I look at my children now, and know that I must still prepare them to meet obstacles and prejudices.

But I can tell them, too, that they will never face some of these prejudices because other people have gone before them. And to myself I can say that, because progress is unalterable, many of today's dogmas will have vanished by the time they grow into adults. I can say to my children: There is a chance for you. No guarantee, but a chance.

And this chance has come to be, because there is nothing static with free people. There is no Middle Ages logic so strong that it can stop the human tide from flowing forward. I do not believe that every person, in every walk of life, can succeed in spite of any handicap. That would be perfection. But I do believe - and with every fiber in me - that what I was able to attain came to be because we put behind us (no matter how slowly) the dogmas of the past: to discover the truth of today; and perhaps find the greatness of tomorrow.

I believe in the human race. I believe in the warm heart. I believe in man's integrity. I believe in the goodness of a free society. And I believe that the society can remain good only as long as we are willing to fight for it - and to fight against whatever imperfections may exist.

My fight was against the barriers that kept Negroes out of baseball. This was the area where I found imperfection, and where I was best able to fight. And I fought because I knew it was not doomed to be a losing fight. It couldn't be a losing fight - not when it took place in a free society.

And, in the largest sense, I believe that what I did was done for me - that it was my faith in God that sustained me in my fight. And that what was done for me must and will be done for others.