Baseball and Progress

I have recently been taking the pleasure of reading Henry Edward Bird’s Chess History and Reminiscences a typically Late Victorian hodgepodge of arcane chess lore, random chess problems, historical games, windy legends and good old fashioned gossip. Bird, who was a very fine chess master in his day and who played in the most prestigious tournaments of the time, has one very funny passage where he is discussing the great strides taken by British chess in the second half of the nineteenth century, painting a picture of British chess leaping from triumph to triumph in an unending march of Progress.

The reason it’s funny is that it wasn’t remotely close to being true. In the second half of the nineteenth century, British chess had already begun a long, steady decline that would continue unabated for more than 100 years.

Why the hymn to the continuing triumphs of British chess, then? Victorian Britain was obsessed, as no society had been before, with the notion of Progress. In respectable Victorian society, if you weren’t busy Progressing as quickly as possible along a line of direct material improvement, you were Nobody (or worse, you were John Ruskin). Bird’s triumphant trumpet blasts are (as he more or less acknowledges in discussing the details) nothing more than an implicit recognition of the social convention that By Jingo, Progress Is Wonderful! (Working chess masters are a breed of artist even more impoverished than working painters or sculptors, or even baseball writers. So they need to be ultra-respectful of the social conventions). God, Empire and Progress were the three pillars of the Victorian middle class and one can certainly argue that the hangover has been with us ever since.

Progress gets short shrift these days in many circles, but none more so than in baseball. Self-described “Traditionalists” are quick to bemoan change within the game, or even changes in the society at large around the game that have a peripheral impact upon it. (If we had had cellular telephones in the 1930s, these same folks would now be bemoaning the proliferation of No-Phone Zones at ballparks and stadiums, probably citing Lou Gehrig dramatically holding Tony Lazzeri’s cell phone in front of him so Mom Gehrig could hear the “luckiest man on earth” speech).

Baseball is an affliction that strikes us in our youth. It’s before puberty that we form our most long-lasting associations with the game; no major league player will ever mean as much to me as Tim Raines or Tony Fernandez or Fernando Valenzuela, not unless my own sons end up as the Opening Day battery for the 2027 Oklahoma City Bank of America Ramblers. The game that grabs holds of us and that we never want to let go of, is the one we remember being played under the conditions of our youth. For those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, this can be as much a curse as it is a blessing. I have heard otherwise intelligent baseball writers describe the baseball of the late 1970s and early 1980s as the most nearly perfect form of the game possible … yes, the game with the hopped-up scrawny little players in the plastic uniforms playing on the plastic grass in the plastic stadiums with 7,000 fans in hard plastic seats eating plastic food all on the fuzzy TV screen. Or often not on TV at all, just a plastic radio.

We’re fans. We’re trapped in our memories. We can’t help it, and we don’t want to.

So we don’t really want Progress. We may even despise it, or fear it. And many of us, the fans, don’t in fact think Progress is happening at all. We think that baseball is getting worse, that things are headed downhill, or have fallen apart, or at least that Swift And Decisive Action Must Be Taken Immediately to prevent things from falling apart. But is it true? Do we have Progress in Baseball?

If we take it as given that the most perfect form of the game is the one played when we were lads and lasses, then no. We can’t, because you can’t have progress from perfection, so the question doesn’t even make sense. But because we have a sneaking suspicion that that isn’t what we meant by asking ourselves the question, it is immediately obvious that we need to take out the subjective element and ask if there is material progress in baseball.

I think it goes without question that there is.

There are more fans than ever before. More people watch ballgames in person. More people watch the postseason than ever. More people watch on TV.

There is far, far more baseball available than ever before. When I was growing up, it was considered an achievement when my hometown team finally broadcast 100 games in a season. Now I can not only watch those games, I can watch any game I like, live and in fine quality. Or for a few dollars I can listen to radio broadcasts of every major league game, even almost any minor league game, from anywhere in North America. No desperate hoping that radio propagation is good; no more worries that the ionosphere is going to black out the Cardinals.

The players are bigger than ever before, faster and stronger too. They come from a deeper talent pool, and a more diverse one, than ever before. They hit the ball harder and they throw harder; when I was young, a pitcher who threw 90 miles per hour was discussed in hushed tones, always with an expectation that he might be a future star. Now every other guy in a major league pen throws better than 90. Material progress, you see; direct and unambiguous evidence that it’s better now than it was then.

The choices at the park, of everything, are better. People are willing to pay more, too; realistically speaking, is there any better evidence that baseball is better now, than that it is more expensive? That the fans are willing to pay more, that the market price for everything related to baseball is higher, is direct evidence that there has been material progress in baseball, and that progress continues.

For me, and for many of you reading this, this progress has been hard to see because as fans, we simply accept the material conditions in which baseball is played. We have absolutely no choice in the matter; the material conditions of the game are what they are and well, we’ll walk over hot coals to get baseball anyway. We don’t notice it often, not over a period of decades, but it’s definitely there.

And it will most certainly continue. As a magnificent sport, as a magnificent business, as a magnificent competition, as a magnificent obsession, baseball will no doubt continue to progress. There is too much at stake for all of us to let baseball lay fallow, too much to let it rust. We don’t know what shape that progress will take, we don’t know what things we cherish now will be dispensed with or what opportunities will be seized of which we cannot even dream.

Finally, there is one thing that I am certain of. I look at my own sons, one just learning how to play catch and accidentally throwing the ball behind him, the other posing with his first baseball cap in his bassinet. I look at them and know, that when they grow tall and strong and when I grow grumpy and deaf, they won’t look to 1982 and see the Golden Age that I do. They will look back and think that no player could ever mean as much to them Roy Halladay or Orlando Hudson or (God forbid) David Wright. Some things, you see, are happily immune from progress.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

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