The Columbia Boys, Gehrig and Barzun

by Nicholas Frankovich

Today, considering that it’s the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, Major League Baseball is showing this video at ballparks across the land. First basemen from all 30 present-day MLB teams join the Iron Horse in reciting baseball’s Gettysburg Address. It’s well done, though the text is too much Yankee propaganda for my taste. And I think MLB’s commemoration of it is both too sentimental and, insofar as it looks too much like an effort to exploit the occasion for its potential as a marketing promotion, too cynical — a bad combination. Coming from Gehrig’s lips, however, those paeans to “that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins,” “these grand men,” and “baseball’s greatest empire” were fine. They were appropriate, a fitting declaration of loyalty to the club he had belonged to all his adult life.

That the Fourth of July, America’s birthday, is now bound up with this moment in baseball history nicely illustrates the observation of historian Jacques Barzun that “whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” Barzun, Columbia College 1927, may have never crossed paths with Gehrig on Morningside Heights; Gehrig attended from 1921 through 1923, when he signed with the Yankees and went to work at their place uptown, the Polo Grounds. Still, although he may be more widely known as “the pride of the Yankees,” Gehrig was a Columbia hero, too, and I like to think that Barzun valued the low degree of separation between him and the recent star of South Field, which at the time served as home field of the baseball Lions.

“Columbia,” a poetic name for America, is derived from “Columbus.” It used to be a more common appellation. America personified as a woman called “Columbia” was a familiar figure in our popular culture (you may know her as the lady representing Columbia Pictures) before she passed the torch to Uncle Sam around the time of the First World War, when he began to establish himself as the face of the nation. In 1784, recent events had led King’s College, as it called itself up to then, to turn 180 degrees and rename itself “Columbia,” a strong statement that was perhaps felt to be all the more necessary given the school’s location in New York State, which had a reputation for leaning Loyalist.

Gehrig’s speech has been widely quoted the past few days. By virtue of its coinciding with the Fourth of July, it has come to epitomize something of the relationship between baseball and Columbia in the patriotic sense of that word. You’re less likely to have had served up to you on your screen the commentary, as it were. I mean Barzun’s lyrical essay about baseball and America. He worked it into his book God’s Country and Mine (1954). Here’s an excerpt:

People who care less for gentility manage things better. They don’t bother to leave the arid city but spend their surplus there on pastimes they can enjoy without feeling cramped. They follow boxing and wrestling, burlesque and vaudeville (when available), professional football and hockey. Above all, they thrill in unison with their fellow man the country over by watching baseball. The gods decree a heavyweight match only once in a while and a national election only every four years, but there is a World Series with every revolution of the earth around the sun. And in between, what varied pleasure long drawn out!

Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game — and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams. The big league games are too fast for the beginner and the newspapers don’t help. To read them with profit you have to know a language that comes easy only after philosophy has taught you to judge practice. Here is scholarship that takes effort on the part of the outsider, but it is so bred into the native that it never becomes a dreary round of technicalities. The wonderful purging of the passions that we all experienced in the fall of 51, the despair groaned out over the fate of the Dodgers, from whom the league pennant was snatched at the last minute, give us some idea of what Greek tragedy was like. Baseball is Greek in being national, heroic, and broken up in the rivalries of city-states. How sad that Europe knows nothing like it! Its Olympics generate anger, not unity, and its interstate politics follow no rules that a people can grasp. At least Americans understand baseball, the true realm of clear ideas.

That baseball fitly expresses the powers of the nation’s mind and body is a merit separate from the glory of being the most active, agile, varied, articulate, and brainy of all group games. It is of and for our century. Tennis belongs to the individualistic past — a hero, or at most a pair of friends or lovers, against the world. The idea of baseball is a team, an outfit, a section, a gang, a union, a cell, a commando squad — in short, a twentieth-century setup of opposite numbers.

Baseball takes its mystic nine and scatters them wide. A kind of individualism thereby returns, but it is limited — eternal vigilance is the price of victory. Just because they’re far apart, the outfield can’t dream or play she-loves-me-not with daisies. The infield is like a steel net held in the hands of the catcher. He is the psychologist and historian for the staff — or else his signals will give the opposition hits. The value of his headpiece is shown by the ironmongery worn to protect it. The pitcher, on the other hand, is the wayward man of genius, whom others will direct. They will expect nothing from him but virtuosity. He is surrounded no doubt by mere talent, unless one excepts that transplanted acrobat, the shortstop. What a brilliant invention is his role despite its exposure to ludicrous lapses! One man to each base, and then the free lance, the trouble shooter, the movable feast for the eyes, whose motion animates the whole foreground.

The rules keep pace with this imaginative creation so rich in allusions to real life. How excellent, for instance, that a foul tip muffed by the catcher gives the batter another chance. It is the recognition of Chance that knows no argument. But on the other hand, how wise and just that the third strike must not be dropped. This points to the fact that near the end of any struggle life asks for more than is needful in order to clinch success. A victory has to be won, not snatched. We find also our American innocence in calling “World Series” the annual games between the winners in each big league. The world doesn’t know or care and couldn’t compete if it wanted to, but since it’s us children having fun, why, the world is our stage. I said baseball was Greek. Is there not a poetic symbol in the new meaning — our meaning — of “Ruth hits Homer”?

The rest here.