After his death, Stephen Jay Gould, the great paleontologist and scholar of evolutionary history, was still teaching about a subject he loved—through a posthumous book of essays about baseball. Gould and other famous scholars and writers—individuals such as historians David Halberstam and Doris Kearns Goodwin, novelist John Updike, financial journalist Michael Lewis, and New Yorker essayist Roger Angell—have all written with a special affinity for the game. Ken Burns found many of them for his 9-part PBS documentary Baseball. Yes, even poet Walt Whitman wrote about baseball in the mid-nineteenth century.
I’m here to report that we have a candidate for the 2019 addition to the “smart people write about baseball” library. Let’s see what it might tell us about baseball, and life.
Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark is a short and entertaining work written by Alva Noë, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a lifelong New York Mets fan. I went against my standing policy of rejecting books with jacket blurbs by George Will and took a flyer on this set of 33 essays, most of them repurposed from National Public Radio’s discontinued science blog 13:7:Cosmos and Culture.
Noë’s reflections from a lifetime of observing and thinking about baseball has led him to a number of thoughtful, not-always-convincing, but generally smart and witty opinions about the game. That’s no surprise. If there is a thread running through Infinite Baseball, it is that the on-field chatter and off-field debate are part and parcel of the same “practice.” The “limits of the game are not drawn, in any straightforward sense, around the field of play itself.” As a thinking exercise, one that “demands of its players that they seek, in their role as players, to fathom and articulate the game,” then thoughtful writing is baseball as well.
This contention is best seen in Noë’s four essays of the importance of “scoring” a game. As one who takes an old-fashioned scorebook to the game, I was intrigued by his takes on the importance of scoring as key to the “forensic” nature of baseball as well as to the stories that make the game great. On the first point, Noë argues that keeping score is not just a look at what happened, but “sourcing praise and blame and interpreting the significance of what’s going on.” The outcome isn’t always as important as knowing who is responsible for what happens.
The forensic nature of the game makes more sense when tied to the realm of stories. Baseball, in Noë’s view, is “remarkably focused on not just storytelling, but also on finding ways to write the story down, very literally, on the scorecard. Baseball is, in this sense, historical and history making.”* I am a firm believer in the importance of figuring out the stories that help explain who we are and why we exist. We approach life best when we seek to fathom and articulate what it means to be alive.**
Noë puts forward challenging and intriguing points-of-view on topics that every fan would understand. For instance:
- Performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), in Noë’s view, are not “cheating,” but should be seen as similar to having Tommy John surgery to prolong one’s pitching career through medical technology. He argues that if we monitored PEDs as we do surgery, the risk would not be as great for the players. Noë also suggests that alleged PED-using home run king Barry Bonds clearly belongs in the Hall of Fame, just as the Atlanta Braves’ John Smoltz became the first pitcher to enter the Hall following Tommy John surgery. Without the surgery, Smoltz would not have had a Hall of Fame career. Whether you agree or not, it does force one to reconsider the conflict we have about our nature as human beings.
- Baseball is boring in part because you need the slowness to do all the thinking that’s required to play and understand the game well. Attempts to speed up play fundamentally attack the core of the game. On this point, Noë and I are in complete agreement. “A baseball game, like a good conversation, or a friendship, or a political controversy,” he notes, “has no fixed end. It takes however long it takes.” (Emphasis added.) In response to the commissioner’s push to speed up the game, Noë’s take is, “God save us from today’s ramped-up, fast-paced world! We need to slow down. We need to turn off. We need to unplug. We need to start things and not know when they are going to end. We need evenings at the ballpark, evenings spent out of time.”
- While baseball is clearly a game full of statistics, it is almost impossible to compare players from different time periods (as many traditionalists like to do). All sorts of changes to the game had impacts that are almost never taken into account—from the 1920s introduction of new balls when the one in use gets scuffed (resulting immediately in more home runs by a player named Babe Ruth), to the integration of baseball in the 1950s (vastly improving the competition and level of play when individuals such as Willie Mays became big league ballplayers), to lowering the height of the pitching mound in 1969 (which benefitted the hitters who couldn’t touch Bob Gibson in 1968 as he hurled from the mound that was a full five inches higher). Noë isn’t arguing against cross-period comparisons, but he is making the point that in baseball—as in life—numbers never tell the whole story of human achievement. As you might expect, he is not a fan of the total immersion of sabermetrics into the game. While not dismissing the value of the new analytical tools, Noë adds, “Want to know what happened on the field? You’d better take a look, and give it some thought.”
Noë delves more deeply into the “cliché that baseball is a microcosm of life” by suggesting that the game is a social world and “exhibits the structural properties of social worlds.” It isn’t just the men on the diamond, but it is also the practice of trying to understand what the men on the diamond are doing “not only while they are doing it but also in the larger setting of the game’s past and future.” You need not only the players, umpires, coaches, and fans to engage with the game, but also to reflect on what happens, as we do in life. The best example is in the chapter, “No-hitters, Perfect Games, and the Meaning of Life.”
A no-hitter is special “because in baseball, as in life, we sometimes care less about what happens—who’s actually winning or losing—than about who is accountable.” (You can pitch a no-hitter and lose the game because of walks, errors, passed balls, hit batsmen, etc.) A perfect game, on the other hand, “is special because sometimes we are primarily about the outcomes.” No-hitters are primarily a pitcher’s accomplishment, while a perfect game is always a team accomplishment. Life is like that, in that we are always thinking about “what we do and what matters.”
You find this fan’s enthusiasm, leavened by the philosopher’s wit, throughout Infinite Baseball. There are plenty of gems to open your eyes and mind to new ways of looking at this endlessly fascinating game.
With two games at Nationals Park over this current homestand, I’m seeing a great week taking shape, no matter what else happens.
More to come…
*On this point, Noë is supported by none other than the esteemed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who regularly tells audiences that she learned to score Brooklyn Dodger games (then played in the afternoon) so that she could sit with her father each evening and retell the game while he relaxed after work. She said the storytelling sharpened her work as a historian. I heard this first-hand as my daughter and I were getting Goodwin’s autograph on Team of Rivals and I happened to mention that Claire was learning how to score baseball. Goodwin stopped, put down her pen, and talked with us for over a minute—holding up a long line—about the importance of that practice in her life. Claire, I should mention, is now an Oakland A’s fan, who attends multiple games with friends each season.
**My son Andrew and I experienced the importance of stories—both within and outside the game—in the baseball context last month. A game we attended at Nationals Park was delayed almost two hours by an unexpected thunderstorm. In spite of the inconvenience, we spent a delightful evening talking, over beers and popcorn, with two women—both season ticket holders—who easily topped 80 years of age. We spoke extensively about baseball, of course, but we also touched on everything from opera (they were interested as to why Andrew went to study in London) to talking parrots (one of the women had one, and she was amazed that he didn’t swear like a sailor, since that was her favorite method of communication). Fascinating, and definitely an evening spent out of time.