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Why Baseball Remains Our Greatest Game, Despite the Low Ratings of the World Series. Lessons From a 104-Year-Old Man. Plus, the Giants' Greatest Fan, Who Once Said, 'There have been only two geniuses in the world, Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare'

Chuck Ross Posted November 2, 2012 at 7:06 AM

As a Dodgers fan from age 6, I’m a lifelong Giants hater, but I damn near fell in love with them during the playoffs and World Series this year.

The postseason run of the San Francisco Giants, culminating in their 4-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers in the World Series, was exciting, thrilling and electrifyingly goose bump inducing. Watching the 10th inning of the last game of the World Series on my 55-inch hi-def TV, with the rain coming down on a cold, blustery night, reminded me of an image I first saw while watching “The Natural” on the big screen, when a home run sent sparks flying.

Some smart filmmaker can make an awe-inspiring documentary with footage from what the Giants did after the regular season ended: After losing the first two games to the Cincinnati Reds and facing elimination, they won the next three in a row. Then, they were down three games to one versus the St. Louis Cardinals in a best-of-seven series and won the next three in a row. And then came the unexpected four-game sweep of the Tigers.

Watching World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval was an inspiration. Physically he reminded me of pictures of Babe Ruth, and his feats reminded me of Ruth and Roberto Clemente. My favorite player who wasn’t a Dodger was Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates, mainly because I was so impressed that he was able to smack the bejesus out of the ball no matter where it was pitched. Like Clemente, Sandoval’s motto seemed to be “Come on, pitch it to me anywhere, strike zone be damned. “

While this year's World Series was the lowest rated in history (7.6 rating/12 share), let’s not bury baseball yet. Local and regional TV ratings for this past baseball season did fine. And almost 75 million fans attended baseball games this year, the most in the past four years. “Overall, the last nine years are now the nine best-attended seasons in the history of major league baseball, including the four successive record-breaking seasons from 2004-2007,” according to MLB.com.

Besides watching the Giants over the past month, I was reminded about the greatness of baseball with the recent passing of Jacques Barzun a week ago yesterday, on Oct. 25, 2012. Barzun, who was born in Paris but who was brought to the U.S. when he was 13 years old and stayed here the rest of his life, was, among many other talents, a historian and cultural observer and critic.

He died a month and five days shy of his 105th birthday. Just as remarkable, as his obituary in The New York Times said, “He wrote dozens of books across many decades, demonstrating that old age did not necessarily mean intellectual decline. He published his most ambitious and encyclopedic book [the 877-page “From Dawn to Decadence”] at the age of 92 -- and credited his productivity in part to chronic insomnia.”

As a fellow insomniac -- I started writing this entry at 3:38 a.m. this morning -- Barzun’s my new hero. Barzun had many, varied interests, and one of them was baseball. He most famously once wrote, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball …”

That quote is in an essay about baseball that Barzun included in his 1954 book “God’s Country and Mine.” I couldn’t find a version of it online to direct you to, but the essay is included in “Baseball: A Literary Anthology,” edited by Nicholas Dawidoff. I would recommend this anthology, published in 2002 by The Library of America, as a must-read for anyone interested in good writing.

Here, in just three consecutive paragraphs that are part of Barzun’s pitch-perfect, insightful essay, you’ll see how he’s captured the essence of baseball and its connection to life:

“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 iron-mongery worn to protect it. The pitcher, on the other hand, is the wayward man of genius, whom others will direct. They will expect nothing of 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 needed 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 …

“Once the crack of the bat has sent the ball skimmiting left of second between the infielder’s legs, six men converge or distend their defense to keep the runner from advancing along the prescribed path. The ball is not the center of interest as in those vulgar predatory games like football, basketball and polo. Man running is the force to be contained. His getting to first or second base starts a capitalization dreadful to think of: every hit pushes him on. Bases full and a homer makes four runs, while the defenders, helpless with the magic power of the ball lying over the fence, cry out their anguish and dig up the sod with their spikes.”

Barzun also writes, “Happy the man in the bleachers,” as he praises baseball’s fans. And as I learned in Dawidoff’s indispensable anthology, the Giants never had a bigger fan than actress Tallulah Bankhead, who was larger-than-life herself. Bankhead reportedly once said: “There have been only two geniuses in the world, Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.”

According to an excerpt in Dawidoff’s “Baseball: A Literary Anthology,” in Bankhead’s 1952 autobiography she wrote, “Attending a Giants game with me, say my cronies, is an experience comparable to shooting the Snake River rapids in a canoe. When they lose I taste wormwood. When they win I want to do a tarantella on top of the dugout. A Giants rally brings out the Roman candle in me. The garments of adjoining box-holders start to smolder.”

Bankhead also writes, “I was hysterical for hours after Bobby Thomson belted Ralph Branca for that ninth inning homer in the final game of the Dodger-Giant playoff in ’51.”

Geeze, did she have to bring that up? The first time I saw the footage of that I was hysterical too. Hysterically crying for my poor Dodgers.