“Cheerful Pessimist” Jacques Barzun Dead at 104
Historian, teacher and cultural critic Jacques Barzun, one of my intellectual “heroes”, passed away at 104. What a life! He wrote about pretty much everything, but his historical writing culminated with his From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present. He also authored books on writing and historical method, but his greatest exposure to the public was in his many writings in magazines and periodicals. One that always stuck with me was his writing “On Baseball”:
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 the 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 freelance, the troubleshooter, the moveable 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.
The dude had game!