According to Horace Traubel in With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28-July 14, 1888), published in 1906, Whitman said to him, “I like your interest in sports–ball, chiefest of all–baseball particularly: baseball is our game: the American game: I connect it with our national character. Sports take people out of doors, get them filled with oxygen–generate some of the brutal customs (so-called brutal customs) which, after all, tend to habituate people to a necessary physical stoicism. We are some ways a dyspeptic, nervous set: anything which will repair such losses may be regarded as a blessing to the race.”
This remark is generally paraphrased by those wishing to quote the juicy phrases. Maybe we can blame Douglass Wallop for first “helping” Whitman. Annie Savoy and Ken Burns are among the legions who have followed down this path. The famous “‘snap, go, fling” quote also came from the Traubel: “Well – it’s our game; that’s the chief fact in connection with it; America’s game; it has the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere; it belongs as much to our institutions; fits into them as significantly as our Constitution’s laws; is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.”
Here’s another Whitman anthem for Opening Day. Truncated, it is today famous as the opening lines of Ken Burns’s Baseball (1994). Here is the young Whitman’s full commentary, from the Brooklyn Eagle, Thursday, July 23, 1846.
“Brooklyn Young Men.—Athletic exercises.—In our sun-down perambulations, of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing “base,” a certain game of ball. We wish such sights were more common among us. In the practice of athletic and manly sports, the young men of nearly all our American cities are very deficient—perhaps more so than those of any other country that could be mentioned. Clerks are shut up from early morning till nine or ten o’clock at night—apprentices, after their days’ works, either go to bed, or lounge about in places where they benefit neither body or mind—and all classes seem to act as though there were no commendable objects of pursuit in the world except making money and tenaciously sticking to one’s trade or occupation. Now, as the fault is so generally of this kind, we can do little harm in hinting to people that, after all, there may be no necessity for such a drudge system among men. Let us enjoy life a little. Has God made this beautiful earth—the sun to shine—all the sweet influences of nature to operate—and planted in man a wish for their delights—and all for nothing? Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave of our close rooms, and the dust and corruption of stagnant places, and taste some of the good things Providence has scattered around so liberally.
“We would that all the young fellows about Brooklyn were daily in the habit of spending an hour or two in some out-door game or recreation. The body and mind would both be benefitted by it. There would be fewer attenuated forms and shrunken limbs and pallid faces in our streets. The game of ball is glorious—that of quoits is invigorating—so are leaping, running, wrestling, etc. etc. To any person having the least knowledge of physiology, it were superfluous to enter into any argument to prove the use and benefit of exercise. We have far too little of it in this country, among the “genteel” classes. Both women and men, particularly the younger ones, should be careful to pass no day of their lives without a portion of out-door exercise.”
Why stop here, when the game of ball is glorious? Below, other literary sentiments about our game, in no particular order.
PHILIP ROTH: For someone whose roots in America were strong but only inches deep, and who had no experience, such as a Catholic child might, of an awesome hierarchy that was real and felt, baseball was a kind of secular church that reached into every class and region of the nation and bound millions upon millions of us together in common concerns, loyalties, rituals, enthusiasms, and antagonisms. Baseball made me understand what patriotism was about, at its best.
ROBERT COOVER: There were things about the games I liked. The crowds, for example. I felt like I was part of something there, you know, like in church, except it was more real than any church, and I joined in the scorekeeping, hollering, the eating of hot dogs and drinking of Cokes and beer, and for a while I even had the idea that ball stadiums, and not European churches were the real American holy places.
DAVID HALBERSTAM: By and large it is the sport that a foreigner is least likely to take to. You have to grow up playing it, you have to accept the lore of the bubble-gum card, and believe that if the answer to the Mays-Snider-Mantle question is found, then the universe will be a simpler and more ordered place.
DONALD HALL: Baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.
JIMMY CANNON: He was a parade all by himself, a burst of dazzle and jingle. Santa Claus drinking his whiskey straight and groaning with a bellyache caused by gluttony….Babe Ruth made the music that his joyous years danced to in a continuous party….What Babe Ruth is comes down, one generation handing it to the next, as a national heirloom.
PHILIP K. WRIGLEY: Baseball is too much of a sport to be called a business, and too much of a business to be called a sport.
JACQUES BARZUN: Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW: What is both surprising and delightful is that the spectators are allowed, and even expected, to join in the vocal part of the game. I do not see why this feature should not be introduced into cricket. There is no reason why the field should not try to put the batsman off his stroke at the critical moment by neatly timed disparagements of his wife’s fidelity and his mother’s respectability.
FRANKLIN P. ADAMS:
These are the saddest of possible words: “Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Trio of bear cubs and fleeters than birds, “Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double–
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble: “Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
THOMAS WOLFE : Is there anything that can evoke spring–the first fine days of April–better than the sound of the ball smacking into the pocket of the big mill, the sound of the bat as it hits the horsehide…? And is there anything that can tell more about an American summer than, say, the smell of the wooden bleachers in a small-town baseball park, that resinous, sultry, and exciting smell of old dry wood.
JIM BOUTON: You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.
ERNIE HARWELL: Baseball is cigar smoke, hot-roasted peanuts, The Sporting News, Ladies’ Day, Down in Front, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, the seventh-Inning Stretch and the Star-Spangled Banner. Baseball is a highly paid Brooklyn catcher telling the nation’s business leaders: “You have to be a man to be a big leaguer, but you have to have a lot of little boy in you too.” This is a game for America–this baseball. A game for boys and for men.
BRUCE CATTON: Baseball is conservative. What was good enough in Cap Anson’s day is good enough now, and a populace that could stand unmoved while the Federal Constitution was amended would protest with vehemence at any tampering with the formalities of baseball.
A. BARTLETT GIAMATTI: Baseball breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the Chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.
ARTHUR “BUGS” BAER, describing Ping Bodie’s attempt to steal second base in 1917, when he was thrown out by several yards: “His head was full of larceny, but his feet were honest.”
BERNARD MALAMUD: The whole history of baseball has the quality of mythology.
DONALD HALL: Baseball connects generations. When you are small you may not discuss politics or union dues or profit margins with your father’s cigar-smoking friends when your father has gone out for a six-pack; but you may discuss baseball. It is all you have in common, because your father’s friend does not wish to discuss the Assistant Principal or Alice Bisbee Morgan. About the season’s moment you know as much as he does; both of you may shake your heads over Lefty’s wildness or the rookie who was called out last Saturday when he tried to steal home with two outs in the ninth inning down by one.
ERNEST L. THAYER:
Oh! somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville–mighty Casey has struck out.
PHILIP ROTH: You can’t imagine how truly glorious it is out there, so alone in all that space….Do you know baseball at all? Because center field is like some observation post, a kind of control tower, where you are able to see everything and everyone, to understand what’s happening the instant it happens, not only by the sound of the struck bat but by the spark of movement that goes through the infielders in the first second that the ball comes flying at them; and once it gets beyond them, “It’s mine,” you call, “it’s mine,” and then after it you go. For in center field, if you can get to it, it is yours. Oh, how unlike my home it is to be in center field, where no one will appropriate unto himself anything that I say is mine!
ERIC ROLFE GREENBERG: To be a pitcher! I thought. A pitcher, standing at the axis of event, or a catcher with the God-view of the play all before him; to be a shortstop, lord of the infield, or a center fielder with unchallenged claim to all the territory one’s speed and skill could command; to perform the spontaneous acrobatics of the third baseman or the practiced ballet of the man at second, or to run and throw with the absolute commitment of the outfielder! And to live in a world without grays, where all decisions were final: ball or strike, safe or out, the game won or lost beyond question or appeal.
EDNA FERBER: Any man who can look handsome in a dirty baseball suit is an Adonis. There is something about the baggy pants, and the Micawber-shaped collar, and the skull-fitting cap, and the foot or so of tan, or blue, or pink undershirt sleeve sticking out at the arms, that just naturally kills a man’s best points. Then too, a baseball suit requires so much in the matter of leg. Therefore, when I say that Rudie Schlachweiler was a dream even in his baseball uniform, with a dirty brown streak right up the side of his pants where he had slid for base, you may know that the girls camped on the grounds during the season.
W.P. KINSELLA: As I look around the empty park, almost Greek in its starkness, I feel an awesome inarticulate love for this very stadium and the game it represents. I am reminded of the story about the baseball fans of Milwaukee, and what they did on a warm fall afternoon, the day after it was announced that Milwaukee was to have a major-league team the next season. According to the story, 10,000 people went to County Stadium that afternoon and sat in the seats and smiled out at the empty playing field-sat in silence, in awe, in wonder, in anticipation, in joy–just knowing that soon the field would come alive with the chatter of infielders, bright as bird chirps.
THOMAS WOLFE: In the memory of almost every one of us, is there anything, that can evoke spring–the first fine days of April–better than the sound of the ball smacking into the pocket of the big mitt, the sound of the bat as it hits the horsehide: for me, at any rate, and I am being literal and not rhetorical–almost everything I know about spring is in it–the first leaf, the jonquil, the maple tree, the smell of grass upon your hands and knees, the coming into flower of April.
ALAN LELCHUK: After a great victory in war, there was a feeling that merit would be recognized. It was like coming into a bright light. The feeling that not only had we made it through, we, children of immigrants, were on the way up.
RED SMITH (after Bobby Thomson’s home run): The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.
THOMAS WOLFE: Baseball has been not merely “the great national game” but really a part of the whole weather of our lives, of the thing that is our own, of the whole fabric, the million memories of America.