Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Baseball vs. Football

This morning on NPR sports commentator Frank DeFord used the recent passing of historian Jacques Barzun to inform his listeners that football has replaced baseball as America's national sport. By proclaiming in 1954 that one had to understand baseball was to understand America, Barzun provided DeFord with a foil. DeFord went on to play a clip from comedian one of George Carlin's hilarious rants on sports ("In football you wear a helmet. In baseball you wear a cap.") DeFord further added that baseball still might be our national pastime, but he emphasized the first part of that word.

It might be true that football has eclipsed baseball, but I protest this. While I enjoy football, I love baseball. I could live without the former, but never the latter. Sure it can be slow as pitchers dawdle between pitches and batters go through a checklist of adjustments to their batting gloves, helmet, shoes, etc. When it is most exciting baseball is a battle between two individuals in a way that football can never be. Baseball is a team sport that relies almost exclusively on individual performance. It comes down to one batter versus one pitcher. Moreover, baseball's greatest moments have been those when the unlikely hero emerges. With a pardon to my friends from Boston, I call Bucky Dent's famous 1978 homerun over the green monster as exhibit A. To me this represents the best character of American democracy. We all work for the common welfare, but we can all stand out as individuals. The unlikely can happen and the most unlikely person can be a hero.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Presidential Debates

Two thoughts on the presidential debates:

1. Regarding issues, I am disappointed that the environment was hardly mentioned at all. It seems to rank near the bottom of either candidate's agenda. Granted, it was mentioned in the form of green energy (which focused on the energy part, not the green element), and there are plenty of critical economic and diplomatic issues (one might even say crises to discuss), but I still would have liked one solid question focused squarely on environmental policy.

2. From a historical perspective, I wish they had had debates before 1960. Wouldn't it be priceless to see FDR in a debate in one of his four elections? He was so good with reporters questions that I have to think it would have been entertaining, if nothing else. I am sure he would have avoided a debate in 1944 on the grounds that he was too busy winning the war (and to cover up his declining health). Also to see Eisenhower and Stevenson, McKinley and Bryan, Truman and Dewey, or, the my favorite idea yet, a free for all between Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Eugene Debs, and Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Would any of these debates have tipped an election? We cannot tell, of course, because they did not happen, but I feel safe concluding that if debates have been a decisive factor in the recent past, they would have had the same effect before 1960.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Saloons in the Progressive Era

I recently read Royal Melendy's "The Saloon in Chicago" published in
Journal of Sociology in 1910. A sociologist, Melendy examined the saloon as a cultural institution. He was consciously working to disarm the arguments of the hysterical reformers -- the Carrie Nation types -- who viewed saloons as nothing more or less than dens if iniquity. To counter this powerful group, Melendy argues that these establishments served as important community centers by providing valuable services. Using a characterization of his own, he sympathetically depicts the hard working saloon patron who needed to escape his dismal, cramped tenement apartments with its chorus of crying kids, and his "unkempt wife," after a hard day at work to socialize with his peers. In addition to this purely social function, Melendy argues saloons allowed patrons to discuss politics (playing to the Progressive ideal of democracy), and do what we a century later call networking for employment. They provided newspapers and other literature a common laborer would have considered a luxury if he had to pay for them out of his own pocket. Moreover, saloons provided entertainment, unavailable in the home. Finally, Melendy argues that the 163 saloons he studied, 111 provided free food. This fact led him to argue that saloons did more good for the hungry in the Windy Cit than "all the charity organizations in Chicago combined." In his study, Melendy found that the complimentary grub was available to all comers, even those who did not consume alcohol. Having presented the saloon as force of good in the community, he does admit that it had some unpleasant features as well, such as gambling and prostitution, but he great downplays them. Regarding the former, only 3 of the 163 saloons he surveyed permitted gambling. As for the latter, he argues an occasional prostitute can slip in, but it is a rare event. Overall, he was probably much closer to the truth than were the the temperance and prohibitionists who implied that every patron of a saloon was a drunken mess who neglected his family by blowing his entire paycheck on booze, gambling, and prostitution. On the other hand, I felt Melendy overplayed the free food aspect of the saloon. It was not a soup kitchen. Then, as now, they were businesses that used salty snacks to lure in thirsty customers. In a way I felt bad for Melendy. He was a sociologist when that field felt it was at the height of its power. They believed government officials would actually use their objective and scientific studies for more effective policy planning. As we know, they were largely ignored. The great W.E.B. DuBois grew disgusted at how his work on African-Americans in Philadelphia failed to stir decisive political action. We also know that the prohibitionists triumphed in the following decade despite Melendy's best arguments that saloons provided valuable services to their local communities. Nevertheless, we historians must be thankful for their work, which has been and continues to be, an outstanding window in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.