Wednesday, April 15, 2009

No. 42 and the Philosophy of History

Today baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson day, which, not surprisingly, commemorates the day its namesake first took the major league field sixty-two years ago, thereby integrating the game and delivering upon the promise of athletic democracy that so many fans antecedently believed the game was imbued with. Robinson, as it is well documented, rather quickly became an icon on and off the diamond, and today, all number-wearing player personnel will honor him by adapting the sacred 42.

Now, there are a number of compelling vectors flying around and through the Robinson Narrative, from the banalities of personal biography to the upper reaches of cultural grandeur: a 28-year-old rookie leads his team to the World Series; Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey's profit-driven (but still wholly admirable) insistence on integration to the newly installed commissioner Happy Chandler after the death of avowed racist Kenesaw Landis; baseball's new potential for expanded commercialization; and Robinson's play that day as a harbinger for--to paraphrase a zeitgeist-y refrain--Rosa to sit, Martin to walk, and Barack to run.

We have neither the time nor the inclination to give these themes their due, but it does seem all the more important to situate Robinson's color-barrier-breaking heroism so that his game, season, and career accomplishments are not swallowed up by the lofty rhetoric of today's well-meaning but ultimately hollow tributes. This situating involves slaughtering one of baseball's sacred cows (1) in order to properly rebuild another (2): (1) the infallibility of raw statistics as a measure of performance; and (2) Robinson's mythological status as courageous, decent, estimable, and a pretty good ballplayer, too.

I don't mean to suggest that statistics should be stripped of their status as baseball's dominant gene for historical documentation and future predictions; I intend nothing of the sort. Rather, I suggest simply that Robinson's unique situation warrants a unique analysis. And that, OF COURSE, brings us to Leo Strauss.

Strauss is primarily (though incorrectly) known in the public consciousness as the grandfather of a certain brand of neoconservatism that the Bush administration used to justify invading other countries. Sorry folks, but Strauss can't be scapegoated for that; he'll never be that influential. In actuality, he was an historian of political philosophy, an √©lite who relished the cloistered security of the ivory tower and harbored quite a fancying for some of the Ancients. Against the Cerberus of positivism, historicism, and relativism, Strauss believed that the answers to universal philosophical questions (What is the good life? What is the best political regime? etc.) are themselves universal, and that True philosophy is not bound up with the particulars of an historical period. So when Plato makes a normative claim about, say, the organization of society, Strauss believes it retains relevance and resonance in our time; he famously said that all one needs to grasp a philosopher's ideas is a text on an otherwise empty desk. Engage the thinker on his own terms, Strauss said, in order to get to the Truth. 

Why the apparent digression? I hope it's clear how the enterprise of "baseball statistics" operates under a Straussian rubric. Raw numbers are the archetypal form of timeless, universal performance measurement, enabling intergenerational comparison and cutting-edge figures for the future. Strauss looks at Bonds's 2004 OPS of 1.422 and sees a season "for the ages," not one to be contextualized in any way. He sees in Gorgeous George Sisler's 84-year record of 257 hits not a figure inflated by segregation and simplistic pitching practices but an eternal feat. Likewise, removed from all greater historical context, Strauss sees Jackie Robinson's rookie year batting average of .294 as good-not-great, his best season in 1949 as remarkable but perhaps not timeless, and his prompt election to baseball's Hall of Fame in 1962 as deserved yet still generous. 

Strauss might be right about Bonds and Sisler, but he's wrong about Jack, whose singular career is more about context than any other in the history of the game. Isolating Robinson's numbers from the social and cultural climate in which they occurred not only impoverishes his accomplishments, it fails to help fans understand what he went through for that .294 average, and how the combination of historical context and unhistorical (or anti-historical) number-mongering paint the fullest possible portrait. 

The British historian Quentin Skinner agrees with Strauss that the point of studying classic texts is because they contain timeless elements and universal ideas, but he believes it is impossible to do so without slipping into anachronism and parochialism. Instead of isolating texts from their moment in history, Skinner seeks to recover the complex intentions of the author by pouring through archives to discern everything possible: what words meant, prevailing conventions, the writer's mental state, everything. What Plato says is not directly translatable to our current situation, in Skinner's methodology; a lot of contextualizing and clarifying must go into every word before we can reasonably expect to understand him. Skinner's model is more tedious, to be sure, but, at least in Jackie's case, more rewarding. 

According to Skinner, then, Robinson entering Ebbets that Tuesday in 1947 and going on to bat .294, swipe a league-leading 29 bases, and lead his previously lowly team to the brink of a championship while enduring threats of violence and despicable racism from fans, owners, and his own teammates is neither "great" nor "remarkable"; it is unfathomable. Nearly half of the '47 Dodgers were Southern whites, and Dixie Walker, Eddie Stanky, and Bobby Bragan actually drew up a petition to Rickey saying they would rather be traded than play with a black teammate. Robinson's minor league manager in Montreal, Clay Hopper, didn't think that blacks were human beings. Rogers Hornsby and Bob Feller were both sure that Robinson would fail. In the face of unrelenting abuse, Robinson not only endured; he played with aplomb and passion, and he excelled. Hornsby and Feller were tremendous players but I wonder if they would've had similar career trajectories if their peers and fans thought they were sub-human and wished them to fail.  

I doubt it. But Robinson was different. He didn't just bat .342 with 124 RBI and 37 SB in 1949, earning MVP honors; he reached those numbers in the face of tremendous adversity, and not just the "passive" or "underlying" racism that is sure to be spoken of in stadiums today. The people he shared a dugout with thought he was less-than-human! He heard racial epithets, saw racist gestures, withstood racial incidences; he generally had to fear for his life...and he hit .342?? If Strauss doesn't believe context is important, then I'm choosing Skinner to be my resident historian/baseball analyst. And I'm choosing Jackie Robinson to play on my team.

1 comment:

The Backwards K said...

An incredible argument and essay that cuts to the very core what this site is about.