Our Peculiar Game
The philosopher Jacques Barzun wrote years ago, “Whoever would understand the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball the rules and realities of the game.” From its very beginning during the Civil War, it has been the defining sport of America.
“The game of Base Ball has now become beyond question the leading feature of the outdoor sports of the United States It is a game which is peculiarly suited to the American temperament and disposition; the nine innings are played in the brief space of two and one half hours or less. From the moment the first striker takes his position and poises his bat it has an excitement and vim about it in short the pastime suits the people, and the people suit the pastime.”
That was in 1866…and probably no other sport has been so tightly linked to the American culture.
If you looked at a picture of the starting line-up of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946 you would not have seen a single minority player. Take a snapshot this year of a typical major league team and the complexion has changed drastically. Almost 30 percent of the players are Hispanics born elsewhere; 7 percent are African-American; and the balance is White. While Jackie Robinson’s heroic role in integrating baseball opened it up to African-Americans, what accounts for the growing inclusion of Hispanics and other minorities?
Essentially baseball became one of our signature exports. As we engaged in international trade fought world wars and established bases of business and military around the world, we took our national sport with us and taught it to others.
But here is my point. They not only adopted it, they became so passionate and good at it that we began importing their players back to America. They improved the game we gave them. and we took advantage of their talent. We did not just teach them to play. We recognized the opportunity to bring them here to make our game even better.
In the same way while not an American invention philanthropy has become one of the hallmarks of our culture. In the early 1800s De Tocqueville wrote with admiration of the American response to almost every problem being the formation of voluntary societies and charitable giving. Even now we are unlike any nation in the world in our rush to form non-profits (25,000 new every year) and give to relief and development all over the world. More than $7 billion in private non-governmental foundation money was given outside the United States last year.
What if what happened in baseball becomes true for philanthropy? Right now it is predominantly an American sport. Yes we have been making enormous grants around the world for years, but you might call those exhibition games. We are showing them what we do. It’s only now that we are teaching them to play the game themselves.
What I would love to see is for them to become so passionate and good at our game that they come back and make ours even better and raise the level of play for us. Rather than merely watching us play, we can look forward to the day when they are even better at it than we are.
For me that will be the mark of success – when our starting line-up is filled with players who have come from all over the world to teach us an even better game than we gave them.