The Best of All Games: John Rawls, Baseball Fan

John Rawls, one of the greatest American philosophers, was a pretty serious baseball fan. He was just way better at philosophy.
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Originally published May 3, 2013.

Read anything by John Rawls—sorry, Whitlock, the political philosopher and not the jerky cop from The Wire—and one of two things will probably happen. His crystallized intelligence will either throw up an impenetrable barrier between his ideas and your ability to get to his next sentence, or that intelligence will pull you on, through one of the great journeys in political thought. He’s not easy, in other words, but he’s great, and his seminal work painstakingly and brilliantly details how to organize society as fairly as possible. So, the answer to life, the universe, and everything, give or take, while ordinary folk like you and me face decision paralysis over which RSS client to use. It is important to understand that John Rawls was much smarter than us. It is impossible to read what he wrote and not understand that.

On most Saturdays, the shy, private Rawls would spend hours typing letters recalling past events in astounding detail. One such letter, republished by Boston Review, recalled a conversation he had some twenty years earlier—you probably had conversations with sentient beings today who have lived shorter than that—about why baseball is the best sport. In the letter, Rawls credits his interlocutor, Harry Kalven, for coming up with six reasons why baseball is “the best of all games.” Rawls had a penchant for ascribing his own brilliance to the minds of others, either out of intellectual generosity or a clever ruse to deflect criticism. Considering that he experienced plenty of criticism nonetheless, it was either an ineffective attempt at the latter or successful version of the former.

Rawls references baseball frequently throughout his philosophical works, most prominently in his paper Two Concepts of Rules. He uses baseball as an example, a way to make complex ideas concrete. We need simple games like baseball to analogize—albeit imperfectly—how society structures itself so that various vast intricacies become not as vast. Many things about baseball appealed to Rawls, but the simplicity of the game was always one of them. Rawls’s works, and academic writing in general, is not an especially hospitable place for waxing poetic about the innate beauty in the crack of the bat, of course. But all of Rawls’s colleagues, friends and acquaintances attest to his love of baseball.

You would think, then, for Rawls—given his massive intellect and habit of applying that intellect to much nobler pursuits—that tackling something as trivial as baseball would be a weekend thing requiring very little exertion. There’s just one problem: his vision of the game just does not reflect the typical level of otherworldly intelligence I had come to expect from the American philosophical giant. In fact, it can best be described as inventing the oxymoronic genre of McCarverian eloquence.

First: the rules of the game are in equilibrium: that is, from the start, the diamond was made just the right size, the pitcher’s mound just the right distance from home plate, etc., and this makes possible the marvelous plays, such as the double play. The physical layout of the game is perfectly adjusted to the human skills it is meant to display and to call into graceful exercise. Whereas, basketball, e.g., is constantly (or was then) adjusting its rules to get them in balance.

This struck me immediately as incorrect in fact and spirit: the field has changed to better reflect the talents displayed. The outfield walls have changed their distance considerably over time, from the cavernous original Yankee Stadium layout to a new Yankee Stadium layout that often leads to visiting commentators starting out saying “shallow pop to right” and finishing their sentences with a home run call. The pitcher’s mound has changed height. The Dead Ball Era was a thing, and so was the Live Ball Era. The designated hitter came into existence, at least in one league. Not to mention—although Rawls can’t be blamed for having died before this came to our collective conscience—the “human skills” he references have changed themselves. All the features he mentions have been in constant flux, which is definitionally opposite of an “equilibrium.”

Second: the game does not give unusual preference or advantage to special physical types, e.g., to tall men as in basketball. All sorts of abilities can find a place somewhere, the tall and the short etc. can enjoy the game together in different positions.

I can visualize John Kruk lowering his shoulder of pork—interpret this as a metaphorical reference to his own, pork-like shoulder or a particular cut of meat he is eating at the time; reader’s choice—and nodding vehemently. This is an inherently Rawlsian argument to make, considering that his “justice as fairness” philosophy (warning: about to condense a 590 page book into half a sentence) posits that we should accept a blind, random allocation of resources and talents because that is the most fair.

So, of course, he should like baseball most, where even the fattest, least outwardly athletic Mo Vaughnian creature can still contribute. That’s a grand argument for Baseball As The Most Rawlsian Sport, but not as the Best. Anyway, there’s always the Washington Sport Club elliptical section if I want to see a random allocation of physical attributes.

Third: the game uses all parts of the body: the arms to throw, the legs to run, and to swing the bat, etc.; per contra soccer where you can’t touch the ball. It calls upon speed, accuracy of throw, gifts of sight for batting, shrewdness for pitchers and catchers, etc. And there are all kinds of strategies.

When was the last time a baseball player used his butt? Or, one could just as easily make the inverse argument about soccer, since baseball players don’t use their heads (except this one).

Fourth: all plays of the game are open to view: the spectators and the players can see what is going on. Per contra football where it is hard to know what is happening in the battlefront along the line. Even the umpires can’t see it all, so there is lots of cheating etc. And in basketball, it is hard to know when to call a foul. There are close calls in baseball too, but the umps do very well on the whole, and these close calls arise from the marvelous timing built into the game and not from trying to police cheaters etc.

A charitable interpretation of Rawls here would be that baseball’s governing events largely happen in linear fashion, rather than football’s staccato orgy of jumbled bodies or soccer/basketball/hockey’s constant rearrangement of dancing parameciums. For a man whose mind was concerned with fairness for a majority of his conscious life, this was important, since events occurring in linear fashion makes fairness easier to evaluate. For the rest of us, we seem to move on from injustice, demonstrating the capacity for memory of the aforementioned parameciums.

Fifth: baseball is the only game where scoring is not done with the ball, and this has the remarkable effect of concentrating the excitement of plays at different points of the field at the same time. Will the runner cross the plate before the fielder gets to the ball and throws it to home plate, and so on.

Finally, there is the factor of time, the use of which is a central part of any game. Baseball shares with tennis the idea that time never runs out, as it does in basketball and football and soccer. This means that there is always time for the losing side to make a comeback. The last of the ninth inning becomes one of the most potentially exciting parts of the game. And while the same sometimes happens in tennis also, it seems to happen less often.

Okay. Rawls has a thesis that baseball is the “best of all games,” and then proceeds to make six value-neutral observations. Regarding his last point, one can make a perfectly salient counter-argument that removing time from the game makes the ending less exciting, because it removes a dimension of strategy and intrigue from the equation. Imagine watching Jack Bauer chasing down terrorists in possession of a nuclear bomb that’s set to go off whenever... uh, well, I guess it will either go off or it won’t, at some point.

But it’s important not to take this letter too seriously, right? I’m not running off to throw my copy of A Theory Of Justice in the nearest Bookburning Mobile. If we were all held to the standards I’m holding Rawls to right now, there’d be no hope for the forward movement of intelligent thought.

Or maybe we should see this letter as what it obviously is: a discussion Rawls took the time to sit down and put to ink some twenty years after the conversation took place. Maybe we should look at this letter as an impossibly intelligent man’s equally impossible attempt at articulating the inarticulable, a task Rawls was more familiar with than most. Its really hard to explain why you love something. You just do, and to explain it can, in a paradoxical way, diminish the love in an equally real way. Love is more than the sum of its sources; if you can articulate each and every reason you love something, you have reason to suspect you do not actually love it. To properly articulate a true love is possibly to admit it is not such a thing, and that’s a really scary prospect that makes the whole enterprise easier to ignore to begin with.

Even though Rawls was a remarkably private person who rarely gave interviews, in this letter we have his most inadvertent—and by extension honest and even brave—admission of what he loves. He did the only thing he could do, which is try and codify the reasons why he thinks baseball is “the best.” It’s a good, or at any rate philosophical idea, but he failed to come up with any kind of objective reasoning. And by failed, I mean he actually succeeded beyond imagination. His original thesis was flawed from the start; of course there can’t be a “best” game, there can only be a favorite, a passion, a love. So the great thinker backs into a different sort of proof of his favorite game’s worth: if only we all loved the game as much as he did. If only we each loved something as much as Rawls loved baseball.

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