Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A Critique of Rawls

John Rawls (1921-2002) is to be revered primarily for two doctrines: his conception of justice as fairness, and the proposition that baseball is the best of all games. There is no longer an opening day, but in this opening week it seems apt to consider his arguments for the latter. There are six:
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.
It is as if these words were written behind a veil of ignorance. Baseball's rules were in serious flux for at least 50 years, with sigificant changes afterwards. Some highlights:
1845: pitching distance is 45'.
1865-9: pitcher's box introduced and modified year to year.
1872: pitcher allowed to snap the ball but must still throw underhand.
1880-1: number of balls for a walk reduced from 9 to 8 to 7.
1881: pitching distance increased to 50'.
1883: pitching allowed from anywhere up to shoulder height.
1884: base on balls to 6.
1886: to 5.
1889: and finally to 4.
1893: pitching distance is at last increased to 60'6", and pitcher's box eliminated.
1895: foul balls become strikes.
1904: height of pitcher's mound established at no more than 15".
1920: abolition of the spitball.
1968: pitcher's mound lowered to 10".
1973: DH rule introduced in the AL.
Not to mention changes in the size of the strike zone, official and otherwise...
Second: the game does not give unusual preference or advantage to special physical types.

Third: the game uses all parts of the body: the arms to throw, the legs to run, and to swing the bat, etc.
These claims will be tempting to anyone with a soft spot for David Wells. But they were rejected by no less an authority than Phil Rizzuto, in verse:
The legs are so important.
In golf they're very,
People don't realize
How important legs are in golf,
Or in baseball,
And football, definitely.
Oh, in track.
Is there anything, what?
Is there anything where the legs
Are not the most important?
Even in philosophy, I hasten to add.
Fourth: all plays of the game are open to view...

Fifth: baseball is the only game where scoring is not done with the ball...

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.
These are familiar thoughts, but 4 and 5 apply to cricket, too, and the last is notoriously misleading. As Bill James is fond of pointing out, before the installation of lights, baseball did have a clock: it was dusk, when the Owl of Minerva flies.

I am British and I love baseball, but I never liked cricket and they are different in a crucial respect, which is the deepest attraction of baseball and which Rawls omits: the stillness at the centre of the game. Cricket may be dull, but the bowler runs to the crease before launching the ball. In baseball, the pitcher stands, looking for a signal to which he responds with a barely discriminable nod or shake of the head, breathing into his glove, staring, staring - as we hold our breaths, and everything waits.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In fairness, in the letter Rawls claims that these arguments were made by Harry Kalven, the legal scholar, and doesn't clearly endorse them himself. I rather suspect they were reported at least partly tongue-in-cheek (that's how they seemed to me, at least), but at the least it's not something Rawls made up nor does he seem to say that he agrees with it all, but just reports it as an argument made by his late friend Kalven.

8:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In reply to Matt, Rawls states that Kalven "brought out to me many splendid features of the game which, though obvious, require his sort of brilliance to see the significance of." This would not make sense unless Rawls took them to be genuine features of the game that count in its favour. Also: you know what else seems partly tongue-in-cheek, at least to me?

12:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the "stillness" difference between cricket and baseball is a little over-rated. Cricket is meant to be played (and in the best places is played) with a lot of spin bowlers. And there's just as much stillness at the start of, say, Shane Warne's approach to the crease as in Josh Beckett's wind-up. There aren't even the few nods, winks or other signals - all of that goes on within the bowler's head, and everyone, fielders included has to watch and see the results.

12:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See also: Taking a swing at baseball philosophy.

5:49 PM  

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