Birthday Wishes to a Friend of Cooperstown

By Tim Wiles

Happy 104th birthday to Jacques Barzun, one of the most important men in baseball history. It was Barzun, the eminent French-American sociologist and historian who wrote “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

Barzun’s quote has been repeated thousands of times in other sources since he first penned the words in an essay in his book “God’s Country and Mine,” way back in 1954. The book is just one of over 40 that Barzun has written or edited.

Barzun was a frequent visitor to Cooperstown during the 1980s and 1990s—not, as one might expect, because he wanted to visit the home of baseball, but rather because he is an avid opera lover and historian. He was a featured speaker at the Glimmerglass Opera’s annual Gala Weekend from 1993-2003. After that visit, he gave up travelling and returned to his adopted home in San Antonio.

But he certainly hasn’t lost his love of baseball. On one of his final visits, we welcomed him to the Hall of Fame, gave him a special tour, and presented him with a ceremonial bat inscribed both with his name and his famous quote. I was lucky enough to lead that tour, and the photo you see is from that day.

One of his local friends accompanied us on the visit, and remembers it fondly. “He certainly liked Cooperstown, and looked forward to his annual visit,” said the friend (who wishes to remain anonymous). In fact, said the friend, “After he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom…” (by fellow Texan and baseball lover George W. Bush) “…he said something to the effect of ‘Yes, that’s nice, but you should have been with me at the Baseball Hall of Fame.’” Receiving the bat, his friend said, “Thrilled him, as it would a kid.”

While Barzun’s quote is notably famous, it is always truncated beyond the point of its full meaning. Lovers of the small town aspect of Cooperstown, who might just sit on a warm spring afternoon, watching the high school team play at Doubleday Field, will like the full quote: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and the realities of the game, and should do it first by watching some high school or small town teams.”

Barzun’s scholarly books include two on the Glimmerglass Opera, now known as the Glimmerglass Festival. He is also the subject of a new biography, “Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind,” by Michael Murray.

Happy Birthday, Jacques Barzun!

Tim Wiles is the director of research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.


Yes indeed, Tim. It’s also wonderful to imagine the Grand Old Man as a twelve-year-old immigrant kid fresh off the boat in a later passage on baseball: “Three kids in a back yard are enough to create the same quality of drama. All of us in our tennis days have pounded balls with a racket against a wall, for practice. But that is nothing compared with batting in an empty lot, or catching at twilight, with a fella who’ll let you use his mitt when your palms get too raw.”

Insights like this liven things up aruond here.

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