A Fond ‘Adieu’ to Jacques Barzun

By Tim Wiles

It is perhaps baseball’s most familiar quotation:  “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

So said Jacques Barzun, the eminent French-born sociologist, historian, and critic. Barzun moved to the United States at age 13, and stayed until his death last week at age 104.  He authored more than 40 books on subjects as diverse as opera, science, art, the research process, and education, including biographical and critical works on Lincoln, Berlioz, Darwin, Marx, William James, and Lord Byron.

Historian Jacques Barzun (left) stands with Hall of Fame director of research Tim Wiles beneath an image bearing his famous quote about baseball in this 2003 photo taken at the Hall of Fame. (NBHOF Library)

As you might expect, Barzun was a frequent visitor to Cooperstown, but not for the reason you might think. Yes, he loved baseball, and wrote very perceptively of it in his 1954 book “God’s Country and Mine,” the source of his great baseball quotation. But the reason for his repeat visits to Cooperstown was the excellent opera company at the other end of Otsego Lake from the Hall of Fame, The Gimmerglass Festival.

I first was able to meet him in 1998, when he lectured on Tosca at the opera’s annual Gala Weekend. Then in 2003, I was honored to give him a tour of the Baseball Hall of Fame while he was in town to take in some more opera. We posed for the attached photo in front of a giant photo of Fenway’s Park’s Green Monster that hung for several years just inside our front door – emblazoned with his famous quotation.

Though the quote itself is very familiar to baseball fans, I think it is truncated too soon.  Here’s the whole sentence:

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game – and do it by watching first some high school or small town teams.”

While Barzun lived in New York City for decades and was reportedly a Yankees fan, the full quote hints at the rural, small-town core of baseball as played by generations of American kids. In the movie “The Baseball Experience” that is shown daily in the Museum’s Grandstand Theater, there is a series of photos of baseball, ranging from youth leagues to sandlots to a big league stadium, while the narrator intones “baseball is played here, and here, and here…” emphasizing Barzun’s contention that some thing in the “small ball” of small town baseball expresses the essence of the game.

Here are a couple of other intriguing quotes, from the same essay:

“Baseball is Greek in being national, heroic, and broken up in the rivalries of city-states.  How sad that Europe knows nothing like it!”

“We also find our American innocence in calling ‘World Series’ the annual games between the winners in each big league. The world doesn’t know or care and couldn’t compete if it wanted to, but since it’s us children having fun, why, the world is our stage.”

“But being spread out, baseball has something sociable and friendly about it that I especially love. It is graphic and choreographic.”

“Baseball is a kind of collective chess with arms and legs in full play under sunlight.”

“And the next day in the paper: Learned comment, statistical summaries, and the verbal imagery of meta-euphoric experts.”

Barzun received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, the same year that he toured the Hall of Fame. Fittingly, one of his fellow recipients that year was Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.

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

1 Comment

In writing my thesis, “Professional Baseball and the Anti-trust Laws” for my M.A. in U.S. history 44 years ago, I included that quote from Barzun.

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