John Rawls was a Platonist on baseball

by on July 2, 2013 at 2:38 pm in Philosophy, Sports, Uncategorized | Permalink

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.”

That is from Aaron Gordon (via BookForum), who also dissects the fallacies of Rawls on baseball.

affenkopf July 2, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Another reason not to take him serious.

Enrique July 2, 2013 at 4:19 pm

False advertising … It’s not Rawls’s own views about baseball being reported in the letter but rather the views of Harry Kalven … Read Rawl’s letter closely

NS July 3, 2013 at 10:28 am

“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.”

Bernardo Morais July 2, 2013 at 2:54 pm

If you think baseball is the best game…

albert magnus July 2, 2013 at 2:56 pm

I love baseball, but his points are more observations rather than things that make it obviously superior to other sports.

Baseball is fun because its fun to play. Hitting and throwing and catching and running around like a maniac are all pretty fun.

GiT July 2, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Too bad then that it involves so much sitting or standing doing nothing.

Eric S. July 3, 2013 at 11:17 am

Much like football, as each sport involves about 11-12 minutes of actual ball-in-play game time.

Frederic Mari July 2, 2013 at 3:13 pm

And Abraham Lincoln was not nearly as progressive on race as you’d might think… Sometimes, there is stuff best left unknown about your intellectual/historical heroes… (unless, of course, you consider the lesson that not even historical/intellectual heroes are faultless to be a worthy lesson in and of itself).

FC July 2, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Crawl back under your bridge, comrade.

Frederic Mari July 3, 2013 at 5:09 am

Die, capitalist pig?

I mean, seriously, what possessed you to call me ‘comrade’ and, worse, you seem to suggest that I am trolling…

1- I like Rawls’ theory of the veil of ignorance fairness thingy.
2- I don’t like baseball (too slow), though it’s better than cricket (then again, what isn’t better than cricket?)
3- I remembered that Lincoln had said some pretty damning thing about blacks ( and so I made a parallel.

So can you actually tell me what you object to in my post?

sourcreamus July 2, 2013 at 3:39 pm

The idea that baseball does not reward certain body types is just not true. Being tall helps being a pitcher and being big and strong helps being a hitter. There are plenty of normal sized baseball players but there are normal sized basketball players too (Iverson, Chris Paul, Nash) Being larger is a big advantage in baseball, not quite the advantage of football, basketball, or volleyball,but it still exists.

kiwi dave July 2, 2013 at 3:55 pm

If true, that point might mean that from behind the veil of ignorance (as to what body type we might receive), baseball is the best sport to choose as a national pastime. So it is consistent with his philosophy.

All of his points are either debatable or not unique to baseball. But his devotion is admirable.

Jd July 2, 2013 at 7:29 pm

how does Rugby Union fit the body type dimension? Quite a diversity of body shapes and sizes.

kiwi dave July 2, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Traditionally rugby union was seen as a game for all body types (with the obvious caveat that it was always an advantage to be faster, stronger, fitter etc.)

Seems to me that it’s less true now. In recent decades, at least at higher level (first class and/or international), play has become more fluid and less positional: props and locks now have to be able to handle the ball well, flyhalves can’t avoid contact, and wingers are supposed to be solid enough to be able to stand in the tackle. THe legalization of lifting in the lineout meant that there’s less advantage to pure height for locks and flankers. The result is that you don’t see tubby props, and you don’t often see scrumhalves lighter than about 90 kg (~200 lbs) playing at high level. In a sense, union is becoming a little bit more like rugby league. This change is much more visible in the southern hemisphere (especially Australia and NZ), less so in the northern hemisphere and Argentina, where they play a more traditional game (South Africa is somewhere in the middle).

Andrew' July 2, 2013 at 4:14 pm

I’ve agreed with all those points at various times. The problem is that it’s still boring. I also believe that the best sport ever might be baseball edited to take out all the time the ball is not moving. Give me a Tivo, that chip they used to make the pucks glow blue and a grant. Mark Cuban, I’m lookin’ at you!

Andrew' July 2, 2013 at 4:17 pm

I’m especially impressed with his observation about the difficulty of evaluating the line of scrimmage and how they are STILL dinking around with the rules of basketball.

Widmerpool July 2, 2013 at 4:50 pm

But I think that in the end this idea that baseball is the game most loved by intellectuals and pseuds has been harmful to the sport. As Andrew notes, the game is, frankly, boring. Despite their surprising performance this year, I simply cannot bear to watch an entire Red Sox game. And the powers that be will do nothing to change the rules, handed down by God himself, that might make baseball more watchable. Give me the NFL any day, where the rules are continually tinkered with to make it more enjoyable for fans.

Andrew' July 3, 2013 at 5:58 am

Sports Center Baseball is glorious. The fact that the defense starts with the ball likely makes it difficult to tinker with things to make it less boring. Also, you will get a lot of resistance from people who want you to accept it as is or to take a hike (Basebatholicism?). That’s why I think that just editing out the boring parts would be amazing. Probably someone is already doing this somewhere in the interwebs.

Simon July 6, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Interesting that you compare NFL favourably with baseball, since American football is possibly the only sport duller to watch than baseball.

Urso July 2, 2013 at 5:51 pm

Baseball does draw the Platonists. But then every sport does to a degree; it may be that baseball aficionados just tend to be more eloquent about it. Football fans can be just as platonic, in their earthy way, about what is and is not “real” football.

All this is just an excuse to link this, which is the most important article I have ever read.

there is no one best sport, ask Audie Murphy or his foreign parallels July 2, 2013 at 11:26 pm

Nice link, although I object to the cowardly subservience in paragraph sixish or sevenish to the opinion of the unspecified “father-in-law” who foolishly believes in Platonic football (subservience for the apparent purpose of what? showing one’s wife that one is an agreeable loser who is afraid to disagree with the superannuated opinions of her husband’s father-in-law?)

Andrew' July 3, 2013 at 6:02 am

If the rules are arbitrary then you could change them to make the spread “not football.” Innovators always try to game the rules, including the rules of physics. Compare this to soccer (not to mention basketball) where (maddening) flopping is also ‘part of the game’ because the rule applies only if you get caught.

no best sport July 3, 2013 at 9:12 am

Good point on flopping, I had never specifically realized before how much
that makes me not want to watch a game. Particularly when it happens near the strategic high points of a game or season.

Reed July 2, 2013 at 6:31 pm

Baseball is an all time favorite. But then again, it is up to the people watching what their preferences are. If you get bored while watching, why watch it at all? There are people who find it really really thrilling.

Ravi July 2, 2013 at 7:40 pm

Baseball is an insult to its wonderful parent sport, cricket. Any sport that does not have three to five day test matches is not really a sport at all.

londenio July 3, 2013 at 5:15 am

Cricket is not a sport. It’s a game.

Richard Hershberger July 4, 2013 at 5:54 pm

And cricket is not baseball’s parent. Inasmuch as a genealogical metaphor works here, they are cousins (albeit cricket the elder cousin).

Turkey Vulture July 2, 2013 at 9:23 pm

What was the average duration of a game, then vs. now? I’d certainly enjoy baseball more if the action were more compressed.

Ravi July 2, 2013 at 11:29 pm


Rich Berger July 2, 2013 at 10:02 pm

Blernsball. Now there’s a game.

YetAnotherTom July 2, 2013 at 10:41 pm

Baseball is the sport I’ve taken the most naps while watching but has also produced the most heart palpitations during the tense moments and romantic memories over time It lends itself to life metaphors really well for some reason.

RM July 2, 2013 at 10:47 pm

It seems almost like Rawls was indeed talking about cricket, except for a mistake and a few pluses of the latter over the former. Mistake: By 1961, 62, cricket did have an end time.The pluses of cricket over the baseball include the fact that real men do not ware gloves and a draw or tie can be as thrilling as a win.

FC July 3, 2013 at 12:36 am

” a draw or tie can be as thrilling as a win”

That sort of thinking is why the Continentals won the Revolutionary War. Real men keep playing until victory is ours.

TuringTest July 3, 2013 at 1:01 am

Or why the Viet Cong defeated the Americans …

Vernunft July 3, 2013 at 4:32 am

The VC was basically destroyed during the Tet Offensive.

RM July 3, 2013 at 1:30 am

Only true if you could keep playing …. there is a limit to how much you can play in cricket.

Richard Hershberger July 4, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Your point being, presumably, that wicketkeepers are a bunch of pussies?

dirk July 3, 2013 at 1:51 am

If you don’t enjoy watching pitching or the fielding, you will think baseball is boring. But most people think math is boring, economics is boring, etc.. If you think baseball is boring, it is because you are slightly retarded.

Andrew' July 3, 2013 at 9:38 am

People who think economics is boring haven’t tried engineering. Actually, we might be onto something. Maybe, as with baseball, it depends on whether you think subtle minutiae is boring or interesting.

Chris July 3, 2013 at 9:41 am

If bowlers were limited to waist-high full tosses, and batsman only allowed to play in front of the wicket, the inferior forms of cricket would on a par with baseball.

Owen July 3, 2013 at 11:12 am

Gordon’s commentary is full of statements like: “he’s a smart guy, BUT” followed by a poor explanation of why Rawls is wrong on a particular point. In fact, all six of Rawls’ points are quite valid, with the possible exception of the first.

1- Gordon is right to point out that baseball’s rules have evolved, but I think Rawls’ argument is more to the fact that the baseball diamond itself defines the struggle, not any set of arbitary rules. Basketball and football are constantly redefining what a foul is, what someone being “down” means, and other basic actions. Rawls isn’t saying that the dimensions of the field were handed down from on high but that the dimensions as they have evolved enable the beautiful balance of the game. Gordon is right about the mound height and the dead/live ball eras (and I would add the strike zone), but to Rawls’ credit the basic dimensions of the sport have been fixed for about 100 years now. Also, the differing dimensions of stadiums would probably strike Rawls as one of the sport’s most charming idiosyncrasies.

2. Rawls is mostly right about the size/shape aspect: baseball is quite forgiving to old and fat men, and any sport in which Dustin Pedroia the Keebler Elf can win MVP is a great one in my books.

3. All parts of the body: true. I once read a book that tried to describe the perfect baseball player, including things like Hank Aaron’s wrists and Ted William’s eyes.

4. Transparency and fairness: I don’t know what to make of Gordon’s rebuttal, which seems to glorify terrible calls. Pundits’ fondness for bad calls and the officiating systems which make them possible always makes me think of women who take back their abusive husbands. Who in their right mind wants to endure mistakes and needless ambiguity, where the most important player on the field is the referee, when better solutions are available? Rawls is correct to appreciate baseball for its relatively stark differentiation between legal and illegal plays. I know that when I see Torres flop in the penalty box or Kobe take seven steps on the way to the basket, I’m thankful for baseball.

5. Action happens everywhere: This is valid but most deserving of Gordon’s description of Rawls as making “value-neutral” observations.

6. Time as a factor. I agree that baseball is usually too slow, but I’m with Rawls in seeing the “never out of time” aspect of baseball as a big positive. In timed sports like soccer, basketball, and football, the clock tends to remove drama just as often as it creates it. How many once-exciting Sundays end with two minutes of kneeling? Why should I watch a whole game of basketball when I can watch the third quarter and half of the fourth and see the result determined? Baseball shares the “last second” drama of those sports without their “not enough time to catch up” dullness.

Finally, when Gordon says these are “value-neutral” descriptions, I’d disagree: 1, 4, and 6 are definitely arguments for why baseball is *better* than other sports, since they’re arguments about how arbitrary other sports can be. Few football fans would argue that football is better because: rules of contact are being changed all the time, you can cheat when nobody’s looking, and a majority of games end with the offense taking a knee.

TL;DR: Gordon is nitpicking because he wants to pick holes in Rawls without actually, you know, writing about philosophy.

Owen July 3, 2013 at 11:14 am

Oh, and I am aware that the article is not Rawls’ beliefs per se but his encapsulation of Kalzen’s views, but I figure the fact that he remembered a 20-year-old conversation indicates that he bought into those beliefs as well.

Owen July 3, 2013 at 11:15 am

Oops, Kalven.

Richard Hershberger July 4, 2013 at 6:29 pm

The first point is dead wrong, and a dead wrongness of the sort that just embarrasses the person so dead wrong. That claim is that the diamond was “just the right size” “from the start”. From the start of what? Modern baseball derives from the 1845 Knickerbocker rules. They specified the size of the diamond as 42 “paces” on the diagonal. How long is a “pace”? if we assume that it is three feet, then the diamond is almost exactly the modern size. This is ample reason for many people to assign it this value, but there is no good reason to believe this. At least one dictionary of the day defined a “pace” as 2.5 feet. Alternatively (and my favored interpretation) is that it varied depending on the length of the stride of whatever individual happened to be laying out the field. In any case, the modern diamond size was not unambiguously set until the 1857 rules. Yes, this is a long time. But the claim that it is “from the start” is simply false.

Oh, and the 1857 rules were also the first to specify the position of the pitcher: 45 feet from the plate. The modern distance is two revisions and several decades later. The mention of the mound is also egregious. There originally was not mound. It apparently began as a feature to improve drainage. The pitcher’s delivery tended to result in his spikes digging a hole in the ground, which meant that even a small amount of rain would result in his standing in a puddle. Groundskeepers countered this by building up a slight hill. Only later was it recognized to give an advantage. Mounds were not universal until well into the 20th century. Walter Johnson is said to have preferred to pitch on flat ground, so the mound would be removed when he was scheduled to pitch.

The bit about double plays is mere prejudice. Were the diamond a bit larger, we would be talking about those marvelous triple plays around the horn. Were the diamond a bit smaller, we would be talking about how it was perfectly calibrated for infield hits.

Or perhaps not: scoring levels have been largely constant since the early 1870s. In the meantime pitching techniques have evolved dramatically. Fielders have adopted gloves, then improved them over the old gloves. Physical conditioning has improved across the board. Then there is the (largely unheralded) video revolution, whereby hitters can study pitchers, and both hitters and pitchers can study and adjust their swings and deliveries. Even more recently than that is the advent of computers to analyze spray charts and the like: Willie Keeler could hit them where they ain’t, because they could only guess approximately where they should be. Modern hitters lack this luxury. Yet through all this the delicate balance of offense and defense has remained largely constant. How can this be? The secret is that there have been constant adjustments here and there whenever the balance is thrown off. The lowering of the mound after the 1960s is probably the best known example of this. More common has been adjustments to the elasticity of the ball. We like to imagine that the baseball itself is some unchanging ideal, and any hint of its being adjusted is regarded as scandalous. Formerly they were much more open about it, with public discussions into the 20th century of the merits of dead versus live balls.

So when we talk about the diamond being the perfect size, what really is going on is that this size became ideologically fixed early on, so any adjustments found necessary had to be made elsewhere.

Floccina July 6, 2013 at 3:15 pm

A big problem with baseball as a sport is that some positions spend most of the game just standing around watching therefore I think basketball is a much better participating sport, also it provides more exercise.

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