Jacques Barzun, "Baseball's Best Cultural Critic", Turns His Back on the Game

Douglas McDanielContributor IJuly 6, 2009

NEW YORK - JUNE 26:  Alex Rodriguez #13 of the New York Yankees looks on against the New York Mets on June 26, 2009 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. The Yankees defeated the Mets 9-1.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

"Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules, and reality of the game."

This oft-repeated quote by cultural historian Jacques Barzun has served as a mantra for books and magazines covering baseball for 55 years.

Barzun wrote those words in a book of essays, God's Country and Mine, in 1954. Those were good days for baseball. They were also good days for cultural historians, who were needed around to say clever things because America, in general, was less inclined to pummel the public with televised sound bites.

As perhaps the most famous commentary of the sport, Barzun's lavish lyrical essay is one of the greatest intellectual pep rallies for baseball ever expressed.

Sure, in 1954 the game was on a roll. In '54, major league baseball was in the full glory of the "golden age" of Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, and Stan Musial. Ebbets Field was still standing.

The collective soul of Brooklyn was still intact. That year, Willie Mays made his famous "catch" in the World Series, and the Cleveland Indians were a contender. The Indians were expected to go to the World Series.

Oh, how things have changed.

Two years ago, Barzun, an 85-year-old professor emeritus at Columbia University, took it all back. Speaking like a man betrayed, he said, "I've gotten so disgusted with baseball, I don't follow it anymore. I just see the headlines and turn my head in shame from what we have done with our most interesting, best, and healthiest pastime."

His biggest gripe—greed.

"The commercialization is beyond anything that was ever thought of, the overvaluing, really, of the game itself. It's out of proportion to the place an entertainment ought to have," Barzun said.

"Other things are similarly commercialized and out of proportion, but for baseball, which is so intimately connected with the nation's spirit and tradition, it's a disaster."