George Will’s political commentary reveals what he thinks. His two well-regarded baseball books reveal who he is: a smart, knowledgeable, romantic, but unsentimental fan.
Will grew up in Champagne, Ill, midway between Chicago and St. Louis, the son of a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois. Both cities had a good baseball team and a terrible team. George could hear daily radio broadcasts of each team’s games, and decided to become a Cubs fan.
Being a Cubs fan made him a pessimist and a conservative, he says in Bunts, a collection of his newspaper columns on baseball. Then, he goes off on a funny, ironic discourse on why liberals are optimists and conservatives are pessimists. His two baseball books are full of dry, ironic wit, which never shows in his political writing.
A Chicago Cubs Fan
In 1949, when 7-year-old Will adopted them, the Cubs were in the middle of a century of futility, competing with the Philadelphia Phillies for last place in the National .League year after year. The Cubs won the World Series in 1906, and have not won one since. They won the National League pennant in 1944, when all the good players were overseas fighting World War II. The Cubs finished first with players disqualified from the draft.
For the same reason, the St. Louis Browns won in the American League in 1945. If they had won in the.same year, one of them probably would have won the World Series. You could never be sure either of those teams would win, even if they played each other, which they never did.
Men At Work: The Craft of Baseball
Will’s purpose in Men At Work was to show how demanding professional baseball is, and all the physical and mental preparation four craftsmen go through to compete in “the sport of the long season.” He chose manager Tony LaRussa, pitcher Orel Herschhiser, hitter Tony Gwynn, and felder Cal Ripken Jr.
It’s comparable, in a way, to John McPhee’s story of Princeton basketball star Bill Bradley practicing alone, and explaining to the writer what he is doing and why.
Bunts, like all collections of newspaper columns written over decades, is often repetitive, but the repeats reveal what he thinks are the most important facets of the game. They also reveal important facets of the writer. Everyone sees baseball in his own image. Will was the skinny kid with glasses the other guys stuck in right field, where he could do the least damage.
He mastered baseball intellectually, through the stories, statistics, and the game on the field, or in his mind when he listened on radio. Radio, he says, was the right medium for baseball. Football is better on television..
“Baseball does not build charadter; it reveals it,” Will says.
Romantic but Unsentimental
Will is a romantic fan. He completely loves the game. He loves baseball history, calls it the most perfect meritocracy. He loves the long season, which guarantees that merit will rise to the top. He loves the statistics, Every pitch, every play, becomes a credit or debit in a record that will ultimately reflect every aspect of a player’s season and career.
No other game can be recorded as vividly as baseball. Anyone who knows the symbols can read any game with the same clarity a musician gets from reading a musical score.
Anyone Can Play
Baseball has a great tradition of little guys with grit and savvy, who consistently beat much bigger, stronger, faster men. Even though ballplayers today are bigger, and better conditioned, than ever before, they are not 7 feet tall or 350 pounds.
I used to collect smart, gritty little Major Leaguers because that’s what I was. My favorites, Nelson Fox, Phil Rizzuto, Red Shoendenst, Luis Aparicio, and Ozzie Smith, are all in the Hall of Fame.
Will often says baseball trivia is an oxymoron because “nothing about baseball is trivial. Only trivial minds think baseball is trivial.” He also says baseball is more important than politics, and baseball writing is a higher calling than writing about politics. Baseball reveals character; politicians hide theirs. Baseball writing is lyrical; political writing is prosaic.
Will is proud of all the great American writers who spent some time writing about baseball: Roger Angell, Ernest Hemingway, Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon, Jimmy Breslin, John Updike, William Faulkner, James Reston, longtime Washington bureau chief for the NY Times, and more..
Baseball’s Golden Age Is Now
But Will is not a sentimental fan. He thinks baseball is better now than any previous “Golden Age. Those golden ages were confined to three teams, all in New York City. Now, we have near perfect competitive balance..
Free agency and salary arbitration helped competitive balance, and improved the quality of play, Will says. Players now have enough money to train 12 months a year, because the labor market in baseball is now free. The smartest conservative in journalism is pro-union in baseball, because the union, not the owners, pushed for a free labor market.
He has no patience for sentimentalists who wish the Cubs still played all their games in the daytime. Not everyone is free at 3 p.m., he says. But he’s against the designated hitter.
Unusual Writing Style
Will writes long, complex sentences with big words. It’s unusual for a newspaper columnist, and even more unusual for a talking head on television. Speaking extemporaneously on TV, he sounds like he writes everything down before he says it.
Challenging newspaper readers to read something written above a 6th grade reading level is not a bad thing. He is always clear, and elements of his long sentences are always clearly connected.
A Black Hole in Men At Work
But one section of Men At Work is hard to follow and slog through, where manager Tony LaRussa prepares for a 3-game series with his coaches. This is the most inside part of “inside baseball.” Most players are not completely familiar with it.
Will is amazed at how much more these baseball “lifers” see on the field, and learn from statistics, than even a knowing fan like Will. This part might be slow reading and hard to understand because Will himself does not fully understand it. It’s Will’s job as a Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction writer to make his subject clear and readable.
Will publishes two columns a week in 400-some newspapers, and talks on TV every week, He needs a subject he can fall back on, and write quickly, when a column is too complicated to finish on time. For Will, that subject has always been baseball. He wrote and researched a whole book without taking a break from that routine. Even with research assistants, it’s a wonderful body of work.
In 1986, Will changed his mind about the DH, saying he just got tired of seeing National League pitchers flailing around pathetically. He once wrote “conservatism sometimes gives me a migraine.” As with the players’ union, what is good for the game overrides conservative dogma.
Will, George, Men At Work: The Craft of Baseball, Macmillan, 1990, republished 2010 with new introduction.
Will, George, Bunts, Simon and Schuster, `1999, 352 pp.
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.