The “National” Sports of America and Britain
by Norman Berdichevsky (Jan. 2008)
Baseball and Cricket are regarded as the “national pastime” in America and Britain respectively although both have long fallen behind American football and basketball in the United States and soccer in the U.K. as mass spectator sports generating immense incomes for television and radio through advertising, promotions, endorsements and sale of equipment.
Both ballgames are unique among team sports in that team and individual effort are equally important and outweigh the monotonous mechanical finality of a race with the clock. No other team games so poignantly highlight a decisive contest between two opponents — the individual efforts and contest of pitcher (bowler) vs batter (batsman). It harkens back to the old common Anglo-Saxon heritage of the jousting tournaments in the Middle Ages that pitted mounted knight against knight. Individual effort is nevertheless insufficient without the constant support and backup of the team in the field. No pitcher can be great without a good catcher, no batter can reign supreme against a good pitcher, a smart base runner can mean the difference between victory and defeat and a well coordinated flawless defensive play in the field can beat an opposition team of star hitters.
Both Cricket and Baseball are games of strategy which rival chess in their concern with the laws of average and the advantages of location. There are opening moves, middle and end games when managers and fans call upon a wealth of statistics based on past performances of pitching, hitting, fielding and base running to decide who is to play where, when and against whom. The relative slow pace of both games gives more time for the fans to second guess the manager in weighing all the relevant factors. Perhaps this explains the penchant for keeping meticulous inning by inning scorecards and constantly updating statistics that allow fans to analyze and compete with the team’s manager.
The two games — cricket and baseball more profoundly reflect national differences in British and American mentalities, societies and popular culture than in other walks of life. Tourists, long-term residents and even expatriates never cease to marvel at how the ‘other game’ appears to them as a weird and incomprehensible variant or mutant version of the familiar one. No one born or brought up in the US, UK and Commonwealth can claim to be impartial in this dispute. As former US Ambassador to Britain, Raymond Seitz remarked on a BBC radio program not too long ago (‘Over Here’, Feb. 5, 1996) that ‘even Americans living in England usually find it easier to become a practicing Buddhist than a cricket fan’.
Although both sports are popular among mass viewing audiences, cricket retains an aura of aristocratic lineage and breeding and would seem out of place except when played in immaculate white dress on beautifully cultivated greens such as one finds in Oxford or Cambridge. By contrast, American baseball fans revel in the association of the national sport with the ‘common man’ and the dirt prominently displayed on a baseball player’s uniform after a slide is proof of heroism accumulated during a daring run of the bases or a narrow escape from a close pitch.
More offensive to the British sense of decorum and unimaginable in a Cricket match is the constant spitting of American baseball players – in all directions. Back in the pre-World War II era, many baseball players were from the deep or upland “hillbilly” South and practically addicted to chewing tobacco. This has largely been replaced by bubblegum, another American trademark. It is both amusing and grotesque to observe the spitting antics of batters, pitchers and managers (they are the worst offenders) who are able to produce what seems like an unlimited amount of saliva.
Baseball was the vehicle by which countless immigrants’ children and Blacks first achieved national recognition and adulation. Dozens of American films have utilized baseball themes to emphasize the breaking down of class barriers and eventually even of race. It was the Brooklyn Dodgers team that accepted Jackie Robinson, the first Black player. The neighborhood of Brooklyn, long stereotyped in film and song was always portrayed in literature and film as supported by simple folk whose working-class dress, speech and manners typified the American democratic spirit. These manners include lots of gum chewing, foul language, the constant spitting, scratching and noisy calls to ‘kill the umpire’, a remark in total contrast to the ‘sportsmanlike’ image cultivated in cricket.
An American’s first complaint in observing a cricket game is the lack of focus. The absence of foul lines which allows any hit ball to be in play 360 degrees from the batter’s box is a violent distortion of both the batter’s and fielder’s skills. It means that the cricket fielders must cover a much larger area than in baseball and gives the batsman the unfair advantage of being able to use his bat as a ‘shotgun’ instead of a marksman’s rifle.
This lack of focus distinguishing fair from foul territory also results in the positioning of the stands far removed from the crucial area of batter play. Being much further away than the American fan, the British cricket fan cannot appreciate the action from close up that constitutes the majority of playing time in any game and be able to judge for himself the accuracy of the pitcher (bowler). The cricket fan is also deprived of the excitement of being able to observe at close hand the running action between wickets comparable to the ‘infield’ area used by the baseball runners as they proceed around the diamond shape route of the bases.
In cricket, there is comparatively little running action by the batsmen who occasionally commute back and forth between the wickets while carrying their bats, a practice that borders on the grotesque in American eyes. Of course, this is necessary so that the runner can touch the opposing wicket with his bat and thus score a run. The British player has no initiative in base running to ‘steal’. One can hardly do any stealing or running at all weighed down with bat, masks and shin protectors. The notion of ‘stealing’ itself seems foreign to the cricketer-‘gentleman’ and more properly identified with the American ‘gangster’ image. Baseball umpires are appropriately dressed in black to identify them as the villains in contrast to the virginal white of the cricket umpires who look more like butchers or bakers.
American confusion at a cricket match is immediate. The appearance of what looks like two batsmen (the striker who is the actual batter being bowled to and an alternate called the non-striker who stands at the opposite wicket waiting for the striker to hit a ball) and the shift of two alternate bowlers between the opposing wickets every six pitches (constituting what is known as an “over”) make the game look as much like tennis as baseball. When the batter (striker) hits the ball and it is not caught both he and the non-striker run with their bats to the opposing wickets thus scoring “runs”. A ball hit beyond and end-line or into the stands scores 4 and 6 runs respectively and more closely resembles the scoring pattern of American football. The batter can be ruled out if he commits an “LBW” – Leg Before Wicket, using any part of his body (except the hands) that the umpire (who stands behind the hurler/pitcher rather than the catcher), judges would otherwise have hit the wicket. An American observer is by this time totally disoriented and probably dizzy from the changes in direction of the bowlers’ delivery.
Impatience is the prime American trait and it is no wonder then that the baseball fan cannot tolerate what appears to him as the interminable turn at bat of the idle or fastidious cricket batter who does not swing at dozens, scores (quite possibly hundreds) of balls directed his way. Americans are unaware that a pitch thrown too high or wide (called “a wide”) results in a run for the team at bat. Throwing accuracy more quickly rewards the American pitcher who only has to throw three ‘hittable’ balls (called strikes) to get the batter out.
A good pitcher need not suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune which allows a cricketer to remain at bat for an hour or more without even scoring many runs. The baseball rule of ‘three strikes and you’re out!’ has become one of the most popular idioms in the American language indicating that you only have so much time and opportunity, so better make the best of it in the showdown between pitcher (bowler) and batter (batsman).
Admittedly, grace is a most subjective criterion yet the motions of throwing and running (as opposed to batting and catching) can be compared with other sports in order to make some judgment. A pitcher and bowler can both achieve the speed of a thrown ball of close to 100 miles per hour but the manner of delivery imposes on the cricketer a handicap which no other throwing sport would tolerate — keeping a straight arm.
The laws of physics immediately recognize in the American pitcher’s delivery an economy of effort resulting from the arching ‘breaking’ motion of the arm and throwing from a fixed position in which circulatory motion and leg kick impart momentum to the ball. In cricket, the bowler must accumulate the same force of momentum by running 20 to 30 paces before unleashing the ball with a straight ‘unbroken’ arm motion. Many Americans have compared the bowler’s delivery to that of teenage girls who have never properly learned to throw a ball by fully extending their arm in a smooth continuous rotary motion, a fact which only increases the American perception of cricket as a ‘sissy’s game’ compared to the ‘he-man’ sport of baseball. A few Anglophobic Americans I know, exposed to cricket for the first time and who accompanied me to a match, compared it to “baseball for the mentally and physically retarded”.
The fielders in a cricket game fulfill the same role as in baseball but have many fewer opportunities to get the batter or runners out unless they catch the ball on a fly or throw the ball in time to upset a wicket ahead of a runner. In baseball, any fair ball hit on the ground allows a fielder to both catch the ball and throw it to the appropriate base ahead of the runner to get the batter out. In cricket, there are dozens or hundreds of balls hit on the ground which may be fielded without any consequence to the game as they do not result, as they do in baseball, in retiring the batsmen or eliminating a base runner. By American standards, this is a classic case of ‘wasted effort’.
The lack of proper large leather gloves in cricket to handle hard hit balls is as much a case of perverse silliness as holding on to the bat while running and deprives the fielder of an extension of his range. This severely handicaps the defensive side’s ability to get the batting side out. The baseball fielding team may be able to get the batting side out in one fell swoop via a double or triple play by fielders being able to put out more than one runner and thus retiring the opposing side as a result of fielding a single hit ball. For fans, the double play is the supreme expression of fine ballet and gymnastics combined into one beautiful motion.
A short baseball game takes between two and a half and three hours while cricket matches are of two types -special Test Matches between nations that are of two formats one day and five or six days. These matches schedule a certain amount of playing time interrupted so that players can eat lunch or take a twenty minute “tea break” thus adding to the stereotyped “sissy” image in American eyes). In cricket as compared with baseball, the amount of ‘dead time’ in which a ball is not struck by a batter or, struck but not fielded, resulting in the retirement of the batter, is probably on the order to 10:1. Baseball has lost considerable popularity over the last few decades as a result of its being perceived as ‘too slow’ a game in contrast to American football, basketball or ice hockey — all of which must race against the clock. It is no wonder that to an American, cricket appears like baseball in slow motion. Whereas a baseball team’s “inning” ends with the third “out”, an inning in cricket lasts for the duration of the time required to declare 10 batsmen “out”.
In past years, scheduled doubleheaders were a regular feature of the major league baseball leagues but have vanished. Today, a doubleheader in baseball (two games for the price of one) is very rare – generally the result of a prior game between the same two teams being postponed due to bad weather. Gone forever are the leisurely long summer afternoons when patrons could attend a real doubleheader (for those with the patience).
Cricket, although exported abroad to the Commonwealth and Baseball to the Caribbean and Japan, still function in their homelands as symbols of a ‘Paradise Lost’ — a simpler more innocent age. As Raymond Seitz put it, ‘Cricket and baseball both luxuriate in their grassy pastoral origins’. This is less true of the televised and highly commercialized professional game. It is on the sandlots and village greens of thousands of communities in Britain and America where both games find their truest expression. They are also seasonal games of Spring and Summer which share the common colors of green and white under a sky of blue and partake of a permanence, stability and communion with benign nature, and fair play.
So much does this idyllic view of our common ballgames color my mind that I sometimes allow myself to fantasize, that lack of an appreciation of the two games goes hand in hand with the desert like landscape, fanatical nationalism and religious intolerance that characterize the Middle East. Pakistan may be grouped with other Muslim societies but its love of cricket seems to go hand in hand with a much more humid climate and verdant green landscapes.
After many years living in Britain and by suppressing my natural American impatience, I have come to appreciate how roundabouts aid the flow of traffic. This is a major change of heart since when first encountering them, I regarded them as perverse deviations from the way roads ought to be aligned. A similar slow change in perception has also occurred with regards to cricket now that I am familiar with the basic rules.
Last summer, I attended a baseball game in Tampa, Florida, my first attendance at a baseball game in fifty years. I grew up in the Bronx and used to go to Yankee games at the nearby Stadium only a half an hour walk away from home. The game I saw in Tampa against the visiting Yankees had changed profoundly. It convinced me that whereas cricket remained the same classic game, baseball had evolved into a “multimedia” event that has further increased the contrast with cricket by light years.
The modern baseball spectacle with electronic billboards, huge screen television, manipulated encouragement of the home town fans to cheer on their team, constant commercial promotions, artificial surfaces and domed enclosure, instant interviews with fans, quiz games, acrobatics, comedy routines from the mascot, the interminable procession of vendors selling beer, candy, ice-cream, and blocking your view, changes in the rules to deemphasize pitching at the expense of power hitting (the designated hitter rule) is not the game I grew up with. The words to the hit song from the musical “Chicago“ came instantly to mind……..Give’em the old razzmatazz, and they’ll never catch wise”.
As an American who lived in Britain for many years, I say this with more than a bit of envy and regret. The over-commercialization of sport in America once before led to the infamous scandal of thrown games in the 1919 “World Series” by several star players of the Chicago White Sox (subsequently nicknamed The “Black Sox”) and has again been responsible for shaming the “national pasttime”. Baseball is currently under indictment for the steroid abuse practiced by many of the great “stars”. American youngsters have been given a sad lesson that winning is all important (recalling manager Leo Doroucher’s famous remark “nice guys finish last!”) and that money and fame, more than playing the game and loyalty to the hometown fans, are what counts most. Baseball has been a major element of American popular culture for more than a century.
It was traditionally a great pasttime, entertainment and diversion for millions who could find solace and escape from family problems, business affairs and the machinations of politics in following the pennant race and daily statistics of the players. The national sport of baseball has now been reduced to the same abysmal level of personal and political ethics as President Clinton’s clandestine and sordid affair in the White House and his lying under oath. Respect for what were once considered two “sacred” American institutions has tumbled.
On the other side of the Atlantic, British devotion to fair play of the “noble game” has, by most accounts, remained true. The worst charge levelled at British cricketers is that they once accepted a bribe to reveal weather and pitch conditions to an overseas journalist or accepted favors from Australian prostitutes. This amounts to small change by comparison with current crisis of American baseball. More serious scandals have marred cricket in Pakistan, India, South Africa and Australia and inflamed Muslim hysteria resulted from charges in 2006 that The Pakistani National Team tampered with the ball in a test match against England in London. The referees who made the judgment were Australians so it was regarded by many Muslims angry at British participation in the Iraq War as part of a racist/nationalist/religious/imperialist conspiracy.
For an American observer, the English players’ lily-white uniforms remain spotless, a reminder of the past glories of the Empire, the tradition of “keeping a stiff upper lip” and a more tranquil time. Much has changed in Great Britain, everything from the old system of currency based on multiples of pence, shillings and pounds (12 pence to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound) to the much easier decimal system, the old English weights and measures to the kilograms and kilometers in use elsewhere in Europe, conservative fashions in clothing, and music, the end of the Empire, the foreseeable demise of the House of Lords yet no one imagines a commercialization of cricket of the kind that has taken place in baseball, no more than a change from driving on the left to driving on the right, or the British giving up their preference for tea. Cricket and Baseball remain as cousins with similar origins but distinctive personalities like the underground and the subway.
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