Brawn vs. Brain in America’s Pastime

It's been about five days since my favorite baseball team lost the World Series, and there's little on the internet regarding the historic nature of their defeat or the improbability of their success up to that point that has made that loss easy to swallow.  I originally wrote this piece for another purpose which it ended up not fulfilling, but it seemed apt to post it here now.  If nothing else, this World Series proved that there is still room for Brain over Brawn in professional baseball.

There is a reason that our most beloved baseball movies, like Field of Dreams or Angels in the Outfield, have magical narratives—magic accommodates baseball’s innocence and wonder, the most unmanly of sentiments.  It seamlessly reconciles the nostalgia of boyhood with a manhood where it’s still possible to love the game.  It allows for unfettered appreciation for the manners, simplicity, and magic that defined the bygone era when the sport earned its moniker of “America’s Pastime.”  Now, when the primacy of baseball is endangered by apparent corruption through performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) as well as the sheer power and violence manifested in other American sports, this magic is challenged.  Those of us who follow the sport have watched it break down over the years into fandoms that privilege different components of the game.  This has shattered baseball’s ideal masculinity, with physical power and intellectual analysis kept apart in players when the sport, ideally, requires them to be united.

Baseball evolved in the same historic era that gave us the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, and that behemoth of virile masculinity, Teddy Roosevelt.  It filled the void left by the Civil War—where “war was thought to breed a new, forceful manhood,” baseball and other sports assumed this burden to produce vigorous young men who could resist the evils of easy living afforded by modernity.[i]  Baseball also responded to a perceived crisis of white, middle-class masculinity brought on by new calls for women’s rights and new populations of immigrants that displaced white American men from their vocations.  According to the sociologist Michael Kimmel, baseball became the coping mechanism, the means of shoring up American values against these outside threats and uniting these diverse populations together under the umbrella of sport.[ii]  A baseball pioneer as both player and the standardizer of the earliest baseballs, Albert G. Spalding wrote in his 1911 treatise America’s National Game: “Base Ball is the American Game par excellence because its playing demands Brain and Brawn, and American manhood supplies these ingredients in quantity sufficient to spread over the entire continent.”  He continues: “No man or boy can win distinction on the ball field who is not, as man or boy, an athlete, possessing all the qualifications which an intelligent, effective playing of the game demands.”[iii]  With those proclamations, Spalding sets out the two conceptual pairs that govern our understanding of the masculine body’s role in baseball: first, Brain and Brawn and, second, man or boy, which functions as a sort of magical time travel.

Brawn may be a given for a professional sport—athleticism and strength are, of course, required to reverse the direction of a small, hard ball and send it flying 400 feet in the other direction or to field a line drive coming off the bat at over 100 miles an hour.  Certainly, players hone these abilities through almost military repetitive drills, but anyone can practice a sport with intensity.  Instead, stories of exceptional baseball players transform men into brawny supermen.  Legends abound of players from the 1940s and 1950s whose nearly supernatural abilities distinguished them from their peers.  For example, Ted Williams, whose .406 batting average in 1941 remains the single-season record in the live ball era, supposedly could simply see the ball better than his fellow hitters and could even see the laces on the ball coming toward him.  Though Williams himself called this claim nonsense, it does place his skill squarely on his exceptional body in a way that cannot be learned by your average man or boy.

And even despite this embrace of the superman, there is room in baseball for Brain—many of its most ardent fans are nerds who track stats across the league on a daily basis.  Most players have an intuitive understanding of the physics of the game and make changes throughout the game like timing their swing to knock a hit into a hole between fielders. In other words, there is room in baseball for players like Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer, who studies his body as if it were a piece of machinery to mechanically soup up, recalibrate, and build to last.[iv]  There is patience and mathematical probability, whether instinctual or deliberately calculated, in waiting for the right pitch, anticipating the arc of a fly ball, or choosing to throw a fastball instead of a slider.

Until the first disclosures of widespread PED use in Major League Baseball in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed that baseball players were growing more and more physically powerful and revolutionizing, on a historic level, how the sport was played.  Low-scoring pitchers duels and small ball strategy seemed lost.  Medical advances, like Tommy John surgery to repair pitchers’ elbows, could be viewed as allowing the body to triumph over its limitations.  In 1998 and then again in 2001, superstars Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds raced to smash the record for most home runs in a single season, which had stood since Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961.  As this drama played out, it became clear that Brawn had trumped Brain, possibly for good. It seemed like building powerful bodies meant more than filling a team with smart, reliable, and enterprising workmen.  When it became apparent that McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds had all likely used PEDs during their historic runs, baseball’s new realignment with Brawn against Brain rang false.  See the recently retired Alex Rodriguez, whose numbers over a twenty-two year career, had he played clean, rank him among the greatest players of all-time.  After serving a season-long suspension as punishment for PED use, he returned to the New York Yankees to attempt an improbable comeback.  Many bemoaned his lower home run numbers that season because they didn’t match the successes of his prime playing years.  However, if you really look at his numbers, he made smart moves, regularly got on base, and functioned as a team player instead of an egomaniacal superstar.  He chose Brain over Brawn, and ultimately retired when his new excellence with Brain could not justify the salary that had been earned through Brawn.

In the last twenty years, the battle between Brain and Brawn has overshadowed magic’s role in baseball.  Yet we seem to have reached an era where Brain and Brawn can work together once more, with the trend toward using Moneyball-style sabermetric statistics to optimize team performance over time.  Under these struggles, the magic that remains allows for fans to be at once in the past, comparing today’s hitters to Ted Williams, and in the present, where no feeling matches the one that happens just after your favorite player hits a ball out of the park.  The dynamics of Brain and Brawn do continue to shift for the men who play, watch, and adore the sport, but the pluralism of being America’s Pastime still exists among baseball’s fans.  Though baseball is hardly divorced from the social problems of the rest of the world, it welcomes fans of all allegiances—the nerds who love statistics, the power junkies who love the speed and strength of modern hitters and pitchers, and even the historians who hold on to the legends, the history, and the magic as they are rapidly forgotten.


[i] E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: BasicBooks, 1993): 240-241.

[ii] Michael Kimmel, “Baseball and the Reconstitution of American Masculinity, 1880-1920,” in The History of Men: Essays in the History of American and British Masculinities (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005): 61-72.

[iii] Albert Goodwill Spalding, America’s National Game: Historic Facts Concerning the Beginning, Evolution, Development and Popularity of Base Ball with Personal Reminiscences of Its Vicissitudes, Its Victories, and Its Votaries (New York: American Sports Publishing Company, 1911): 5.

[iv] For descriptions of Bauer’s unusual methods, see: Lee Jenkins, “Trevor Bauer Will Not Be Babied,” Sports Illustrated, August 15, 2011.  

The Art History-Baseball Wars of 2016

Cleveland's Progressive Field through a Prisma filter, August 2016. 

Cleveland's Progressive Field through a Prisma filter, August 2016. 

A friend of mine recently said: "I had no idea that there was so much overlap in the Venn diagram of art history and baseball."    

This was her response to me sharing two pictures on Facebook, the first of many that would appear over the following days, that used images from the history of art to comment on the World Series.  One portrayed Cleveland Indians Manager (and arguable baseball genius) Terry Francona on his (in)famous scooter in the manner of Jacques-Louis David's ca. 1801 portrait Napoleon Crossing the Alps.  The other, posted on the Art Institute of Chicago's social media accounts transformed the Haussmannian Paris of Gustave Caillebotte's 1877 painting Paris Street, Rainy Day; the flâneur in front was made to sport a Cubs t-shirt while his female companion flies a World Series pennant.  Since then, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Cleveland Museum of Art, two of the best museums in the United States, have been photoshopping baseball logos and jokes into their most famous paintings and sharing them on Facebook, having nerdy fun with a sports rivalry carrying on just beyond their doors.  

For me, baseball and art history have long overlapped, even if it hasn't always been quite as deliberate as the examples outlined above.  I watched many an Indians game as a way to dissolve the stress of writing my dissertation, or listened to games online while begrudgingly spending weekends in the library.  I once proposed a summer course called "The Art of Athletics," throughout which I intended to talk about the literal visual artifacts of sports (like baseball cards), the architecture of stadiums (think "cathedrals" of baseball--like Wrigley Field), and also broader theoretical concepts like masculinity and spectacle through which we see and understand the actions occurring on fields of play.  (This plan was only thwarted by a well-timed research grant that enabled me to go to France instead.)  The Metropolitan Museum of Art has, of course, an extensive collection of baseball cards from the 1880s on; these priceless artifacts document the origins of the cards in consumerism, the progression of available and cost effective printing technologies, and the cultivation of superstars in the sport.  Where there is image-making, be in on paper and canvas or in the eyes of an adoring public, there is room for art history.

So what do these baseball-themed wars between our major midwestern art museums actually mean?  Maybe not much beyond the gratification of seeing the characters in these visual landmarks of vastly different eras and geographies (American GothicSunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte, Lotto's Portrait of a Man, and the portrait Nathaniel Olds) unite under the banner of baseball.  I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about baseball and why, even against threats from PEDs and accusations of racism within the sport, baseball still feels more magical than other sports with similar stature in the United States.  I think it probably has something to do with the fact that, for people who love the sport and without regard to who they may be in life, it pulls on the same heartstrings as paintings do for people who love paintings.  

As someone who loves both paintings and baseball, I can testify that the feelings are similar. Standing before Van Gogh's Starry Night over the Rhone (a sentimental, personal favorite of mine) evokes deep joy and calm in me, and an often elusive faith that there is beauty and hope somewhere in the world. This is the same feeling that occurs when it sets in that your closer has thrown that third strike for the third out to end, conclusively and victoriously, a game in which every factor was stacked against your team.  But the moment immediately after that pitch is for loudly cheering! ... and exhaling.