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Readings: A Brief History of American Sports

Only one of these beards is real.

Over the weekend, I made a case for a way of discussing books in a manner conducive to NotGraphs. You can read those exact words, if you want. Alternatively, you can just believe me when I say that the basic idea is to share lightly annotated passages and ideas from interesting baseball-related books.

A Brief History of American Sports by Elliot J. Gorn and Warren Goldstein

There are obviously a number of reasons why baseball became popular in the United States. To attribute baseball’s rise in our culture merely to one or the other causes would be foolish. Gorn and Goldstein, for their part, are clear on this point. Discussing the “modernization”-type interpretation of mid- and late-19th c. sport, the pair writes:

The characteristics that historians identify as modern — rationalization, quantification, bureaucratization, mass spectatorship, equality of opportunity — were important elements of American athletics by the turn of the century. The rise of sports depended on new technologies, institutions, and patterns of though. Yet we must not remove the complexity from historical experience. Sports often perpetuated older values, even as modern elements crept in (114).

Elsewhere, they state:

This interpretaion of the rise of sports is at once useful and misleading. Bureaucracies, statistics, uniform rules, an ideology of fair play were all important. Yet those who apply modernization theory — to sports, to agriculture, to religious and ethnic identity — tend to see the tranformation as inexorable. Resistance to the modernizing juggernaut is depicted as either reactionary (because modernization allegedly benefits all) or unimportant (because the changes are inevitable). Modernization flattens historical experience by slighting the cultural tensions and the conflicts of power that accompany all major social transformations. Certainly there was nothing smooth, simple, or automatic about the rise of sports after the Civil War. Baseball’s relationship to the idea of equality, for example, was troubled (111-112).

These lines — in particular, those regarding the complexity of historical experience and historians’ tendency to flatten it — will likely be music to the ears of the sabermetrically inclined. Constantly, there’s this question of how fine to parse player performance. On the one hand, there’s the need to tell a story. There has to be some narrative quality to a stat in order for it to capture our imaginations. On the other hand, we must remain humble before the great complexities that lie beyond the narrative.

Consider FIP, for example. The accomplishment of the metric is that it (a) says quite a bit about a pitcher, but (b) requires only three widely available inputs — i.e. strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. So, its narrative powers are strong, which is good. But Gorn and Goldstein would ask us to remember — as would Tom Tango, I’m sure — that, while FIP is useful it can also be misleading. Or, rather, it will mislead those who ask too much of it. Each player presents to us a unique arrangement of uncontrolled variables. We oughtn’t forget it. Ever.