Comparing Basketball, Baseball, and the Civil War: George Carlin Revisited

Updating his famous riff on "Baseball and Football," here's what I imagine comedian George Carlin might have said about the differences between...

                                BASEBALL vs. BASKETBALL

The baseball uniform looks like a formal outfit, something you wear to church. 
The basketball uniform looks like a bathing suit, something you wear to the pool.

Baseball looks like a battlefield, with a few soldiers trying to pass through enemy territory. 
Basketball looks like a dance floor, with couples trying to decide who they should dance with next.

Baseball is played outdoors, on green grass.
Basketball is played indoors, on a beige hardwood floor.

In short, baseball comes out of 19th-century pastoral America. Basketball comes out of 20th-century office culture: fast-paced, lots of teamwork and immediate, visible rewards, all played out under florescent lights and clean indoor spaces. Baseball is slow and formal. Basketball is fast and informal. And both are great.


Not as Funny, but Baseball Is Connected to War:
George Carlin played up baseball's contrast with football for comic effect, but I think he knew that baseball actually had a violent side as well. He probably would have agreed with the former MLB Commissioner who said baseball consists of a man standing on a hill throwing a rock at a man below him holding a club (Giamatti, A Great and Glorious Game, p. 58).

In other words, baseball is as much rooted in war as footballit's just a different kind of war. Baseball's underlying combat structure is not World War II's "long bombs" and "aerial assaults," which Carlin rightly correlates with football, nor is it club warfare, which Commissioner Giamatti compares with baseball. Instead, baseball resembles and re-enacts the basic combat structure of the  American Civil War: standing out in the open while the enemy fires on you and you try to return fire and get closer to them.

Baseball's roots in the Civil War are not a coincidence or mere historical curiosity. It was during this traumatic war and its aftermath that baseball became America's "national game," as soldiers from far-flung states with idle time in camp spread enthusiasm for the game and standardized its rules of play. (See, for example, the sections on the spread of Civil War battlefield signals to baseball's sign system in The Hidden Language of Baseball, p. 24-34, and George Kirsch's entire book about the interweaving of baseball, the Civil War, and patriotism, Baseball in Blue and Gray.)
Painting by Otto Boetticher, "Union Prisoners [playing baseball] at Salisbury, N.C."

Moreover, I would argue that the specific combat style of the Civil Warline infantryprovided a subtle model for baseball, giving it special meaning at that time. The central challenge for a soldier in the Civil War was to have the courage to stand on the field while someone shot at him from close range, and that's the same challenge faced today by a batter who has to stand in place while a pitcher throws a hard, fast projectile at him or her.

Civil War Reenactment

And baseball still revolves around the primary emotion stirred up by the Civil War: longing for home. The single most popular song for soldiers on both sides was "Home, Sweet Home," and soldiers constantly talked in their letters about wanting to go home (Susan J. Matt, Homesickness: An American History). Yet most were afraid to return home and lose their honor. Standing at the plate, a batter today embodies the central dilemma of the Civil War: the attempt to "balance the competing demands of a love of home and a desire for honor" (Matt, p. 77).

Even after the war, the feelings of homesickness turned into nostalgia, a longing for a home that could never be fully recovered. During the late 1800s, this sense of nostalgia rose as American society got roiled by urbanization, industrialization, immigration, and other social changes. Not coincidentally, baseball, a game that is all about trying to go home, continued to rise in popularity during this same period.

So when you play, watch, and enjoy baseball today, you're essentially re-enacting the Civil War and turning it into ritual, play, and art. Of course, very few people today are literally thinking of the Civil War when they watch or play baseball. Times change, and symbols get redeployed. Yet baseball still has the essential structure of the Civil Warline warfare and homesicknessat its core.

Even if you don't know anything about baseball's historical origins, you still understand the courage and honor it takes to stand up to a fastball thrown inches away from your body. And you know what it's like to want to get off the battlefield and go home. As George Carlin said, "I just want to go home! I hope I'll be safe at home!"

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