October 12, 2001

Baseball and Bonds

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A bit past noon last Sunday, President Bush informed the American public that the military had begun air raids on Afghanistan.

A few hours later, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds cracked his 73rd home run in his final game of the season.

Interesting dichotomy, those two events. Half a world away, American smart bombs were intelligently finding their way to Taliban military airfields. But in 3Com Park, San Franciscans were in the midst of worshipping their newfound god, chanting “Five more years, five more years” — in reference to their wishes for Bonds to stick around the Bay Area for a few more seasons.

On a strictly superficial level, the juxtaposition of war and sport seems perverse. After all, hadn’t we already decided on Sept. 11 that the two don’t mix well?

Look deeper, though, and it becomes easier to grasp the notion that sport — our most prominent form of entertainment — has an understandable, and arguably necessary, place in the times of war. Why? Simply because of the need for diversion.

But it’s hardly unprecedented for America (or the rest of the world for that matter) to taste both simultaneously. Here for example, is an excerpt from The Sporting News on April 17, 1941 — the same day that the baseball season began that year and the Nazis pierced the Allied Front in Greece:

“Little wonder, then, that Americans look to baseball as its national pastime — something as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar and as an outlet to which they can turn to ease jangled nerves in times of crisis, or to give expression to their exuberance in periods of high spirits. People must have a vent for their feelings — they cannot keep them pent up. The game always has served that purpose and in the present moment of uncertainty, it stands ready to fill that role again.”

An argument along similar lines could be made for the events of today. Compared to what happens in Kabul or Kandahar, what happens in the A’s-Yankees AL Division Series seems trivial. And as inconsequential as it may be to ponder whether or not the Bronx Bombers will add another World Series to their collection, the fact is that those thoughts pull our wary eyes away from CNN and MSNBC; those thoughts help rip us away from the madness in the “real world” and, sad as it may be to say, to become normal again.

That was the reason President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1942, penned a letter to baseball commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis, pleading with him to not cancel the upcoming season despite the specter of war hanging over America.

“[The public] ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before,” Roosevelt wrote. “Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half and which can be got for very little cost.”

Simon Kuper, an English columnist, proved recently that war and European football also were intertwined during World War II. Games took place in Leningrad, Holland, even Nazi Germany. In fact, on April 22, 1945, two Munich clubs, Bayern and 1860, played the final game during the Third Reich –even as the Allies were barricading through the city’s gates.

According to Kuper, football even took hold in the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Theresienstadt and Dachau. What’s more, there are reports that in 1944, prisoners at one such camp actually pounded their way to a 21-0 victory over their guards.

The dynamic between war and sport doesn’t solely lie in realm of professional sports though. Take, for example, Cornell in the 1940s. The Daily Sun frequently divided the news spotlight between updates on WWII and recounts of the football team’s progress. On Sept. 18, 1943, for instance, news of the Allies’ capture of a Japanese air base in New Guinea was overshadowed by a massive photo of a packed-to-the-brim Schoellkopf Field and a story the football team’s season opener against Bucknell.

Perverse? Without a doubt, yes. But for Cornell supporters, football fans in Europe and even American GIs overseas who took every opportunity to play a game of pick-up baseball, sport offered an escape from the hellish nightmare that was WWII.

And even though circumstances today are not remotely as dire as they were a half-century ago and chances are the athletes won’t be drafted into the war effort as happened during WWII, the underlying function of sport as a medium for escape remains preserved.

Granted, immediately after the terrorist attacks, sports had no value to a country in mourning, and were appropriately canceled across the board. But today, to a country at war, they act as a much-needed distraction. If only for a few moments a day, sports allows those of us who crave them to turn off CNN, forget about the Northern Alliance and collectively flush out the word ‘jihad’ from our vocabulary. They allow us to safely wallow in our own inconsequential worries about whether Jordan will be any good or whether Rex Grossman should really get the Heisman.

Simply, in the face of chaos around us, sports helps us to at least delude ourselves into normalcy.

Archived article by Shiva Nagaraj