Jun 202003

Niceness counts, your mother used to tell you, and so it does, for you and me. When you are one of the best in the world at what you do, niceness stops counting. I am reminded of this by the sportswriters’ treatment of Barry Bonds.

Barry Bonds is one of the greatest hitters who ever lived, and his unearthly bat speed, unerring plate discipline and perfect balance make him a joy to watch. The pleasure he has given anyone who enjoys baseball, including some sportswriters, can never be repaid. He is also rather surly with the media and disinclined to give interviews. Tough. Nobody cares about how Barry Bonds’ relations with the press except the press, and if they had any respect for greatness they would keep quiet about it.

Babe Ruth, in another era, was celebrated for promising to hit home runs for sick children, although by the authoritative account he was a lout. But really, does anything matter about him except the way he played baseball?

I have quoted Yvor Winters before on the relations between distinguished poets and scholars, but his words serve equally well to describe the relations between great athletes and sportswriters:

To the scholar in question, the poet is wrong-headed and eccentric, and the scholar will usually tell him so. This is bad manners on the part of the scholar, but the scholar considers it good manners. If the poet, after some years of such experiences, loses his temper occasionally, he is immediately convicted of bad manners. The scholar often hates him (I am not exaggerating), or comes close to hating him, but if the poet returns hatred with hatred (and surely this is understandable), he is labeled as a vicious character, for, after all, he is a member of a very small minority group.

David Halberstam, he’s talking to you.

Jacques Barzun, in The House of Intellect, has an anecdote about a distinguished jurist, a member of the Supreme Court, who was profiled in a newspaper article the largest point of which was that the jurist rose early every morning and cooked breakfast for his family. In the forty-odd years since Barzun’s book was published his anecdote has been reprised countless times, almost exactly in the case of Justice Rehnquist, about whom ten people could tell you that he put stripes on his gown and sings Christmas carols for every one who could tell you a thing about his jurisprudence. This is supposed to “humanize” great men. By “humanizing” is meant “making seem more like you and me,” although what is interesting about the great is precisely what makes them unlike the rest of us. These “human” qualities are attractive or unattractive, according to the disposition of the writer: they are always irrelevant. I don’t want to see great men humanized. I want to see them praised, or even damned, for the qualities that make them great. Everything else is pornography.

(Update: Howard Owens comments.)

  5 Responses to “The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Sportswriter”

  1. Aaron:

    While I agree that great men need not be "humanized" and that what makes them different from the ordinary is what makes them interesting, I also believe that there is a tendency to exalt the excellent in a way that impedes further advances. When advancement stops, I call it the "Pall of Greatness."

    History is rife with examples of it. Heavy objects fall faster than light objects says Aristotle, and because no one can doubt Aristotle’s greatness, humanity’s ascent is set back an epoche. Maris is not half the player the great Babe was, so let us mark the objective fact of more seasonal home runs with the asterisk of our displeasure. Reimann could not be right in altering the premises of geometry because he is no Euclid.

    I recently read about quite a remarkable man, the late John Bell, a physicist at CERN and Stanford. Without boring you even more than I have, John Bell did something few individuals would have the personal audacity to do. He developed an inequality that permitted the resolution of a great debate between Bohr and Einstein, known to some as the debate between quantum entanglement and "local realities". In so doing, he had to persuade his fellow scientists that both Einstein and von Neumann– probably the two greatest minds of the 20th century– used incorrect mathematical premises. He managed to convince them, and despite two Everests of intellect disagreeing, made himself a great man, just like Galileo, Maris and Reimann.

    Let us exalt great men, then surpass them.

  2. Hegel cites a saying that "No man is great to his valet," but then replies that this is not because great men are not great, but because valets are valets.

  3. Eddie:

    The sportwriters complain about Bonds not because they are his valet, but because he’s not hiring for the position.

  4. "Everything else is pornography."

    I was really excited for a few minutes, until I went over to ibm.com and saw what a damn liar Haspel is.

  5. Actually, we Pirate fans get to hate him for other reasons.

    And we do.

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