An honest ballgame

On America’s pastime.

Noah Glasgow

May 19, 2024

A response to The Harper Review’s spring 2024 proposition, “We should tell children the truth.”

Dear editors, 

You’re standing at home plate, tin bat clamped in your twelve-year-old hands. A ball soars over home plate but you hold stock-still—the ball’s outside, you’re sure. But the umpire rises; he thrusts his left fist forward: strike three. You’ve been caught looking.

A decent ballgame depends on having a hell of a lot of faith in your umpire. It’s sour enough to get called out looking on a pitch you know you misread, but what really eats you is when the umpire’s playing fast and loose. Maybe his nephew’s on the mound. It doesn’t matter. Faith in the game depends on faith in the umpire’s integrity and honesty. If the umpire keeps calling against you and your teammates, well, that’s hardly a game at all. Faith in a game depends on faith in the game’s rules. Perhaps that’s obvious: what’s a game besides a set of rules?

The philosopher John Rawls thought that a well played game was a pretty good analogy for a well-run society. A society, Rawls wrote, is “a system of cooperation designed to advance the good of those taking part in it.” “A good play of game,” Rawls later analogized, is similarly “a collective achievement requiring the cooperation of all,” from the players to the umpires to the fans in the stands. Like a ballgame, society depends on a healthy appreciation for the rules. Rawls wrote that a society governed by liberal rules—guaranteeing freedom of speech, conscience, career, and so on—would continue to promote the good of all its members and so be naturally self-sustaining. Men would keep faith in liberal society just like they kept coming back to the clay diamond.

But for Rawls, ballgames were more than just a neat analogy. They had a real role to play in developing children’s moral faculties. We first come to appreciate the benefits of cooperation through participation in collaborative sports or activities, like Little League. Then we come to appreciate that the benefits of the cooperation we so enjoy are only made possible by the existence of a stable set of rules. And so we come to love the rules themselves. In collaborative associations like a baseball team or a family, these rules all incorporate the sort of moral precepts that Rawls thinks ground a liberal society: Be honest. Do your part. Help others. Watch out for yourself and your friends. Rawls thought that playing out these moral principles as children helps us develop the moral strength required to build and sustain a well-ordered liberal society. In short, there’s a reason that baseball is America’s pastime.

What ruins a good ballgame? A lie, a cheat, Vaseline on the brim of the pitcher’s cap, but maybe, above all else, the parent who promises his child that the game was spoiled by a rotten umpire. The ball was outside, Dad says, eyeing the quivering lip, searching for some spot of solace. He says, “That umpire just had it out for the team.” 

Children deserve the truth. If we comfort them with easy lies, they’ll never have a clear-eyed view of the stakes of the game. What’s at stake in baseball, what’s at stake in politics, and what’s at stake in our lives as moral people is the recognition that a good set of rules is better than a victory. An easy lie allows the values of narrow self-interest to fester and prevents us from reaching the truth: that our own good, and the good of everyone around us, is best ensured by tried and honest rules.

We keep coming back to baseball not because we keep winning on the scoreboard, but because we crave the moment we step to the plate, tin bat in our hands, visor hanging low over the July sun, the love of the game sat square on our shoulders.

Play ball!

Noah

Noah Glasgow is the editor in chief of The Harper Review and a third-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying history.