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This editorial appeared in Volume 6 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Editorial: Odd Ball

by Bradd Shore

Baseball's relationship with the American imagination is unrivalled by any other sport. An entire show devoted to baseball art made its way around the country and was eventually made into a coffee table book. Baseball has inspired a wealth of fine sports writing, both journalistic and fictional. a great Broadway musical (Damn Yankees) and a steady stream of popular films. Of all spectator sports, none has attracted the attention of intellectuals like baseball.

Though Americans like to think of baseball as a "national pastime", it has long been popular well beyond the United States and Canada. Since the late 19th Century, baseball has been a favourite sport throughout much of Latin America; in Asia, Taiwan and the Philippines have been very successful in fielding championship Little League teams. And since the 1870's when the game was introduced to Japan by missionaries and teachers, the Japanese have developed a passion for baseball rivalling that of the Americans.

The attachment many feel for baseball is due in part to the game's unusual way with time and space in several senses baseball is a distinctively "odd" field sport. There is hardly an even number associated with baseball: no quarters. no midfield, no halftime and (in its American incarnation) the games does not allow for tie scores. Even the apparent regularity of the diamond-shaped infield is divided into three bases plus home plate.

While the bases are squares, home plate is pentagonal in shape. Rather than a halftime break, baseball provides its fans with a "seventh inning stretch". The normal team (exclusive of pinch hitters, pinch runners or designated hitters) comprises nine players. The game (unless there is a tie) is nine innings long. its smaller rhythm units are also "odd". Baseball's distinctive rhythm is a kind of waltz where "one-two-three" at bat means "you're out" while the same rhythm in running brings you back home. Asymmetries, shape the game's time. its space and its fundamental rules of play.

The key to the semiotic unity of baseball is the structural asymmetry by which a fixed beginning is poised against to an open and contingent end. This structural asymmetry is an important aspect of baseball's organization of time. Baseball is not so much a slow game as one that unfolds in alternating pulses. Long periods of inactivity are punctuated by sudden bursts of dramatic action. This-alternation permits spectators to withdraw into "domestic" pursuits (eating, scorekeeping, analyzing the game or even sleeping), even as the game is being played This alternation of attention, mimicking the "home" and "away" alternation of baseball play probably contributes to the high degree of mental (as opposed to kinesthetic) engagement fans have with the sport. And it makes unnecessary a "halftime" break from the game. common in other field sports.

The most frequently noted aspect of baseball time is that it is controlled by the contingency of events rather than by the clock. Baseball time is "inning time." A game normally ends when the visiting. team has played at least nine "innings" at bat, and when play has produced a difference in score between the teams. Baseball has several theoretically endless or open moments. A game that produces no asymmetry in score can go on without limit. A team can theoretically have an endless inning at bat, in which their opponents fail to produce the required three outs to "retire the side." And the batter faces the possibility of an endless "at bat" in which he keeps "fouling off" pitches, producing an interminable standoff between pitcher and batter.

While these limitless moments are only theoretical possibilities in baseball, they affect how the sport is perceived. Baseball is repeatedly associated with the power to overcome time. W.P. Kinsella's book Shoeless Joe (and the hugely successful film adaptation Field of Dreams)celebrate the almost religious vision of baseball with its power to reunite estranged generations and eras through a mystical evocation of the recuperative power of the ball field.

Baseball is America's nostalgic game, with an ability to fold the past back into the present. Even the uniforms of baseball tend to produce a nostalgia for clothing styles of times past. Baseball's capacity to bridge generations for American men is an important reason for the importance of fathers playing catch with their sons.

Baseball is the only sport in the United States that fields organized teams throughout a person's entire life cycle. Baseball's ideal "endless summer" is a dimension not only of a particular season, but also of one's life. From the tee-ball leagues for the very young. through a chain of teams in Little League. Pony League, and Babe Ruth League, from High School to College to Men's and Women's Softball Leagues, baseball is the sole sports idiom that can encapsulate an entire biography. For reasons of symbolism as well as physiology Old Timer's Day only makes sense in Baseball.

Baseball's open-ended frame is complemented by its insistent fixing of its beginnings. The asymmetry of baseball time is linked to the tension between open ends and closed beginnings. Within the game itself, the start of play is always ritually marked. The Season begins with the President's well-publicized opening pitch. Traditionally, the season would always begin with the first game of the Cincinnati Reds, commemorating their status (as the Red Stockings) as American first salaried team. Every professional game begins with a ritual singing of the American National Anthem (sung, appropriately, by a solitary figure near home plate), followed by the umpire's call to "Play Ball!"

This need clearly to demarcate baseball's beginnings must have been behind the creation of a mythical American starting point for baseball.

The orchestration of space in Baseball parallels closely its asymmetrical organization of time The lopsidedness of baseball space is immediately apparent to anyone entering a ball park. Unique among field sports in America, baseball eschews the symmetrical rectangular playing space for a kind of wedge-shaped field. The ball field is defined by an "inner zone" (from which the game gets its "innings") that is precisely measured and identical in every park. At the apex of this "infield" is "home plate", also called the "bag" or the "dish". The three bases and home plate define a 90 foot square, while the pitcher's mound is exactly 60' 6" from home plate, the result of an early surveyor's error that became standardized for all professional fields.

By contrast with the precisely standardized infield, baseball's outfield is not governed by such fixed dimensions. Outfield distances are governed by minimum, but not maximum dimensions. From home plate to the outfield fence, as measured along the foul lines, a professional field must measure at least 250 ft. (325 ft. for parks built after 1958). And from home plate to the centre field fence, on a line drawn through second base, must measure at least 400 ft. As with time in baseball, there are no outer limits in the constitutive rules governing baseball space.

Owners are free in baseball to change the shape of the outfield to suit the hitting style of their team, a practice some have called "marrying the field to the team."

These spatial asymmetries and contingencies mean that ball parks do not have a standard configuration like other playing fields do.

The openness of the outfield in baseball has contributed to the unusual degree of spectator identification with the action on the field. The traditional green paint of the spectators' seats blends with the grass of the field, so that the field of play seems to continue right up into the stands. Moreover, baseball fans are often pulled into the play of the game. "Fielding" balls hit into the stands, trying to interfere with a play at the fence, or attempting to deflect a visiting team's home-run ball back onto the field are all part of the fans' game.

Only in baseball do spectators commonly don uniforms, ranging from caps, or gloves, to baseball shirts or even entire uniforms. There is no equivalent in any other field sport. Even coaches and managers in baseball wear team uniforms, further blurring the boundaries between players and those outside the game. Spectators have even taken in recent years to mimicking the action of the game by imitating periodic "waves" of human bodies moving their arms in unison. The attempt, found also in football, is to create a pulse of human movement that circles the stands. As in the game proper, the wave succeeds when it makes a complete circuit, returning "home" to its starting point.

This asymmetrical structure is also realized in baseball's alternation of "home" and "away" as both spatial and symbolic dimensions. Unlike football, or basketball, baseball is never played in neutral territory. but always alternates between home and away, the fundamental rhythm of the game itself, where teams alternate between being "at home" (at bat) and in the field. Runners or batters who are unsuccessful in moving themselves around the bases are called "out".

The most basic realization of baseball's asymmetrical form is the fact that in baseball a team never faces directly the opposing team. The game juxtaposes a "field" of coordinated players against individual players either at bat or running the bases. In fact, the team at bat is kept out of sight, in a below ground "dug-out", so that only an individual player faces the fielding team.

Each baseball player has two alternating personas: a defensive role (in the field), and an offensive one (at bat). The "home" area of play is the locus of individuated action, while the outer field is the focus of more socially coordinated play.

The ideological foundations of this opposition are built into the terms used to speak about the game. Fielders are "playing" their positions, while batters and runners "are" what they do. One never "plays batter": "one bats or is up at the plate." Moreover the closer a fielder comes to playing at home, the more he is considered an offensive rather than a defensive role. Thus pitchers have an "essential" status like batters (one never plays pitcher), and catchers do not "play" home plate in the way that a fielder "plays the outfield" or "plays third base."

The key asymmetry underlying those of time and space in baseball is the opposing of individual action (at home) and social interaction (in the field). Baseball thus orchestrates a set of complex and problematical relations between communitarian values and those of American individualism, engaging them in a kind of dialogue.

Common metaphors derived from baseball use this ideological tension to characterize male dating strategies. "Getting to first base" and moving around the bases is a common metaphor for male sexual adventurism, with success phrased as "going all the way" and failure understood as "striking out." It is revealing that these idioms are used neither when sex is a commercial venture ("That hooker was a good catch") nor when it is fully domesticated at home ("I went all the way with my wife last night"). Baseball metaphors appropriately structure sexual adventurism only when it involves moving through a social field with at least the possibility of bringing the catch back home.

Baseball's fascination with statistics is probably linked to its romance with individuated action, and the democratic fondness for reducing qualitative distinctness to quantitative comparison. In this way, the quantification of baseball is equivalent to the American passion for polls, and market surveys by which everything can be reduced to common terms and compared.

The basic action-structure of baseball differs from that of most field-sport. Most have a common basic game-plan. The aim is for one team to move across a field of defenders with the goal of placing an object (a ball or a puck) in their goal-space at the opposite end of the field.

In baseball, by contrast, offensive strategy is to separate the ball and the player by as much territory as possible. In baseball it is the player who scores (by coming home) and not the ball. Even when a home-run is hit out of the park, the score is not made by the ball but by the player's making his way unimpeded around the bases and returning home again. Unlike other field sports, whenever the ball catches up with the runner in baseball, the runner is in danger of being "out".

The action of baseball can be conceived as a series of individuals who attempt to leave home, and make a circuit through a social field, marked by obstacles. It is not getting to the field itself that scores, however, but returning safely home. Baseball is an American telling of a mythic journey of conquest, where a lone hero sets out on a perilous adventure, with the hope of returning home with newfound wealth, or wisdom.

Baseball's associations with aspects of American culture and national character are deeply rooted in the game's forms. It is thus not surprising that the game should also mirror in its practices many of the characteristics of American social life with respect to gender and race.

Baseball, in its organized tension between social cooperation and heroic individuals, also reflects a deep ambivalence about the relation between rules and personal assertiveness. Though baseball's umpires control all play, and their decisions are never overruled, highly stylized conventions of arguing with the umpire by players and managers are part of the game. Team members will even risk being ejected from the game to carry on the ultimately fruitless ritual of facing down the umpire. "Kill the umpire" is a classic American baseball expression. From the earliest years of Little League play, baseball models for American boys a tradition of questioning authority, even as they grudgingly learn that in baseball there is no alternative to acceding the umpire's rulings.

Important features of baseball's semiotics remain to be studied. Several works have been written comparing Japanese baseball to its American model. But relatively little has been written about how baseball's forms have been adapted to other cultural settings. No careful semiotic comparison of baseball and English cricket has ever been published.

This analysis of the organization of time, space and action in baseball has been largely from the perspective of the spectator. Much remains to be studied about how baseball is experienced from other perspectives such as those of the television viewer and, of course the players themselves.


Angell, Roger, The Summer Game, 1972.

Candelaria, Cordelia, Baseball in American Literature: From Ritual to Fiction, 1976.

Frank, Lawrence, Playing Hardball: The Dynamics of Baseball Folk Speech, 1983.

Gordon, Peter H. Diamond are Forever: Artists and Writers on Baseball, 1987.

Novack, Michael, The Joy of Sports: End Zones, Bases, Baskets, Balls, and the Consecration of the American Spirit, 1976.

Voigt, David Q., America Through Baseball, 197

Whiting, Robert, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat: Baseball Samurai Style, 1977.

Bradd Shore is Professor of Anthropology at Emory University (GA).

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