An excerpt from

Apologies to Thucydides

Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa

by Marshall Sahlins

Baseball is Society, Played as a Game

In the late 1960s the Yale historian J. H. Hexter wrote a revelatory essay on "The Rhetoric of History," the centerpiece of which was a crafted response to the question, "How did the New York Giants happen to play in the World Series of 1951?" Since the so-called World Series of that time matched baseball teams all the way from the Mississippi River to the East Coast of the United States, and from the Canadian border to the Mason-Dixon line, you will appreciate the world historical significance of the question. If not, you are probably not a fan, and I must apologize to you for this commentary on Hexter's text. Apologies especially to people other than Americans, Canadians, Japanese, Dominicans, Venezuelans, and Cubans, who are not baseball fans and probably couldn't care less—although anyone who is an athletic supporter of some sort should be able to transpose the narrative to a league sport of another kind. I can offer the consolation that the story of how the New York Giants defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League championship, which is how they got to play in the World Series, also has elements of class warfare, inasmuch as it pitted the patrician Manhattan followers of the Giants against the plebeian Brooklynites. In any case, it will be useful to suffer through the account of the 1951 Giants' pennant, together with the comparison Hexter draws with the American League championship of 1939 won by the New York Yankees, because the two stories not only feature individual and collective agency, respectively, they also motivate the narratological difference by contrasting kinds of historical change.

There are structures of and in history. It's not all tricks the living play on the dead. The history of the ’39 Yankees' pennant was developmental, where that of the ’51 Giants was evenemential. The first was evolutionary, the second a kind of revolutionary volte-face. The Yankees dominated the 1939 season from beginning to end, April to October, steadily pulling away from the second-place team. The Giants won at 3:58 PM (EDT) on 3 October 1951, when Bobby Thomson hit the famous home run that defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in the last half of the last inning of the final game of a three-game playoff for the title—the teams having been tied at the end of the regular season. Hexter chose to compare the two seasons because in contrast to the narrative mode appropriate to the Giants' victory, which he calls "storytelling," the Yankees' championship is better understood by "analysis": an account simply of their attributes as a team, without the necessity of referring to individual exploits or particular games. So to compare small things with great ones, again as Thucydides would say, here also are histories of competition that, by their specific forms, variously motivate a collective recounting or the intervention of difference-making persons. Even more, Hexter's baseball comparison affords a principled reason, grounded in the nature of the history at issue, for the temporalities or periodizations by which we relate it. Eureka! Contrary to the prevailing epistemological mood of pessimistic self-reflection—which is too often self-reproach for laying presentist concerns on a past that seemingly offers no resistance to the historian's manipulations—the structures of and in history impose some strong limits on our hubris.

New York Yankees pennant run, 1939
New York Yankees pennant run, 1939

There was no pennant race in the American League in 1939, no turning point, no contest (fig. 2.1). Minor day-to-day fluctuations apart, right from the beginning the Yankees progressively distanced themselves from the competition, to end the season with an extraordinary seventeen-game advantage over (who else?) the Boston Red Sox. For the same reason, there were no decisive, pennant-winning acts or heroes. Although certain Yankee players had outstanding years, and one or another may have made an outstanding play to decide a particular game, neither any individual performance nor any specific event can adequately respond to the question (in effect) posed by Hexter, how did the Yankees come to win the pennant? To understand this history of progressive domination, it suffices to demonstrate the Yankees' superiority as a team, over the whole season, in the critical baseball functions of hitting, fielding, and pitching. The historical subject is the collective, and accordingly the relevant historical factors are its properties as a collective. Or as Hexter put it: "There is nothing to do but analyze the betterness of New York [the Yankees], to seek out its ingredients and render them intelligible to the reader". At this point, any baseball fan becomes a cliometrician, adducing the readily available statistics on team play: batting average, fielding percentage, home runs, runs scored, earned run average of starting pitchers, saves-to-blown-saves of relief pitchers, and so on. That's why the Yankees won the pennant. Yet not to overlook the shape and measures of Hexter's diagram of the season. They tell the history in a certain temporality as well as a certain agency.

The form of historical change at issue here, a long-term developmental change, valorizes one or another scheme of periodization, as most suitable to describe it. Although Hexter does not explicitly discuss the choice, the time periods he adopts to diagrammatically relate the 1939 season are equal, precisely so that they can show the Yankees' domination as a long-term trend. Moreover, they are of sufficient duration, four-week intervals, to ensure that this trajectory is neither exaggerated nor obscured. Longer periods would have misleadingly represented the Yankees' success as a rocket launch. A day-by-day account, by its oscillations, would not answer directly to the question of why the Yankees won out, inasmuch as no particular game or stretch of games decided the pennant. In contrast, the Giants' victory of 1951 was precisely another "story."

To explicate the Giants' victory, says Hexter, one has to conform to the logical rules of "storytelling"—which he proceeds to do in practice, without explicitly telling us what the rules are. He does say that fiction can serve as a guide: an observation that Don DeLillo recently confirmed (if rather in reverse, art following life) by making the story of the decisive game between the Giants and Dodgers the opening chapter and repeated refrain of his novel Underworld. Perhaps Hexter remained reticent about the rhetorical logic he adopted because he did not ask the question that would motivate it. The critical question was not the one he posed, "How did the New York Giants happen to play in the World Series of 1951?" The critical question was: How did the Giants overtake the Dodgers to win the pennant (and thus play in the World Series)? For what happened, again, was a specific kind of historical change: the overthrow, at the last possible moment and thus in dramatic fashion, of a longstanding relationship between the two teams or, if you will, the competing collective subjects. Here was a reversal of the order of things, a structural change that qualifies Bobby Thomson's home run as a historic event, even as it qualified him as a hero, a history-maker. And it is from this revolutionary d‰nouement, working backward, that we discover and rhetorically motivate the tempos, turning points, and agents of our history. The structural reversal in the story is the determining principle of historical value and relevance, a telos that rules the organization of the account. Historical storytelling is the retelling from the beginning of an outcome already known, that knowledge guiding the selection (from the archive) of the successive events of the narrative. It is as François Furet said: "every evenemential history is a teleological history; only the end of the history permits one to choose and understand the events of which it is fabricated.”

New York Giants pennant run, 1951
New York Giants pennant run, 1951

So Hexter chose to begin his story of the 1951 pennant race more than halfway through the season, on 11 August, because this was the turning point, the beginning of the reversal, although no one could have known it at the time (fig. 2.2). Indeed, around this time Charlie Dressen, the Dodgers' manager, made his famous pronouncement, "The Giants is dead." At the end of play on 11 August the Dodgers held a thirteen-game lead on the Giants, the most they would ever attain. The next day the Giants began a sixteen-game winning streak, cutting the Dodgers' advantage to six games. Note that although Hexter does not diagram it, he does remark that the Dodgers' performance in the several months prior to 11 August resembled the Yankees' pennant run of 1939. Presumably it would be periodized appropriately as a long-term trend and explained analogously by the Dodgers' "betterness" as a team. From 11 August, however, the appropriate historiographic form changes from "analysis" to "storytelling," a difference of narrative mode marked by corollary differences in temporality and agency. Time is progressively magnified. The account that began in months will end in moments, ultimately one final moment of perhaps ten seconds, the home run. And at a certain point in time, individual subjects replace collectives. The account that began with the relative performances of the Dodgers and the Giants will end with Bobby Thomson at the plate.

Beginning on 12 August the historical tempo picks up, and Hexter accordingly periodizes it in shorter and shorter stretches of time. (This is represented in his diagram by the lengthening of daily intervals along the horizontal axis [fig. 2.2].) By "historical tempo" one usually means something like the density of events over a given time span, recognizing that the condition for what counts as an event is the pertinence of the happening to the final outcome. In the present instance, then, what should motivate and demarcate the historical periods are the times when the relationship between the teams changed substantially—that is, when the Giants made significant ground on the front-running Dodgers. As Hexter indicates, there are a couple of reasonable alternatives, but one cannot go wrong in choosing: first, a span of about a month, from 12 August to 14 September, when the Giants closed to and maintained a position about six games back; and second, the period from 15 September to the end of the season on 30 September, when two Giant winning streaks allowed them to catch and tie the Dodgers. The league season ends in a draw. The teams move into a best-of-three series for the pennant.

Since each game of the playoff significantly affects the teams' positions, we change now to a day-by-day account. On 1 October, the Giants win, 3 to 1, but the next day the Dodgers tie the series, winning 10 to 0. The whole season now devolves upon the final game of 3 October. This sort of structural compression is a hallmark of evenemential history: the working out of a long history in a short time and of macro-relationships in micro-acts. Indeed, it is the event, by the changes it effects, that brings time past and greater social order to bear—that, as it were, reifies them and embodies them in particular actors. History indeed becomes what Alcibiades did and what he suffered. Or, in this case, what Bobby Thomson did and Ralph Branca suffered.

With everything riding on the one game of 3 October, we are virtually down to an inning-by-inning description. More precisely, the narrative tempo shifts to a changing-score-by-inning account, since that would be a succinct indication of the two teams' pennant chances. Brooklyn goes ahead, 1 to 0, in the first inning and holds the lead until the bottom of the seventh, when the Giants tie the score. One whole season, two playoff games, and seven more innings: they are still deadlocked. But the Dodgers score 3 in the top of the eighth and carry the lead into the bottom of the ninth, the Giants' last bats. Of course, individual players could have been introduced into the narrative of this game thus far: as DeLillo does, for example, although sparingly. But until the final inning, the whole season did not come down to what particular players did. Now it does.

(Need I remind you of the U.S. presidential election of 2000, where the outcome likewise, by virtue of the structure of the conjuncture, was decided by what a few people did or did not do? Authorized as difference-makers were the likes of Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state, and Antonin Scalia, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who used the advantage of his two votes to the other justices' one to enforce the opinion that if the Florida vote were recounted, it would damage the legitimacy of Dubya's presidency—presumably by showing that Al Gore won.)

Last of the ninth, Don Newcombe, who started the game, still pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The first man up for the Giants, Al Dark, singles to right: a ground ball that barely eludes the Dodger first baseman, Gil Hodges. Man on first. Hodges—or the manager, Dressen—elects to hold the runner on instead of moving to a fielding position between first and second, where the next Giants batter, Mueller, promptly hits a ground ball single, Dark going to third. (History does not record who decided to hold the runner, but as the cognoscenti know, and the consequences show, it was a bad baseball decision, since Dark was no threat to steal second in that situation, down 4 to 2 with the heart of the order coming up.) Monte Irvin pops out. Then Whitey Lockman, a lefthanded hitter, strokes an opposite-field double over third base, Dark scoring, Mueller stopping at third. (Hurt sliding into third, Mueller is carried off the field and replaced by a pinch runner.) It is 4 to 2 Dodgers, one out, Giants' runners on second and third, Bobby Thomson the next scheduled batter. Dressen decides his pitcher Don Newcombe is out of gas and replaces him with Ralph Branca. On the advice of his bullpen coach, which ordinarily Charlie Dressen never even solicited, much less took, Branca was chosen to replace Newcombe rather than Carl Erskine, who was also warming up. Dressen used Branca despite that Thomson had homered off him in the first playoff game—indeed, ten of the seventeen homers Branca had allowed that season were by the Giants, as well as five of his eleven losses. Obviously, such decisions, including the positioning of Hodges after Dark's leadoff single, were crucial. We could go behind them, but that way lies chaos (theory), since all previous acts were necessary to the outcome and none as such won the pennant for the Giants. What won the pennant was Bobby Thomson's home run. So stepping in against Branca, "the Scot from Staten Island," the third baseman Thomson, born in Glasgow, hitting a respectable .292 percentage for the year with a team-leading thirty-one home runs. And as we thus focus in on the ultimate actors, we go into slow motion.

In the final extension of time, it is pitch by pitch. The first pitch is a waist-high fastball that Thomson lets go for a strike. It was a good hitter's pitch, but Thomson unaccountably did not offer. The next is a high inside curve. Thomson tomahawks it into the lower left-field stands. A home run. Three runs score. The Giants win the game. The Giants win the pennant. Over the uproar, the astonished Giants' radio announcer, Russ Hodges, shouts it again and again: "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" The Brooklyn announcer, the incomparable Red Barber, in what has been called the most eloquent description of baseball ever broadcast, falls completely silent for fifty-nine seconds. Next day the famous sportswriter, Red Smith, anticipating Don DeLillo, writes that indeed henceforth, art can only follow life: "Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic can ever be plausible again."

The Giants' implausible season became "The Miracle of Coogan's Bluff" (the site of their ballpark, the Polo Grounds). Bobby Thomson's home run was "the shot heard round the world." Every red-blooded American baseball fan of a certain age remembers where he or she was when listening to the broadcast of Thomson's great feat—just as they remember the news of Pearl Harbor, the death of Franklin Roosevelt, the assassination of President Kennedy. After first writing that sentence, I came across the following passage on Bobby Thomson's home run in Jules Tygiel's Past Time: Baseball as History:

"It was likely the most dramatic and shocking event in American sports and has since taken on the transcendent historical character of Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination," observed journalist George W. Hunt in 1990. "Anyone alive then and vaguely interested can answer with tedious exactitude the question `Where were you when you heard it?'"

Perhaps we have underestimated sport the way we underestimate talk about the weather, as the integument of an otherwise divided and only imagined community. Tygiel notes DeLillo's musing on this score: "Isn't it possible that this midcentury moment [i.e., Bobby Thomson's homer] enters the skin more lastingly than the vast shaping strategies of eminent leaders, generals steely in their sunglasses—the mapped visions that pierce our dreams?"

So is it truly chutzpah to put "the shot Heard round the world" on the same plane as the Peloponnesian War or the 2000 U.S. presidential election? Hexter said Thomson's homer was "the equivalent (in its sphere) of the defeat of the Armada, the battle of Stalingrad, the Normandy landings."

Or else, in the same hyperbolic vein, it was the equivalent of the Copernican Revolution. The difference between the types of historical change we have been discussing seems much like Thomas Kuhn's famous distinction between revolutionary "paradigm shifts" and "normal science"—the first described in such terms as "breakthrough" and "transformation," the second as "progressive" and "cumulative"—as much in their respective temporalities and agencies as in their dynamic forms. Like the Yankees' 1939 pennant, normal science is the working out of a developmental trend, as initiated by a breakthrough scientific discovery or theoretical formulation. The filling-out of the periodic table of the elements, for example. So the historiography of normal science, in Kuhn's treatment, is much like Hexter's "analysis." The historical subject is likewise collective and by and large anonymous, being "the scientific community," "the profession," or sometimes "normal science" itself. This community "knows" what the world is like, shows "willingness" to defend its assumptions, or else "goes astray," to the point that it can no longer "evade" the experimental anomalies that "threaten" it, and so forth—again, a collective, nonhuman person. But when Kuhn speaks of scientific revolutions, the narrative register shifts to actual persons. Paradigm shifts indeed take individual proper names—Newtonian dynamics, Copernican astronomy, Einsteinian relativity. True that Kuhn confesses to certain regrets about "the unfortunate simplification that tags an extended historical episode with a single and somewhat arbitrarily chosen name (e.g. Newton or Franklin)." And he has related misgivings about the event-character of paradigm shifts. Considering the discovery of oxygen and the end to phlogiston-thinking, for example, he denies that the breakthrough can be dated to a specific moment or attributed to a particular person—although by his own account it is datable to a finite period of a few years and concerned a restricted cast of characters (Priestly, Lavoisier, Scheele, and Bayen). In any case, and in contrast to the progressive trends of normal science, a paradigm shift is "relatively sudden," as Kuhn says, and "emerges first in the mind of one or a few individuals." Now we are into "storytelling" à la Hexter, and indeed, in some passages, observations something like the folkloric traditions of culture heroes: "Sometimes the shape of a new paradigm is foreshadowed.…More often…the new paradigm or a sufficient hint to permit later articulation, emerges all at once, sometimes in the middle of the night, in the mind of a man deeply immersed in crisis."

We seem to be on to something. Going back to Thucydides, it would be extravagant to suppose that the appearance of individuals and collectives in his History always marks the difference between turning points and progressive changes, if only because such actors serve various other narrative functions besides agency, notably including identity. The issue is better understood the other way round, whether or not the two kinds of historical change are marked by this difference in the historical subject. It would seem so, considering the anonymity or near-anonymity that attends Thucydides' descriptions of the development of the Athenian arche or the cyclical Spartan invasions of Attica and other such indecisive maneuvers, by comparison to Themistocles' or Pericles' maritime strategies, Brasidas' extraordinary victories in Thrace, the roles of Alcibiades, Nicias, Hermocrates, and Ephemus in the Sicilian campaign, and other such interventions of particular persons that altered the political course or changed the correlations of military force. Even Thucydides' identifications of speech-makers seem to follow the rule. They are collective and anonymous, "the Athenians" or "the Melians," for example, when it is a question of rehearsing the received policies of the cities they represent; or again, when arguing for the continuation of a certain status quo—e.g., the Athenians who tried to convince the Spartans to maintain the peace in 432. But when it is a question of going to war or deciding on a fateful strategy, the speakers are generally individually identified. Even Diodotus, the one who convinced the Athenians not to exterminate the Mytileneans: he seems to prove the rule, since it was only by virtue of this speech that his name has passed into history; otherwise, we know nothing about him. So without making greater claims for the relationships between types of historical agency and modes of historical change, allowing that we have hardly exhausted and vastly oversimplified the issue of the acting historical subject, the seeming correlation does raise interesting questions about the situational and organizational conditions that empower one or another kind of history-maker.

Or are we just mired in the old epistemic murk of "the great man theory of history" and the even more ancient quicksands of the "individual versus society"? It is worth taking time out to do some archaeology of these questions: not exactly a Foucauldian excavation, but at least something like a surface survey.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 127-38 of Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa by Marshall Sahlins, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Marshall Sahlins
Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa
©2004, 320 pages, 19 halftones, 9 maps, 13 line drawings
Cloth $30.00 ISBN: 0-226-73400-5

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