George Jean Nathan, Baiting the umpire

I haven’t posted on the last few Library of America stories, mainly due to lack of time and the fact that they’ve been by well-known writers anyhow. However, the one that lobbed in this week, “Baiting the umpire” by George Jean Nathan, looked rather intriguing and so I read it. It is really an essay, but a satirical one, rather than a short story – and is about the “sport” of baseball.

According to the accompanying notes, George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) was an “acerbic theater critic” and worked, for some time at least, with “his partner in venom” H.L. Mencken.

Mad baseball player

Mad baseball player (Courtesy: OCAL,

The essay starts with describing baseball as the “national side-show” and argues that “baiting umpires is the real big-tent entertainment”.  Using word play, hyperbole, rhetorical questions and mock-heroic comparisons (equating baseball with a Spanish bullfight and likening the “bleachers”/spectators to matadors, and in a cultural leap equating baseball promoters with Solons), Nathan goes on to suggest that the only reason Americans enjoy baseball is for the “sport” of baiting (“killing”) the umpire. He provides examples of countries where baseball hadn’t (we are talking 1909 here) taken off, such as Japan, and suggests that the reason for this is that the Japanese accept the umpire’s rulings!

In Australia, however, and here my ears picked up, he said they went about introducing baseball the right way:

In Victoria, Australia, where a determined effort is being made to popularize baseball, the prime movers in the campaign, appreciating full well the important and necessary relation that killing-the-umpire bears to the game, have tried the novel experiment of working up the hostile spirit towards the referee by playing the baseball contests – all or in part – before the huge football crowds. These crowds are demonstrative in the extreme, and it is hoped by the baseball promoters that part of the excess football emotional tumult may, in time, be directed against the umpires, thus insuring the success of the game…

Hmmm…well, 100 years later baseball is, I know, played here but I’m not sure to the extent that you’d call it a success. Maybe our football crowds decided they liked something more to their games than simply baiting the umpire! In fact, from my own admittedly superficial experience, I think it is a more popular game in polite Japan than it is here. His other example of a surefire success for baseball is the Sandwich Islands where … well, that will give away the punchline and I don’t want to do that. Read it … it’s short and will give you a chuckle if nothing else.

Meanwhile, I will conclude with one little observation. As an Australian, I have always been bemused by the notion of World Series baseball in which the only teams playing are from the USA and Canada. Now that would have been an interesting topic for Nathan to explore!

8 thoughts on “George Jean Nathan, Baiting the umpire

  1. I love the way one of the commenters on the story has to write

    “Lighten up, folks, you’ve missed the point. This story contains elements of both satire and irony” – its often said that Americans don’t “do” irony.

    The Library of America site looks really interesting.

    • Yes, I thought that was funny too …. particularly when the story starts with bullfights and matadors! It is a good site and has introduced me to some writers I’d never heard of before.

  2. “In fact, from my own admittedly superficial experience, I think it is a more popular game in polite Japan than it is here.”

    From my own superficial experience I’d say you’re right. In Japan you can (or could, when I was there) buy bobblehead dolls of baseball players — here, you’d barely know the game exists.

      • You made me curious, so I looked it up. According to Wikipedia, the World Series is solely a North American competition. “It is played between the League Championship Series winning clubs from MLB’s two circuits, the American and National Leagues,” and no one else. The only Japanese players in the World Series are the ones who have migrated over to join North American baseball teams. (Like Ichiro, who was huge last time I was in Japan, and, I think, still is.)

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