They do much better in hockey. Here all sorts of mayhem are allowed and enjoyed, but certain types are frowned on. A player, Joe Doakes of the Colossi, for instance, manipulates his club in such manner on the skate of an opponent that the latter's center of support is irretrievably displaced from the vertical through his center of gravity. This is called tripping. The officer in this case blows a whistle and invites Joe to sit in a penalty box for two minutes, where he can watch the game readily but not participate. The interest in the game is not spoiled, it is enhanced, for Joe's comrades are now outnumbered and strive mightily to prevent catastrophe before Joe rejoins them. The effect of enforced idleness on Joe is also said to be salutary.
Basketball seems to be the worst offender in regard to this subject of penalties. I never could make out the rules of this sport; they are very subtle. Slim Tower may be proceeding down the hall, accompanied by the ball, which is propelled by oscillation between hand and floor. This seems to be all right; he can either hold onto the ball or move but is not permitted to do both simultaneously. Then Slim collides violently with an opponent, Hi Elevation. The whistle blows, and Slim is presented with a chance to propel the sphere through a draped orifice without interference, scoring a point. The question is: Did Slim run into Hi or Hi into Slim? Maybe the officer can tell; I can't. And a penalty every minute takes all the fun out of watching the game, at least for me. I much prefer hockey where, if one contestant clouts another with his implement, there isn't any doubt about who socked whom.
This leads to a discussion of fixing, which is a very sore subject. Let me assert at once that nearly all officials in any sport are undoubtedly honest, rigorously ethical, professional men, who certainly earn their salaries. I make this statement lest the reader think I am cynical. But in every business there have to be safeguards against the small minority of those who are dishonest or who do not understand the system fully or who are misled by evildoers. They need to be prevented from committing acts which are illegal, meaning contrary to the law, or unethical, meaning injurious to the business or, more broadly, to the public. This last is on the basis that what is good for sport is good for the country. Now in business we have audits and inventory counts. It seems to me that the same should be true in sport—i.e., that there would be more public confidence and support in sport if a real effort were made to render the acts of officials in every sport clear-cut and, as far as possible, in the open, where the paying guests can audit them. After all, we have had scandals. Baseball survived one by rigorous action. Basketball has had them and has gone on its way without much change.
What involves openness? Well, take baseball. Lon Chancy and the ball are simultaneously and rapidly approaching first base, and a blue-coated official is observing the impacts. He spreads his arms in an Eastern salaam, which means that, in his judgment, the foot impacted the canvas pillow some tenths of a second before the ball contacted the leather of the glove. The stands roar condemnation or approval, according to their prejudices. But the next morning's paper carries a clear photograph of the action, showing the foot some inches above the pillow while the ball is securely captured. It may be too late to change the decision, but this sort of thing ensures that the official will be careful and objective for, if he is unduly erratic, his employment as an official will be in jeopardy.
It is not quite as positive an affair in regard to calling balls and strikes. The patent office is full of schemes for helping in this matter, using vertical light beams and photocells and the like. The TV camera in the outfield, which looks at the plate as though it were right behind the pitcher's box, is an enormous help. An umpire is far more constrained to objectivity by the presence of such a gadget than he is by the positively expressed remonstrations of Casey Stengel. He knows that the latter are merely a part of showmanship; that he, too, is dependent upon public interest and that he can occasionally, but not too often, enhance the enthusiasm of the cash customers by ordering the great Casey to the clubhouse. (The usual expression, I know, is ordering to the showers. But Casey does not get any exercise, so he does not need a bath.)
Another aspect of success in appeal to a mass audience is that scoring should be a rare event, built up to by strategy and a succession of purposeful acts. It is all to the good if the customers grasp the strategy partly but not fully. It is also a help if the viewers believe the strategy is being worked out by the so-called players. Yet there are all sorts of sins in this regard.
Hockey has done well. It has introduced rules, clearly understood by the initiated, involving offside and icing. These are designed to cause the attackers to carry the puck toward the opponents' goal rather than just to pass. They also allow fattening up the goal tender, by one appendage or another, until his projection on the designated opening of the cage covers a large fraction of the useful area. The result is that goals are rare: they come only after well-planned and executed teamwork, apparent to all, and each goal constitutes an event.
Much of the lure of baseball is likewise due to suspense. The trailing team fills the bases, by inviting bases on balls, by hit and run, and by other well-known stratagems. The power hitter then comes up to the plate and strikes out, and the fans are desolate or delighted.
Football has this element par excellence. The goal-line stand, foiled by a courageous pass, brings the crowd to its feet. The quarterback, who pulls in the defense by successive successful line plunges and then pops one over the line to an uncovered end, rouses the customers, because they were all vicariously in his predicament and searching for a neat surprise.
The worst is basketball. Goals occur every few seconds, when the game is not interrupted by penalties, which it is most of the time. There is no suspense, except on the final score, and this is likely to be 110 to 104. If there is strategy it appears to be ephemeral. The reader may gather that I do not think much of the sport of basketball. I do not. I think it ought to be radically revised or prohibited by law.