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OBITER DICTA EX CATHEDRA
Vannevar Bush
December 01, 1958
Or, some passing remarks from the halls of science by a wise and witty man who proves that the ivory tower has a view—including a view of sports. And so we introduce Dr. Vannevar Bush, spectator sports expert, chairman of the corporation of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leader of scientists—and a host of his colleagues, whose interests, as shown here, range from boxing through sailing to driving hot cars
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December 01, 1958

Obiter Dicta Ex Cathedra

Or, some passing remarks from the halls of science by a wise and witty man who proves that the ivory tower has a view—including a view of sports. And so we introduce Dr. Vannevar Bush, spectator sports expert, chairman of the corporation of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leader of scientists—and a host of his colleagues, whose interests, as shown here, range from boxing through sailing to driving hot cars

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But as to other sins. In so-called professional football, which is that aspect of the business which does not use apprentices, the coach often runs the show, and the quarterback takes his orders from him. Rotating guards bring in the plays. Spotters on the roof phone the coach to apprise him of enemy weaknesses. Maybe this wins games, which helps gate receipts. I doubt it. More likely it caters to the coaches' conviction that father knows best. But I am not interested in the coaches' egos. I do enjoy watching a clever youngster thinking and planning stratagems clearly, while burly opponents knock him all over the lot without being able to jar his generalship. Substitutions, yes; someone on the sidelines has to judge these, for safety against injury due to exhaustion, for one thing. But, for my money, let the players play the game.

Baseball, for all its virtues, is not entirely immune from this, either. Obviously, there needs to be a system of signals for, let's say, a squeeze play, and the pitcher needs to signal if he is going to try a pickoff at second base. But why should the batter take orders on what to do on the next pitch from the third-base coach? And why should a pitcher be ordered to give an intentional pass, usually much to the disgust of the fans?

In tennis the officials do not do much, and I understand they do not get paid much. Mostly they sit in chairs and remark on whether a ball hits a line. They are often reviled and treated to hard looks. Part of this is for the purpose of causing a pause, for management has found that if the customers waggle their heads from port to starboard without interruption some necks crack, and this leads to damage suits. The pauses also enhance the impression that tennis players are temperamental, like artists. Otherwise, tennis is a polite sport, and the audience is anxious to give the impression of affluence. For example, in tennis if the ball goes into the stands it is usually returned to the field, whereas in other sports if a customer gets his hands on the projectile he steals it.

An extraordinary thing is that bowling has become a sport exploited for public entertainment. There's a game for you! No officials in sight, no penalties for getting involved with your opponent. No doubt about results; a pin either falls down or stands up, it does not continue indefinitely to wobble uncertainly. Suspense of a sort. I recently watched a chap named King bowl a perfect game and make 20 strikes in succession. On the 20th I was sitting on the edge of my chair, even though I was just a TV viewer without the contagion of excitement that goes with a crowd. I wish I could see slow movies of a strike; there must be some in existence. I cannot make out why a properly placed and properly rotating ball knocks all 10 pins down, while a deviation of an inch leaves some standing. One complaint I have about bowling is monotony—the more skilled the players, the more cut and dried it seems to be. I would like to see real experts play a game in which there would be no score except when a ball left just one pin standing up. Another complaint is that the employees' salaries seem to me to be a bit meager. But it is a good game, even for a show.

Would anyone think offhand that a show could be made out of a golf game? It is a bit sticky in this regard. The reason for success, no doubt, is that there are more real nuts in this country on the subject of golf than on any other subject of public interest, even including rock 'n' roll. They have to have a special rule for the case where a pitch shot goes into the pocket of one of the gallery. Every time I watch such a contest I hear gripes that the putts are just as important as the other shots. They are, from a scoring standpoint. But a drive or an approach shot can involve an appalling amount of skill, and a putt simply involves an appalling amount of luck. Maybe a putt should count only half a shot. I would like to watch a game in which putts were omitted and the players were considered holed out as soon as they were on the green. Anything to speed it up; it is too slow for my blood. Perhaps someone will put on a match in which strokes do not count, players hit at will and the first chap into the 18th hole wins. It would at least take extra fat off the players.

Speaking of slowness, one of the sins in sport for mass entertainment is delay. If baseball does not do something about it, the fans will do so, by watching hockey, or maybe lacrosse or soccer, both of which, incidentally, are excellent. The pitcher steps on the rubber, holds long communion with the catcher as to what to do next, steps off, mops his brow, being careful not to get any sweat on the ball, of course, steps back on. About that time the batter steps out. Finally, the pitcher actually throws a ball. Then he and the catcher forgather and chat. Then a new pitcher comes in, walking slowly from the bullpen a quarter mile or so away, throws a series of warmup pitches, although he has been warming up for half an hour, and so on. The heck with it!

However, I think I know the reason. Baseball is an old sport; it has been over the bumps and has learned. For one thing, it has learned that the public does not cotton to a situation where the officials are too much in evidence, where they are exhibiting their erudition and impressing the crowd with their authority. Hence, umpires hesitate to enforce rules which would speed up the game. They have my encouragement to do just that. And when football officials have learned as much they will be a whole lot less in evidence, and football will be a better game.

Speaking of reforms, there is one more I wish baseball would universally adopt. It has taken years to get major league batters to wear hard hats at the plate, and even now the system is barely accepted. We do not, any of us, like to hear of a chap getting a fractured skull while doing his best to entertain us. Yet individuals will not wear protection unless all do, and top management will not order it until the public insists in one way or another. Baseball players still wear spikes. Don't tell me they are necessary for footing; I have seen better examples of maintaining footing in a soccer game in sneakers. In fact, I suspect sneakers would be a lot more secure on a wet baseball field. I like to see a chap slide into second violently to try to break up a double play, and I like to see the second baseman pop up into the air and deliver the ball to first. But I do not like to see spikes thrown at the chap. We have no bullfight mentality, I hope, when watching a ball game.

A word now about sportswriters. There are, of course, excellent sports-writers. I admire them and sympathize with them. I wonder how they survive and whether they get paid much. The writers that I turn to educate me on the fine points of the game that I do not understand. But in spite of their best efforts, I am still foggy on a lot of things. I wish they would tell me whether I am all wrong on a lot of opinions I have written in this treatise. For example, about basketball. Perhaps I just don't understand it and really ought to regard basketball as a worthy effort.

Oh, the TV commercials. I almost forgot to comment on those. Some of them are deucedly clever, and I wonder who thought them up and how they execute the trick photography. I believe they actually sell me things, which is, after all, their object. And I feel a sort of obligation to be receptive, because the outfit which put them on is paying for my entertainment and paying plenty. But there are several kinds that annoy me and cause me to resolve never to buy the product.

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