SI Vault
John Steinbeck
December 20, 1965
Long before he became one of America's foremost authors, John Steinbeck worked for a fish and game commission. The job, perhaps, trained him to see with a naturalist's eye, for his novels have been notably filed with simple, moving descriptions of nature and man's relationship to it. In his most recent book, "Travels with Charley," Steinbeck used the essay form to make succinct observations about his country and its people. It turned out, as he now says, that "sports get into everything." He fished with a stranger. He raised his rifle on a coyote and could not shoot it. He found that "when a Texas football team takes the field against a foreign state, it is an army with banners." With this in mind, Senior Editor Ray Cave asked Mr. Steinbeck to write an essay on sport. His answer was no. It follows.
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December 20, 1965

Then My Arm Glassed Up

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My own participation in sports has been completely undistinguished. I once threw the javelin rather promisingly until my arm glassed up. Once I was fairly good at boxing, mainly because I hated it and wanted to get it over with and to get out. This is not boxing but fighting.

My feeling about hunting has made me pretty unpopular. I have nothing against the killing of animals if there is any need. I did, can and always will kill anything I need or want to eat, including relatives. But the killing of large animals just to prove we can does not indicate to me that we are superior to animals but a kind of deep-down feeling that we are not. A room full of stuffed and glass-eyed heads always gives me a feeling of sadness for the man so unsure of himself that he has constantly to prove himself and to keep the evidence for others to see. What I do admire and respect is our memory of a time when hunting was a very large part of our economy. We preserve this memory intact even though we now have a larger mortality in hunters than in game.

I must admit that I have enjoyed two stuffed specimens on public display. They were in Moscow in Red Square, and thousands of people went by to see them. Since then the more dangerous of the two has been removed from public view, but for the wrong reasons.

I find the so-called blood sports like fox hunting charming and sometimes ravishingly beautiful. Besides, fox hunting serves the useful purpose of preventing population explosion in the gentry and increasing the number of fine horses. The fox population doesn't seem to be affected one way or another.

I love a certain kind of fishing above all other so-called sports. It is almost the last remaining way for a man to be alone without being suspected of some secret sin. By fishing without bait it is even possible to avoid being disturbed by fish. I am surprised that the dour brotherhood of psychoanalysts has not attacked fishing, since it seems to me it is in competition. Two hours with a fishing rod is worth 10 hours on the couch and very much less expensive.

My passion for fishing does not extend to big-game fishing. While I admire the strength, skill and endurance of the men who do it well, I have found that after a time the cranking in of sea monsters becomes damned hard work. And many a man who would resist to the death carrying a bucket of coal up to a second-floor fireplace will break his heart struggling with a fish he is going to kill, photograph and throw away. I have studied fish both zoologically and ecologically, and once long ago I worked for the California Fish and Game Commission, where I helped at the birth and raising of a good many millions of trout. At that time I learned to admire them but not greatly to respect their intelligence. And it has seemed to me that a man who can outthink fish may have a great future, but it will be limited to fish. His acquired knowledge will do him little good at a Sunday-school picnic or a board meeting.

Nearly all sports as we know them seem to be memories and in a way ceremonial reenactments of situations that were once of paramount importance to our survival. For example, jousting in the 16th century was an expensive and mannered playback of the tactics of the heavy armed cavalry of the late Roman Empire. Our own once noble cavalry, which was eliminated by the machine gun and the armoured car, became the tank corps. It is interesting how symbols persist. Tank officers, at least until a few years ago, still wore spurs with their dress uniforms.

Not only are our former triumphs remembered in sports, but some of our ancient fears. The hatred and terror of sharks familiar to all sailors in history have made shark hunting very popular. There is almost a feeling of glory and sacrificial punishment in the shark hunter. He kills these great and interesting animals not only with glee but with a sense of administering justice to a cruel and hated enemy. The carcasses are usually thrown away after photographing. There is utterly no understanding that sharks may well be factors in an intricate ecological balance. Edible sharks, such as the leopards, the whites and the makos, are rarely eaten, and it is never considered that the increase in the shark population has not to do with a shark dynamism but rather that we are dumping more and more shark-edible garbage at sea.

You see, my interest in sports is catholic but cool. I don't expect you will believe that I once sent for a mail-order course in alligator wrestling complete with a practice alligator, so I will not tell you this.

Yes, my interest in sports is quiet but deep. I am particularly drawn to the game of rounders, which we call baseball. I would be wrong to call it a sport. I don't think the players have a real sporting attitude toward it. Mostly they want to win because if they win they get more money. In baseball I like the audience almost better than the game. I guess that is why I am a Met fan. But for many years our household was torn to pieces emotionally every year. My wife was a Dodger fan born and bred in Fort Worth, which is, or was, a Dodger farm. Every year, she went through the fervency, the hope, the prayer, the shining eyes and the loud and raucous voice and, finally, after the season the dark and deadly gloom and despair that lasted clear into spring-training time. I guess our family devoted more pure spiritual energy to the Dodgers than to any other religious organization. This, of course, was before they defected to the West. Any kind of skulduggery and ineptness my wife could Forgive and even defend, but treason she could not take. She is a Met fan now, and our house is whole again.

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