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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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Early on, to save arguments, I became an Oriole fan and even bought a little stock in that club. If you were for anyone else you got an argument, but if you said you were an Oriole fan people just laughed and let you alone. I thought I had a guarantee that they would stay on the bottom, but now they have doublecrossed me by climbing up. I nearly went to the Senators, because there is a federal law which forbids them to win. Then the Mets happened, and I was stuck.

Baseball brings out a kind of pugnacious frustration in foreigners. Once as guests of a very old and dear friend in London, we were at Lord's watching a sedate and important cricket match. When a player let a fast ball go by, my wife yelled, "Git it! What ya got, lead in ya pants?" A deathly silence fell on the section around us, and it was apparent that our host would have to resign from all his clubs. After-ward he lectured her gently. "My dear," he said, "we don't do it."

" Peewee Reese would of got it," said my elegant moglie.

"Don't tell me about baseball," said our host. "It's only rounders, and I know all about it. Don't forget, I, too, have been to Egbert's Field." There is no way to explain that baseball is not a sport or a game or a contest. It is a state of mind, and you can't learn it.

You will be aware by now of my reasons for not being able to write a piece about sports for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. My interests are too scattered and too unorthodox. But I do find the American cult of youth, violence and coronaries a little unreasonable. It does seem to me that "as life's shadows lengthen" our so-called senior citizens should have competitive sports, but that the pace should be reduced. Turtle racing won't do, because it is dull. But, being lazy, I invented some years ago a sport which satisfied my ego and my sense of competition and matched my inclination. It is called vine racing. Each contestant plants a seed beside a pole of specified height, and the first vine to reach the lop wins. There are, however, some furious vines which have been known to grow 10 inches a day—which might in some owner-managers raise the blood pressure. For these passionate ones, among whom am I, I have laid out the ground rules for an even more sedate and healthful contest. This is oak-tree racing. Each of the eager players plants an acorn. The obvious advantage of this contest is that, depending on the agreed finishing height, it may go on for generations. At the cry, "They're off!" the fancy could enjoy all semblance of growth and renewal until the checkered flag came down 300 years later. By that time the original contestants should be represented by large numbers of descendants, for tree racing allows one the leisure to indulge in other sports, the darlings.

I should like to mention one more activity which only the Anglo-Saxons consider a sport and hate and attend in droves. That is bullfighting. In this I have gone full course, read, studied, watched and shared. From the first horror I went to the mortal beauty, the form and exquisiteness from ver�nica to faena. I have seen a great main bullfights (it is only called a fight in English). I even saw Manolete fight a number of times, which is more than Ernest Hemingway did. And I have seen a few great and beautiful things in the bullring. There are only a few, and you must see very many fights to see the great one. But I suppose there are very few great anythings in the world. How many great sonnets are there? How many great plays? For that matter, how many great wines?

I think I have been through most of the possible feelings about tauromachy, rising eventually to the sublime conception that the incomparable bravery of the matador somehow doled out courage to the audience. Oh! this was not blind and ignorant celebration. I hung around the rings. I knew about the underweight bulls, the sandbags on the kidneys, the shaved horns and sometimes the needle of barbiturate in the shoulder as the gate swung open. But there was also that moment of what they call truth, a sublimity, a halo of the invincible human spirit and unspeakable, beautiful courage.

And then doubt began to creep in. The matadors I knew had souls of Toledo steel for the bull, but they were terrified of their impresarios, pulp in the hands of their critics and avaricious beyond belief. Perhaps they gave the audience a little courage of a certain kind, but not the kind the audience and the world needed and needs. I have yet to hear of a bullfighter who has taken a dangerous political stand, who has fought a moral battle unless its horns were shaved. It began to seem to me that this superb courage could be put to better uses than the ritual slaughter of bulls in the afternoon. One Ed Murrow standing up to take the charge of an enraged McCarthy, one little chicken-necked Negro going into a voting booth in Alabama, one Dag Hammarskjold flying to his death and knowing it—this is the kind of courage we need, because in the end it is not the bulls that will defeat us, I am afraid, but our own miserable, craven and covetous selves.

So you see, Ray Cave, it was a mistake to ask me to write an essay about sports. Hell, I don't even know the batting average of Eddie Kranepool.

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