Bernard Shaw wrote that the United States and Britain are divided by a common language. Perhaps, before the spread of soccer here, it would have been more germane to say that they were divided by irreconcilable sports.
Baseball, except in its rudimentary, original form of rounders, a game for girls, has never caught on in England. Gridiron football is simply incomprehensible; as I found Friday night at RFK Stadium.
Before last week, I had never watched either sport at major league level; only a gridiron game at Wembley Stadium between two American Air Force teams, and one Little League baseball game outside New York in which the fathers shamelessly and shockingly abused the umpires.
Now I have seen the Baltimore Orioles against the Texas Rangers (Thursday night), the Washington Redskins against the Cleveland Browns, and my anticipations stand confirmed.
To an Englishman both games are deeply alien; but whereas the attraction of baseball is easily enough understood, football is remote to a degree.
Let me say at once that I was not entirely innocent of either sport; I'd approached them through literature. "Alibi Ike," "Harry Kane," "My Roomy" and "The Busher" had been familiar and genial to me for years, as had Bernard Malamud's first and best novel, "The Natural," blending baseball and Arthurian myth.
Baseball provided clear analogies with both our major English sports, soccer and cricket. Like soccer, it is fundamentally simple and readily understood, yet evidently complex. Like cricket, it puts bat to ball, and provides a feast of statistics.
Robert Coover's splendid novel, "The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh Proprietor," shows how a lonely, sad and disappointed man can make his own, rich fantasy life around a baseball game he plays alone with dice and pencil, a game which leads into that very obsession which at first sublimates. Cricket and baseball statistics as therapy? The notion is not too wild.
By contrast, but by no coincidence, Frederic Exley's fine novel about football is called "A Fan's Notes." Here too, the sublimation breaks down.
It had been plain to me long before I saw the Browns and the Redskins fearfully knocking lumps out of one another (how superbly restrained and disciplined the players are when they've been hit) that football is a nonparticipant sport.
The gladiators, the New Martians in their pads and helmets, are there to be identified with, not imitated. So Exley sat in the brisk, fall afternoon at the stadium, identified with Frank Gifford, and ultimately admitted his sad destiny: "to be a fan."
Gridiron men, even when they have the humor and the charm of a Jean Fugett, are fantasy figures. Baseball, by contrast, can be enjoyed in essence with bat, a glove and a ball, just as urchins can chalk goals against a wall and play soccer with a tin can or bunch of fags.
Before a ball had been pitched at Baltimore, I was fascinated by the sheer, swift rhythm of the Orioles as they came on the field, to limber up, hurling the ball to one another with a marvelous precision.
Field, for me. is the fascination of the game; the power and dexterity of the players, the perfect understanding as the ball wings its way from man to man, can be exhilarating. Here, there is a direct analogy with cricket.
Al Bumbry's fine catch on the fence took me back 37 years to the first pro cricket match I ever saw when Denis Compton, a soccer international and a sprinter, dashed like Bumbry to the boundary to hold a ball struck by another famous man, the wicket keeper (catcher) Godfrey Evans.
It is good to see baseball regaining ground, after the recent ravages of gridiron football. The games seem, to an outsider -- even without stressing the popular Vietnam parallels with football -- to represent two contrasting sides of the American character.
Baseball, even if played in domes, belongs to a simpler, less violent, more rural America.Football represents the macho streak in the American character, together with the involvement with size, strength, organization. For an Englishman, it is an alarming game to watch. So much that he has learned to admire is missing, so much that he has learned to eschew is lawful.
Thus, in the Brown-Redskin game, Ike Forte, just as he received the ball, was brutally knocked down; kicked in the mouth, the loudspeakers would announce. One waited for the foul to be called; but no. Cleveland's Clay Matthews ran 53 yards through the Redskins for a touchdown. Ruthlessness it seemed, had been rewarded.
The gridiron game demands an almost Kamikaze courage; he who runs with the ball can dodge one man, but he'll be engulfed next moment by a stampede of others.
The accurate throwing of the quarterbacks, the brave catching under pressure, the bold dashes by Joe Theismann -- "To stay back in the pocket when there's nothing there is as much rick as running," said (Coach) Jack Pardee -- all impressed me. Still, it's a game I could never grow to love.
Baseball has a plain and honest quality about it, despite the massive salaries that are paid. I cannot help wondering what Alibi Ike or Hurry Kane, let along the Busher, would think of the gratuitous, sad death of Thurman Munson; practicing takeoffs and landings in his own private jet. The mind reels.
At Memorial Stadium, there were no lines of half-naked pretty girls mindlessly gyrating, suddenly marching, like some chorus line prepared by an inept choreographer; merely one small, lively girl who danced on top of the dugout with the Oriole mascot, occasionally turned back-flips and somersaults on the field.
On the other hand, for those of us conversant with and alarmed by the likes of Vince Lombardi, Darrell Royal and Woody Hayes, it was good to see the stereotype destroyed by as cordial a coach as Jack Pardee: "We did what we wanted to do tonight, execpt win," he said.
Baseball, we know, has its own stereotypes. In British soccer, we had our own Casey Stengel in the Scottish coach of Liverpool, Bill Shankly ("some people think soccer's a matter of life and death, but it's more important than that.") though we have nothing to touch the simian display of wrath affected by the Ranger manager, Frank Lucchesi.
Was he trying to disturb the calm young Oriole pitcher, Scott Mcgregor, as he thrust his face into that of the imperturbable umpire, Derwood Merrill, pawed at the ground like an enraged horse, then, thrown out of the game with a symbolic kick by Merrill himself, flung his cap on to the ground?
I was glad to see Merrill have the last word; he cut a pleasing figure. With his cap, his beer belly, his long hair, his chewing gum, he reminded me of some phlegmatic sheriff out of the Deep South.
Baseball, of course, has its endless intricacies, and could never become as boring as cricket at its worst; batters, after all, must try to hit. What I missed was the variety of strokes a cricket batsman can execute, leading in turn to more variety in what happens in the field.
But there are several things I shall remember; not least the sight of Don Stanhouse skillfully letting time go by between his pitches, delaying, contemplating, temporizing. That's gamesmanship for you; and it seemed to work.