18.7.09

McLuhan and Baseball

I've been thoroughly enjoying a re-reading of McLuhan's Understanding Media; I wanted to share this paragraph on baseball. McLuhan articulates something I have felt without being able to express for sometime. I think my interest in sabermetric evaluations of defense and BABIP stem from an unconscious desire to complicate and de-individualize baseball. Anywho, here is McLuhan:

Just where to begin to examine the transformation of American attitudes since TV is a most arbitrary affair, as can be seen in a change so great as the abrupt decline of baseball. The removal of the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles was a portent in itself. Baseball moved West in an attempt to retain an audience after TV struck. The characteristic mode of the baseball game is that if features one-thing-at-a-time. It is a lineal, expansive game which, like golf, is perfectly adapted to the outlook of an individualist and inner-directed society. Timing and waiting are of the essence, with the entire field in suspense waiting upon the performance of a single player. By contrast, football, basketball, and ice hockey are games in which many events occur simultaneously, with the entire team involved at the same time. With the advent of TV, such isolation of the individual performance as occurs in baseball became unacceptable. Interest in baseball declined, and its starts, quite as much as movie stars, found that fame had some very cramping dimensions. Baseball had been, like the movies, a hot medium featuring individual virtuosity and stellar performers. The real ball fan is a store of statistical information about previous explosions of batters and pitchers in numerous games. Nothing could indicate more clearly the peculiar satisfaction provided by a game that belonged to the industrial metropolis of ceaselessly exploding populations, stocks and bonds, and production and sales records. Baseball belonged to the age of the first onset of the hot press and the movie medium. It will always remain a symbol of the era of the hot mommas, jazz babies, of sheiks and shebas, of vamps and gold-diggers and the fast buck. Baseball, in a word, is a hot game that got cooled off in the new TV climate, as did most of the hot politicians and hot issues of the earlier decades. (Understanding Media 326)

To appreciate the passage likely requires familiarity with McLuhan's particular (and perhaps unintuitive) notions of hot and cold media. Hot media are those which sensually overwhelm the audience, such as books, movies, radio, and television; audience members do not participate in the creation of meaning as much as they are absorbed by it. Cool media, on the other hand, invite hermeneutic participation, the audience feels less as if they are receiving a finished product and more that they are engaged in the creative process. For McLuhan, such a binary was perhaps best represented by two media that we would likely consider similar today: "low definition" television versus "high definition" movies. Television was spontaneous (represented by the game show) while movies were, literally, scripted. Television was caught in the flow of lived time, while movies existed outside of time--and what could be more out of time than baseball, which follows no clock? In such light, how do we interpret baseball's contemporary emphasis on game time and continuity?