This article was written by Jim McMartin
This article was published in the 1984 Baseball Research Journal
The Swiss founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, visited the United States on at least three occasions between 1909 and 1925. It is not recorded whether he ever saw a baseball game.
He did not mention the sport in his voluminous writings. He did write about his conviction that psychological health is promoted by the integration of the conscious and unconscious aspects of our minds. For this reason it seems logical that Jung would have loved baseball. The structure of the game appeals to both aspects. Baseball is therapeutic!
Consider the essential drama of the game. The lonely batter pits his individual skill and desire against nine foes. The batter excellently symbolizes the hero. The heart of the hero’s journey, examples of which are found in all cultures, past and present, is that of the individual struggling to develop his or her resources to triumph over what appears to be impossibly powerful enemies, as in David vs. Goliath. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, all the batter wants to do is journey home, his place of origin. To accomplish this, powerful enemies must be overcome at each step. His first enemy stands approximately 60 feet away and may be capable of throwing a five-ounce ball at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour.
From this perspective, why has Nolan Ryan pitched only five no-hitters in his career?
But should the batter manage to reach first base, his journey has just begun, for his second enemy consists of those skillful and tricky infielders whose aim it is to erase him from the basepath by completing a double play or pretending to do so while their compatriots in the outfield catch a fly ball and double him off first base – a truly ignominious defeat. Having successfully reached first base is the first step, and baseball recognizes this transformation by giving the batter a new name. He is now a runner and wants to circle all the bases to return home. This transformation of title is reminiscent of the many ceremonies around the world that mark the young person’s transition from childhood to adulthood, in which the choosing or bestowing of a new name is integral.
Should the runner find himself at second or third base, he must be aware of his third enemy – those rifle-armed outfielders capable of throwing him out at the plate. And the runner’s last foe is the typically burly catcher, who, although he is conspicuously overdressed for the occasion, may have to be forcibly budged off the plate (polite asking won’t suffice) for successful completion of his journey.
One of the strengths of baseball is that all participants get a chance to be the hero. With a change of perspective we can look down upon the field of symbolic combat from the stadium’s upper deck. We see an acre or so of land defended by seven tiny players behind the pitcher, frozen in place, foolishly hoping to defend all that land against the fall of a miniscule ball. Impossible!
And when baseball’s drama is raised to the 100th power in the World Series, heroic fielding plays become etched in the memories of those who were blessed to witness them, and their names live on: Willie Mays, Brooks Robinson, Sandy Amoros, Graig Nettles………They reveal what miracles our mind-body system is capable of and we love them for it.
Pitchers, starting or relieving, have their heroic moments as well. From their point of view some hitters must look like Paul Bunyon twirling a redwood tree for a bat and seemingly impossible to get out by any known human means. No wonder that a no-hitter is treated with such awe – as if we were witness to a supernatural event.
Yet all sports have their heroes. Jung, I believe, would be particularly delighted with baseball because of its numerous references to other symbols and symbolic situations. Symbols bridge the gap between our conscious and unconscious mind and frequently appear in dreams. “But symbols, I must point out, do not occur solely in dreams,” wrote Jung in his last publication, Man and His Symbols. “They appear in all kinds of psychic manifestations. There are symbolic thoughts and feelings, symbolic acts and situations.”
Baseball is permeated with symbols. Consider the infield portion of the playing field. It is called the diamond, symbolic of great value. It is actually a square set on one of its corners. The lines emanating from home plate forever discriminate what is fair (pure, true) from what is foul (impure, unworthy). What takes place between the lines is therefore of great significance. Baseball’s fundamental message to the unconscious is “EVERYTHING IS MEANINGFUL.” Every detail gets recorded, analyzed and filed away for possible future reference. Even such an apparently mundane question as exactly how a runner got from one base to another, or failed to do so, can provide stories for decades and eventually enter into the hallowed ground known as “the lore of the game.” Of course, former player Fred Merkle could tell you a lot about this.
To our unconscious everything is potentially meaningful – our reactions, feelings, hunches – all have value. So it is in baseball, even down to the ridiculous pebble that causes the ground ball to ricochet into the shortstop’s throat and thereby change the outcome of a World Series. Former player Tony Kubek could tell you a lot about this.
Symbols also permeate baseball in its fascination for numbers and statistics. Roger Angell put it so well in Late Innings: A Baseball Companion: “Statistics are the food of love. Baseball is nourished by numbers, and all of us who have followed the game with intensity have found ourselves transformed into walking memory banks, humming with games won, games lost, batting averages and earned-run averages, games started and games saved.”
Numbers symbolize unconscious psychological forces of great importance. The numbers three and four, in particular, have been analyzed by Jung and others, including J.E. Cirlot in A Dictionary of Symbols, as the two essential protypes of quantity. The number three is thought to represent a dynamic, inner state of spirituality, while the number four symbolizes stability and outer activity. There is a natural tension between these two numbers or idea-forces, not unlike the tension encountered when the count on the batter reaches three and two. Will the next pitch be strike three or ball four?
These numbers three and four penetrate the structure and statistics of baseball to an uncanny degree. The structure of baseball is dominated by the number three and its variants: three strikes and you’re out, three outs to an inning, 3 x 3 players to a side and 3 x 30 feet between the bases.
This last fact has prompted some interesting commentary. Sportswriter Red Smith felt “. . . ninety feet between bases is the nearest thing to perfection that man has yet achieved.” Umpire Marty Springstead, however, holds a different view: “Every play there (second base) is crucial . . . I don’t know how the guy who invented the game knew how to put the bases 90 feet apart and make all the calls so close.”
But even these fixed structural features are not without their dissenters. The three strikes given to the batter has been called into question by Paul Gallico in his Farewell to Sport: “. . . the so-called three strikes allotted the batter are a great snare and delusion. In point of fact it is only two strikes, for he is allowed to miss the ball only twice, but nobody but the batter ever thinks of that. The third time he misses it he is out. And yet there is magic in that number ‘three’ …..”
The number four occurs in the number of bases, the first three of which have four sides, while the fourth, home plate, has five. Four balls and the batter draws a walk, a free pass to first base. If the pitcher throws enough of these, it will cause his manager to walk to the mound, shortly followed by his own walk to the showers.
Three and four also occur with great regularity in player and team statistics. A batting average of .300, for example, is the watershed that separates the star hitters from the others. This is remarkable when one realizes that over the course of a 162-game season (600 at-bats) the difference in the hits made by a .300 hitter and a .280 hitter is a measly 12! Yet one is commonly perceived by the average fan to be a star player, the other is not.
Pitching statistics also involve the numbers three and four. Appropriately, the numerical direction of excellence is the opposite of hitting. Star pitchers keep their earned-run averages under three. Poor pitchers have ERAs in the high fours and never receive teammates’ high fives.
So baseball measures the feats of its heroes by threes and fours. Jung’s belief was that heroic activities in the outer world are manifestations of the hero within us all. This inner hero, if aroused, can perform miracles as described in Don Schlossberg’s The Baseball Catalogue:
“Eleven-year-old John D. Sylvester of Essex Fells, N.J., was given 30 minutes to live by doctors after a severe attack of blood poisoning in October 1926. Young John spent his remaining time listening to the World Series. That was the day Babe Ruth hit three home runs in one game. Amazingly, John began to recover. The New York Times reported that . . . the boy’s father and the physicians attributed the recovery to messages of encouragement received from Ruth and other stars.When Ruth hit his three home runs, the boy’s fever began to break and his recovery began.”
Ernie Harwell sums it up this way in The Game for All America: “Baseball? It’s just a game – as simple as a ball and a bat. Yet as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. It’s a sport, business and sometimes even religion.”