OBITER DICTA EX CATHEDRA

Or, some passing remarks from the halls of science by a wise and witty man who proves that the ivory tower has a view—including a view of sports. And so we introduce Dr. Vannevar Bush, spectator sports expert, chairman of the corporation of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leader of scientists—and a host of his colleagues, whose interests, as shown here, range from boxing through sailing to driving hot cars
December 01, 1958

This is a treatise on sport, written by an expert. It contains numerous suggestions for improvement which will no doubt be welcomed by those who operate the system. However, anticipating that questions might be raised, let us first define sport and state what constitutes an expert.

For the purposes of this treatise, sport is defined as a system of propelling a ball or similar projectile for the edification of a mass audience. Thus court tennis, which is an amusement and a form of exercise, is excluded from the definition since no one has discovered how to mount a TV camera so as to view it. So is billiards, since the audience which enjoys watching a master make ivory balls behave is not mass. About every other way of causing a sphere or spheroid to move through space by throwing, carrying or hitting it with a stick or other form of bat comes in. To interest a mass audience, there needs to be present also a contest, that is, opposing individuals or groups with sharply conflicting interests in the progress of the propelled object.

Now, how do I qualify as an expert? This is simple. I once had my picture in the papers in a prominent position, and this undoubtedly qualifies me to speak with authority. True, the reason for my picture was somewhat remote from sport, but that does not really matter. I am in the same position as Winston Churchill, who was, during the war, an expert on the application of science to weapons (although I admit he was somewhat better known to the public). I have another qualification. In college, I earned my letter in a major sport, and that confers the privilege of pontificating on sport for life. In case anyone looks up the records, I got that letter as a manager, but there was a special distinction. I managed the team that bent Eisenhower's knee. So I write without modesty or apology.

In Russia, sport as we have defined it is a state program for furthering national pride and patriotism, and it works. Here, under our free-enterprise system, it is a means for making money. Whether sport is formally a business like other businesses is in doubt. At present, the Supreme Court says that if the propelled object is hollow and oblate, then it is, but if it is spherical and solid, it is not. It certainly differs from most businesses in various ways. For one thing, some of the employees get paid and some do not, this being a relic of the old apprentice and guild systems of England. For another, there is a form of serfdom involved, under which the performers are bought and sold. This is not in conflict with the constitutional provisions against slavery since the performer can always quit—if he does not mind sacrificing his professional skills—and start a restaurant.

It will be noted that wrestling and boxing are left out of the definition, since no projectile is involved. Anyone who thinks that wrestling is a sport is entitled to make his own definition. As to boxing, I would be inclined to alter definitions and include it, if the entrepreneurs of that system would make a couple of simple modifications. First, I would attach a belt and rope to each of these employees, so that they could reach one another readily, but not embrace. Second, I would fire the judges and award the prize money to the contestant who longest kept his rope stretched taut.

There are still amateurs in sport. An amateur is a gentleman, and a gentleman is a man who does not need to work for a living. This, of course, applies only when we consider sport under the present definition. There are other kinds of gentlemen elsewhere. There are also amateurs who do not choose to perform before TV cameras and who actually play games for the fun of it. There used to be a great hassle about amateurs in football, but it is rapidly becoming resolved under the apprentice system. By this system, a hot performer is required to perform without compensation for several years and then is paid adequately if he qualifies for the big time. There is some problem left in the case of apprentices who are impecunious and have to eat, but ingenious alumni groups find ways around this impasse. Then, too, lots of apprentices get a lift out of roaring stands and do not seem to care if they do not share in the gate receipts, which, incidentally, sometimes amount to quite a sum of money. And there remain, I am told, contestants who still regard the spectacle as a game rather than a business. Of course, the problem would be simpler if the sport business were made entirely independent of the colleges, which may be the ultimate solution, since college presidents and trustees sometimes have strange ideas regarding business.

In tennis the problem is neatly solved by having a czar. He just states who is amateur and who is professional. It is easy enough for the individual player to change his status in one direction—for example by getting a man in the business to pick up a dinner check—but it is impossible to move the other way. This keeps outstanding performers from hiding their light under a bushel, where the great mass audiences will not have a proper opportunity to witness their skill. It is a sheer loss to business, of course, when a hot tennis player is limited in the extent to which he can attract cash customers to oscillate their necks to follow the ball.

But it is important to get down to the matter of advice.

It seems to me that the managers of the business of sport have lost sight of the real objective, which is to satisfy the mass audience and keep them coming and paying. An essential ingredient is that the customers shall be convinced that the contest is intense and real; for example, that it is being played by the contestants and not by the officials. There are all sorts of crudities in this regard in present practice in the sports industry.

Imagine, let us say, that Pugwash College is manfully carrying the football down the field. By fine teamwork and intense concentration, it is barely able to make 10 yards in four tries, and it has marched this way for 50 yards while the tension in the stands mounts steadily. Then a zebra-shirted officer throws his dustcloth on the ground, picks up the ball, moves it back 15 yards, and the drive is over. He looks intently at the TV camera and slices at his calf with his hand. This means that he has seen a case of clipping. As near as I can make out, this term means that a Pugwash player, in attempting to interfere with the progress of an opponent, has made violent contact with him below the midsection, and more than eight points abaft the bow. The stands subside, and 800 cynical customers remark, "The hell with this," to their neighbors. The reason for this cynicism is the belief, no doubt mistaken, that the official has seen a dozen cases of contact abaft the bow, and has chosen to pick on this one so that the stands will not forget that it is he who is running the show.

They do much better in hockey. Here all sorts of mayhem are allowed and enjoyed, but certain types are frowned on. A player, Joe Doakes of the Colossi, for instance, manipulates his club in such manner on the skate of an opponent that the latter's center of support is irretrievably displaced from the vertical through his center of gravity. This is called tripping. The officer in this case blows a whistle and invites Joe to sit in a penalty box for two minutes, where he can watch the game readily but not participate. The interest in the game is not spoiled, it is enhanced, for Joe's comrades are now outnumbered and strive mightily to prevent catastrophe before Joe rejoins them. The effect of enforced idleness on Joe is also said to be salutary.

Basketball seems to be the worst offender in regard to this subject of penalties. I never could make out the rules of this sport; they are very subtle. Slim Tower may be proceeding down the hall, accompanied by the ball, which is propelled by oscillation between hand and floor. This seems to be all right; he can either hold onto the ball or move but is not permitted to do both simultaneously. Then Slim collides violently with an opponent, Hi Elevation. The whistle blows, and Slim is presented with a chance to propel the sphere through a draped orifice without interference, scoring a point. The question is: Did Slim run into Hi or Hi into Slim? Maybe the officer can tell; I can't. And a penalty every minute takes all the fun out of watching the game, at least for me. I much prefer hockey where, if one contestant clouts another with his implement, there isn't any doubt about who socked whom.

This leads to a discussion of fixing, which is a very sore subject. Let me assert at once that nearly all officials in any sport are undoubtedly honest, rigorously ethical, professional men, who certainly earn their salaries. I make this statement lest the reader think I am cynical. But in every business there have to be safeguards against the small minority of those who are dishonest or who do not understand the system fully or who are misled by evildoers. They need to be prevented from committing acts which are illegal, meaning contrary to the law, or unethical, meaning injurious to the business or, more broadly, to the public. This last is on the basis that what is good for sport is good for the country. Now in business we have audits and inventory counts. It seems to me that the same should be true in sport—i.e., that there would be more public confidence and support in sport if a real effort were made to render the acts of officials in every sport clear-cut and, as far as possible, in the open, where the paying guests can audit them. After all, we have had scandals. Baseball survived one by rigorous action. Basketball has had them and has gone on its way without much change.

What involves openness? Well, take baseball. Lon Chancy and the ball are simultaneously and rapidly approaching first base, and a blue-coated official is observing the impacts. He spreads his arms in an Eastern salaam, which means that, in his judgment, the foot impacted the canvas pillow some tenths of a second before the ball contacted the leather of the glove. The stands roar condemnation or approval, according to their prejudices. But the next morning's paper carries a clear photograph of the action, showing the foot some inches above the pillow while the ball is securely captured. It may be too late to change the decision, but this sort of thing ensures that the official will be careful and objective for, if he is unduly erratic, his employment as an official will be in jeopardy.

It is not quite as positive an affair in regard to calling balls and strikes. The patent office is full of schemes for helping in this matter, using vertical light beams and photocells and the like. The TV camera in the outfield, which looks at the plate as though it were right behind the pitcher's box, is an enormous help. An umpire is far more constrained to objectivity by the presence of such a gadget than he is by the positively expressed remonstrations of Casey Stengel. He knows that the latter are merely a part of showmanship; that he, too, is dependent upon public interest and that he can occasionally, but not too often, enhance the enthusiasm of the cash customers by ordering the great Casey to the clubhouse. (The usual expression, I know, is ordering to the showers. But Casey does not get any exercise, so he does not need a bath.)

Another aspect of success in appeal to a mass audience is that scoring should be a rare event, built up to by strategy and a succession of purposeful acts. It is all to the good if the customers grasp the strategy partly but not fully. It is also a help if the viewers believe the strategy is being worked out by the so-called players. Yet there are all sorts of sins in this regard.

Hockey has done well. It has introduced rules, clearly understood by the initiated, involving offside and icing. These are designed to cause the attackers to carry the puck toward the opponents' goal rather than just to pass. They also allow fattening up the goal tender, by one appendage or another, until his projection on the designated opening of the cage covers a large fraction of the useful area. The result is that goals are rare: they come only after well-planned and executed teamwork, apparent to all, and each goal constitutes an event.

Much of the lure of baseball is likewise due to suspense. The trailing team fills the bases, by inviting bases on balls, by hit and run, and by other well-known stratagems. The power hitter then comes up to the plate and strikes out, and the fans are desolate or delighted.

Football has this element par excellence. The goal-line stand, foiled by a courageous pass, brings the crowd to its feet. The quarterback, who pulls in the defense by successive successful line plunges and then pops one over the line to an uncovered end, rouses the customers, because they were all vicariously in his predicament and searching for a neat surprise.

The worst is basketball. Goals occur every few seconds, when the game is not interrupted by penalties, which it is most of the time. There is no suspense, except on the final score, and this is likely to be 110 to 104. If there is strategy it appears to be ephemeral. The reader may gather that I do not think much of the sport of basketball. I do not. I think it ought to be radically revised or prohibited by law.

But as to other sins. In so-called professional football, which is that aspect of the business which does not use apprentices, the coach often runs the show, and the quarterback takes his orders from him. Rotating guards bring in the plays. Spotters on the roof phone the coach to apprise him of enemy weaknesses. Maybe this wins games, which helps gate receipts. I doubt it. More likely it caters to the coaches' conviction that father knows best. But I am not interested in the coaches' egos. I do enjoy watching a clever youngster thinking and planning stratagems clearly, while burly opponents knock him all over the lot without being able to jar his generalship. Substitutions, yes; someone on the sidelines has to judge these, for safety against injury due to exhaustion, for one thing. But, for my money, let the players play the game.

Baseball, for all its virtues, is not entirely immune from this, either. Obviously, there needs to be a system of signals for, let's say, a squeeze play, and the pitcher needs to signal if he is going to try a pickoff at second base. But why should the batter take orders on what to do on the next pitch from the third-base coach? And why should a pitcher be ordered to give an intentional pass, usually much to the disgust of the fans?

In tennis the officials do not do much, and I understand they do not get paid much. Mostly they sit in chairs and remark on whether a ball hits a line. They are often reviled and treated to hard looks. Part of this is for the purpose of causing a pause, for management has found that if the customers waggle their heads from port to starboard without interruption some necks crack, and this leads to damage suits. The pauses also enhance the impression that tennis players are temperamental, like artists. Otherwise, tennis is a polite sport, and the audience is anxious to give the impression of affluence. For example, in tennis if the ball goes into the stands it is usually returned to the field, whereas in other sports if a customer gets his hands on the projectile he steals it.

An extraordinary thing is that bowling has become a sport exploited for public entertainment. There's a game for you! No officials in sight, no penalties for getting involved with your opponent. No doubt about results; a pin either falls down or stands up, it does not continue indefinitely to wobble uncertainly. Suspense of a sort. I recently watched a chap named King bowl a perfect game and make 20 strikes in succession. On the 20th I was sitting on the edge of my chair, even though I was just a TV viewer without the contagion of excitement that goes with a crowd. I wish I could see slow movies of a strike; there must be some in existence. I cannot make out why a properly placed and properly rotating ball knocks all 10 pins down, while a deviation of an inch leaves some standing. One complaint I have about bowling is monotony—the more skilled the players, the more cut and dried it seems to be. I would like to see real experts play a game in which there would be no score except when a ball left just one pin standing up. Another complaint is that the employees' salaries seem to me to be a bit meager. But it is a good game, even for a show.

Would anyone think offhand that a show could be made out of a golf game? It is a bit sticky in this regard. The reason for success, no doubt, is that there are more real nuts in this country on the subject of golf than on any other subject of public interest, even including rock 'n' roll. They have to have a special rule for the case where a pitch shot goes into the pocket of one of the gallery. Every time I watch such a contest I hear gripes that the putts are just as important as the other shots. They are, from a scoring standpoint. But a drive or an approach shot can involve an appalling amount of skill, and a putt simply involves an appalling amount of luck. Maybe a putt should count only half a shot. I would like to watch a game in which putts were omitted and the players were considered holed out as soon as they were on the green. Anything to speed it up; it is too slow for my blood. Perhaps someone will put on a match in which strokes do not count, players hit at will and the first chap into the 18th hole wins. It would at least take extra fat off the players.

Speaking of slowness, one of the sins in sport for mass entertainment is delay. If baseball does not do something about it, the fans will do so, by watching hockey, or maybe lacrosse or soccer, both of which, incidentally, are excellent. The pitcher steps on the rubber, holds long communion with the catcher as to what to do next, steps off, mops his brow, being careful not to get any sweat on the ball, of course, steps back on. About that time the batter steps out. Finally, the pitcher actually throws a ball. Then he and the catcher forgather and chat. Then a new pitcher comes in, walking slowly from the bullpen a quarter mile or so away, throws a series of warmup pitches, although he has been warming up for half an hour, and so on. The heck with it!

However, I think I know the reason. Baseball is an old sport; it has been over the bumps and has learned. For one thing, it has learned that the public does not cotton to a situation where the officials are too much in evidence, where they are exhibiting their erudition and impressing the crowd with their authority. Hence, umpires hesitate to enforce rules which would speed up the game. They have my encouragement to do just that. And when football officials have learned as much they will be a whole lot less in evidence, and football will be a better game.

Speaking of reforms, there is one more I wish baseball would universally adopt. It has taken years to get major league batters to wear hard hats at the plate, and even now the system is barely accepted. We do not, any of us, like to hear of a chap getting a fractured skull while doing his best to entertain us. Yet individuals will not wear protection unless all do, and top management will not order it until the public insists in one way or another. Baseball players still wear spikes. Don't tell me they are necessary for footing; I have seen better examples of maintaining footing in a soccer game in sneakers. In fact, I suspect sneakers would be a lot more secure on a wet baseball field. I like to see a chap slide into second violently to try to break up a double play, and I like to see the second baseman pop up into the air and deliver the ball to first. But I do not like to see spikes thrown at the chap. We have no bullfight mentality, I hope, when watching a ball game.

A word now about sportswriters. There are, of course, excellent sports-writers. I admire them and sympathize with them. I wonder how they survive and whether they get paid much. The writers that I turn to educate me on the fine points of the game that I do not understand. But in spite of their best efforts, I am still foggy on a lot of things. I wish they would tell me whether I am all wrong on a lot of opinions I have written in this treatise. For example, about basketball. Perhaps I just don't understand it and really ought to regard basketball as a worthy effort.

Oh, the TV commercials. I almost forgot to comment on those. Some of them are deucedly clever, and I wonder who thought them up and how they execute the trick photography. I believe they actually sell me things, which is, after all, their object. And I feel a sort of obligation to be receptive, because the outfit which put them on is paying for my entertainment and paying plenty. But there are several kinds that annoy me and cause me to resolve never to buy the product.

One is the kind that strings over and blocks my seeing a critical play. A second is the kind that springs the same skit on me 40 times. The first four times it is amusing, the 40th time it is not. What is the matter—do they run out of money or talent? Another type that gets me down is the one that has a jingle tune that penetrates into my subconscious and will not be evicted, something like garlic, pleasant at the time but annoying on recurrence. I can hardly blame the advertiser who does this if he can get away with it, but I wish he would be more considerate.

The type that really rouses me to rebellion, however, is the ad that repeats over and over a statement which is asinine on the face of it and that I know is not true. This is done because of a conviction on the part of the advertising profession that if you tell a chap something often enough, no matter what, he will end in believing it, or at least it will get its name embedded in his cranium where he cannot get it out and will act on it in spite of himself. I do not like to be used that way or thought to be that dumb. So, if I am told a million times that Alfalfa Cigarets will increase my innate appreciation of feminine beauty, I will carefully buy Lespedeza Cigarets, even if I do not like them very much. I hope there are millions like me and that we can prove the advertisers wrong.

This advertising business, come to think of it, is dangerous in many ways. Now they have a scheme, I understand, for putting ideas in my mind without my seeing them or knowing anything about it. I will bet they cannot. I will bet they would be surprised at the things they sometimes do put in my mind. And I do not think I am any different in this regard from the rest of the population.

Why does the American public like to watch games? One point, of course, is that they like to see an exhibit of supreme skill. Yet this cannot be too strong an attraction, or billiards would be a feature on TV, for it is a game of consummate skill, readily depicted by a vertical camera. Another reason is the pleasure of joining a crowd, where excitement is intensified by mass psychology. Yet there are millions who watch games on TV where no such influence is present. A strong motivation is vicarious participation. When a pitcher in a pinch, with periodic clapping going on to distract him, with heat and weariness sapping his strength, nevertheless delivers ball after ball with precision and judgment, those in the stands share with him in his ordeal and rejoice at his steadiness as they put themselves in his place. Hero worship goes along with this, of course. There is also a large group with a strange pride in being erudite, in knowing all the players and averages, in excelling at an intellectual undertaking of something even though it be utterly artificial.

Audiences like suspense, no doubt of that. But also, as noted before, they like to try to fathom planning and strategy. This is the great difference between baseball and cricket, in my opinion. I advance the thought timidly, because I do not really understand cricket; I wish I did. For one thing, I cannot fathom the system under which games are abandoned once the outcome is determined, although I believe we might adopt some such system to advantage on this side of the water, instead of the mournful finish to some of our games, killing the clock and the like. But I think the greatest attraction of baseball is this element of strategy. And I believe it is present to a far greater extent in football and that this would be quite a game if the coaches and officials would let the players play it.

Is it all foolish? Are we foolhardy to be watching games? The Russians have put up sputniks, and they use athletics only to further the designs of the state. They still say they intend to conquer the world. Must we be equally serious and concentrate entirely on matters of national prosperity and military power? We certainly need to be alert and vigorous and wise in a tough race with a tough antagonist, where survival may be at stake. But one cannot be grim all the time. And there is no better and no more healthful mental relief, in my opinion, than participating in real sport, not in sport as I have defined it. And, as a substitute for the millions who cannot directly participate, watching sport, even sport of the most crassly commercial sort, is not too bad. I only wish that those who run the business would pay more attention to the customers.

NINETEEN PHOTOS

SOME SCIENTISTS GO IN FOR SWIMMING, SAILING, EVEN BOXING...

Dr. Alfred O. C. Nier, atom bomb specialist, physics professor at the University of Minnesota, swims, fishes, here runs along Cass Lake beach with his wife Ruth.

Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus, Minnesota's dean of technology, is a fisherman and hunter, likes "anything that has to do with the outdoors or the sea." Here (right) he is on an African hunt.

Arnold Wexler, physicist and meteorologist, likes to climb mountains for relaxation, is particularly thrilled by first ascents, of which he has made 50 in 15 years of climbing on this continent.

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the esteemed Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, is an ardent sailor. He is shown here on six weeks' cruise he took with his family in the Caribbean.

Dr. Joseph E. Murray, experimental surgeon famous for kidney transplants, and wife are active tennis fans.

Thornton Read, theoretical physicist at the Bell Telephone Labs, was Golden Glover, still teaches PAL kids.

Dr. George I. Bell, Los Alamos reactor expert, was photographed on first ascent of Nevado Salcantay, 20,000-foot peak in Peru.

...OTHERS RELAX WITH FOOTBALL, SKIN-DIVING, SPORTS CARS

Dr. Albert Einstein, shown here on his sailboat in Germany in 1930, was a lifelong devotee of peaceful outdoor relaxation.

Dr. Theos Thompson, director of MIT's nuclear reactor, is an ex-football player who nowadays finds diversion in sport fishing.

Dr. Joseph Kaplan of UCLA, head of the U.S. International Geophysical Year, is a devoted football fan.

Dr. Edward Teller, famed "father of the H-bomb," plays his favorite game, chess, with his son Paul as his wife Mici (left) and daughter Wendi look on.

Four from Los Alamos relax at doubles: (from left) Physicist James L. Tuck and Mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, both thermonuclear experts and major H-bomb contributors; Theoretical Physicists Conrad L. Longmire and Donald C. Dodder, also ranking men in the nuclear weapons field.

John Williams, head of mathematics division of the Rand Corporation, turns from missiles to souping up sports cars during his off-duty hours.

Dr. Glenn Seabord, who directs chemical research at the University of California's Radiation Laboratory, swims, plays occasional golf and coaches his children in backyard basketball.

Dr. Wernher Von Braun, the Army's top missile man, is an expert skin-diver and explorer of submarine scenery.

Scientists on skis are Professor Richard Ogg of Stanford (left); Dr. Joel H. Hildebrand, a top research chemist at the U. of C.; and the late Dr. Irving Langmuir, Nobel Prizewinner in 1932 for his research in chemistry.

Dr. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, Nobel Prizewinning biochemist and director of the Woods Hole, Mass. Institute for Muscle Research, is shown here engaged in his favorite sport, surf casting for striped bass.

Dr. C. Guy Suits, director of research for the General Electric Company, is a versatile sportsman who hunts Alaskan brown bear (below), skis in the winter and skin-dives and sails in the summer.

"I mountain-climb for fun and relaxation. For my vacation I usually spend three to six weeks each summer climbing some new mountain. Then there is a special exhilaration in reaching the top of a peak that has never been climbed."
ARNOLD WEXLER

"You'll find that professional people seek a vigorous sport that contrasts with their indoor, sedentary jobs. Physical activity in the outdoors is a natural complement to their lives."
DR. GEORGE I. BELL

"Like Ted Williams, my interest is really the outdoors and fishing. I played football in the Rose Bowl on the Nebraska team, but now football is really in the past tense for me."
THEOS THOMPSON

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)