Sunday, June 2, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 40: George Jean Nathan, Baiting the Umpire (#14)

George Jean Nathan, "Baiting the Umpire" (1910) from Baseball: A Literary Anthology:

George Jean Nathan was a colleague of H.L. Mencken, which is all you really need to know to understand this six-page joke about how Americans' favorite sport is umpire killing. He starts off by comparing it to a circus (baseball is the side-show, the real show is threatening the ump), segues in one sentence to comparing it to Spanish bullfighting (the bleachers are the real matadores), and winds up, after six pages, by implying a comparison to cannibalism: on the Sandwich Islands, baseball will take off, but the cry there will be "Eat the ump" instead of just "Kill the ump."

It's the kind of joke that can survive in six pages, but I wouldn't call it thriving. For instance, here's a step-by-step note about a fatal mistake an umpire made:
Had he not robbed the home team of a game by calling a player out for not having touched a base? To be sure, the player should have touched the base according to the rules, and, to be sure, he failed to do so; but was that any reason for the umpire’s decision? It most certainly was not. Any umpire who does not know enough to give favorable decisions to the home team in a case like this ought to be killed.
It's a fine joke at six pages; it would be even better today as a tweet. Certain Jeremiahs may bemoan short attention spans and inattention to reading these days, but I'd prefer not to read six content-less pages with one joke and its variations. This is the sort of throat-clearing free-writing that should result in one brilliant aphorism, a la Bierce.

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