Our novelists, from Austen to Christie, spy hints of trouble lurking beneath the placid surface of civilized life.
Twentieth Century Fox recently released a 25th anniversary edition of one of the most important political films of its generation: The Sandlot. To be sure, on the surface, this story of a group of neighborhood boys in 1962 California who get into “the biggest pickle any of us had ever seen” — the apparent capture of a Babe Ruth-signed baseball by a gargantuan and fearsome dog named “Hercules” — is blessedly apolitical in the sense of overt messages or Hollywood sermonizing. It is what The Sandlot places on display and invites the viewer to recall that speaks deeply to the derangement of a politics of formal administration.
The boys have organized an ongoing sandlot baseball game in a magnificent display of spontaneous order. There is no league to manage it. They simply play. This is Tocqueville’s “art of association,” an era before what Theodore J. Lowi recognized as the explosion of administration in American society. This phenomenon, Lowi wrote, was not limited to the public sector:
Between church school and public school and all related activities, almost nothing is left to the family, clan, neighborhood or guild—or to chance. Even sandlot baseball has given way to Little Leagues, symptomatic of an incredible array of parental groups and neighborhood businesses organized to see that the child’s every waking moment is organized, unprivate, wholesome, and, primarily, oriented toward an ideal of adjustment to the adult life of rationality that comes all too soon.
All of the larger voluntary associations, as well as most of the smaller ones have given up their spontaneity for a solid administrative core.
Contemporary parents will recognize this as the Tyranny of Activities, the arms race according to which children must enlist in ever more organized sports leagues or ballet companies or art classes because everyone else has, and everyone else does so for fear their own children will, lacking institutionalized activities, have no friends with whom to play. The day of the spontaneous sandlot baseball game, or simply dancing because a child feels like dancing, is past.
Something is lost here. There is a sense in which one can see sports leagues — setting aside those that are publicly administered — as instances of Tocqueville’s civic associations, the layer of groups that mediates between the individual and the government.
But for Tocqueville, the informality and spontaneity of association was also important. He was struck, for example, by the undirected profusion of temperance societies in early 19th century America. They had generated 100,000 pledges of abstention. By contrast, “if these hundred thousand men lived in France, each one of them would have individually addressed the government in order to beg it to oversee the taverns throughout the entire kingdom.” It is not difficult to see a 2018 version of The Sandlot featuring a call to animal control to retrieve the ball or to the zoning board to close off the ballfield.
In The Sandlot, no one has organized the game for the boys, and the diamond appears to be no more than an abandoned plot of land abutting the mysterious yard that Hercules prowls. They frolic. At one point, the protagonist Scotty Smalls, the new boy in the group, is invited to the game, bangs on his door and yells, “Mom, I’m going out!” There is no adult escort. The child-protective authorities are not called. Presumably neighbors know each other well enough to trust that the community is attentive and their children can thus play unsupervised. Nearby, the boys have a treehouse with no building permit in sight.
The endless game — a continuous series of innings that extends over the summer — is governed by rules enshrined in Burkean custom. As Tocqueville understood, these are the environments in which the skills of democracy are learned. Moreover, the absence of them necessitates formal, public and therefore coercive authority.
The film teaches a quiet message about equality — the boys eventually discover the dog’s owner was a legendary Negro Leagues player who knew The Great Bambino—but also informal hierarchy. The clear leader of the gang is Benny Rodriguez, a baseball savant destined for the Major Leagues. He takes Smalls under his wing and insists on his inclusion, a decision to which the boys defer. There is limited sentimentality about this. It is a simple act of decent leadership.
There are also democratic heroes, something anathema to the social historian of today. Rodriguez is one to the boys. Ruth is the ultimate mix between everyman and superman. The boys worship at his altar, including one priceless scene in which the obligatory chubby member of the gang mimics Ruth’s legendary called shot. The boy is unencumbered, incidentally, by embarrassment, especially at a swimming pool scene.
Another boy, adorned in horn-rimmed glasses, fakes drowning at the pool to induce mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by the lifeguard who is the boys’ voluptuous ideal. She is initially outraged, but the boy is not sent for reeducation in gender politics. We later learn they grow up and marry. Another boy in the group has a nickname — “Yeah Yeah” — arising from a verbal tick. He shows no signs of offense or emotional wounds.
When the boys get into their “pickle,” they make repeated and ingenious attempts to solve it that include lowering one boy on a makeshift pulley into the mysterious neighbor’s yard. There is a palpable sense of bending boundaries without breaking them.
These are, in short, normal boys. They are testosterone-fueled and rambunctious. They tease. But they are also ultimately kind. What is most important is that their “association” is spontaneous and informal. We are reminded, by comparison of The Sandlot with today’s profusion of traveling squads and thrice-weekly Little League practices, that excessive organization palsies the capacity for informal association through which the skills of republican life are learned. The Sandlot boys solve their own problems. They litigate balls and strikes without the imposition of formal authority.
This is no longer true in American civic life. Parents, lacking a sense of community, do not trust their neighbors enough to let their children play alone. The corrosion begins with the excessive organization of children’s lives but extends to the administration of everything in politics. Where custom fades, rules step in, and where rules intrude, what Tocqueville called “the art of being free” atrophies. The Sandlot gang exhibits Robert Nisbet’s quest for community but satisfies it informally. The alternative, Nisbet knows, is seeking sterile and oppressive community through the state.
The problem is that normal rules that substitute for custom are incapable of bending to the complexities of social and political life, which is why the common law (Burke: “the collected reason of ages”) of baseball is a better means of organizing children’s sport than regulation-laden leagues. Common sense is similarly a better way of organizing adult activity than reacting to every adverse event with an administrative rule intended to prevent its recurrence.
That does not mean baseball has no rules. The rules constitute the game, separating it from the activity of merely throwing a ball around. Life has rules too. The issue is how we are habituated to follow them. A return to the politics of The Sandlot might be a place to start.