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Did 'Bull Durham' misquote Walt Whitman on baseball?

March 28, 2012|By Brian Cronin
  • Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon in "Bull Durham."
Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon in "Bull Durham."

BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: Walt Whitman once said, "I see great things in baseball. It's our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us."

Susan Sarandon's character in Bull Durham, Annie Savoy, has a fascinating personality. She is a follower of the "Church of Baseball," and every year she chooses one player on the Minor League Durham Bulls to be her lover and her student for the season. Annie is extremely cultured and literate. When speaking about the way she treats her choice, she states, "You see, there's a certain amount of life wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds. Sometimes when I've got a ballplayer alone, I'll just read Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman to him, and the guys are so sweet, they always stay and listen." Walt Whitman, the great American poet, essayist and journalist (best known for his poetry collection, Leaves of Grass), is referenced again in Bull Durham, at the very end of the film, as Annie speaks to the audience, saying, "Walt Whitman once said, 'I see great things in baseball. It's our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.' You could look it up."

There has been much debate over this line. Did Walt Whitman really say that? In a statement about the veracity of the quote on the website, WikiQuote, it is written:

"This has been widely attributed to Whitman, and no one else, but without definite source. It has sometimes been cited as being from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (sometimes with a date of 23 July 1846), where Whitman had been an editor, but its presence on that date is not apparent in the online historical archives of that publication."

So is this a real quote or an invention of Ron Shelton, writer/director of Bull Durham?

The likely problems people have had in verifying this quote are two-fold.

First, the quote did not appear in any of Whitman's own writings, which makes it difficult to track down. For instance, while Whitman worked at newspapers in Brooklyn in the 1840s and 1850s, baseball was just starting to become a professional sport. The National Association of Base Ball Players started in 1857 and had a Brooklyn team. However, Whitman never made the above quote in any of the Brooklyn papers. No, the quote was a result of Horace L. Traubel.

Horace L. Traubel was a devoted follower of Whitman's work. He began paying Whitman regular visits in the mid-1880s and starting in 1888, he began taking copious notes of their conversations. He did this until Whitman's death in 1892. Traubel published these conversations into three volumes before his death in 1919. Since then, six more volumes have been released of these conversation using Traubel's notes.

Here, then, is the second "problem" with the quote. You can't find the above listed quote because it is a paraphrase of the actual quote, as relayed by Traubel. Here is the quote from With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. 2(stated by Whitman in September 1888):

I like your interest in sports ball, chiefest of all base-ball particularly: base-ball is our game: the American game: I connect it with our national character. Sports take people out of doors, get them filled with oxygen generate some of the brutal customs (so-called brutal customs) which, after all, tend to habituate people to a necessary physical stoicism. We are some ways a dyspeptic, nervous set: anything which will repair such losses may be regarded as a blessing to the race. We want to go out and howl, swear, run, jump, wrestle, even fight, if only by so doing we may improve the guts of the people: the guts, vile as guts are, divine as guts are!
As you can see, the Bull Durhamline is essentially just a simplified version of the statement that Traubel relayed from Whitman. Does that count? I think so. Later on, by the way, in Volume 4 (published after Traubel's death), Whitman spoke more about baseball (this time in April of 1889), in glowing terms:
Baseball is the hurrah game of the republic! That's beautiful: the hurrah game! well—it's our game: that's the chief fact in connection with it: America's game: has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere—belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.

In any event, I think the real quote is close enough to the real quote that I am willing to say that the legend is...

STATUS: True (just with a massive caveat that the quote is a simplified paraphrasing of the actual quote).

Thanks to Horace L. Traubel and Walt Whitman for the quote and thanks to WikiQuote for the debate over the quote.

ALSO:

Has an NBA team ever drafted a female player?

Were the Ancient Greek Olympic athletes really amateurs?

Be sure to check out my website, Sports Urban Legends Revealed, for more sports urban legends. I have archives of all the past urban legends featured on the site in the categories of: Baseball, Football, Basketball, Hockey, Football/Soccer and the Olympics. Also be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies, Music and more!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com. And please buy my book, "Was Superman a Spy? And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed! here.

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