Milton Babbitt: A Discussion in 12 Parts
FRANK J. OTERI: I want to take this to baseball because I know that you’re a huge baseball fan.
MILTON BABBITT: I’m not as huge a baseball fan as I used to be. If we’re going to go into that in detail, I’m going to offend a lot of people, probably including you and you probably couldn’t care less. I’m talking because I don’t think women, even my daughter who has learned a little about baseball because she has a son, they don’t really take baseball seriously. We have a president of this institution who takes the New York Yankees more seriously than he takes me, I promise you (laughs). No, what about baseball? No, baseball has deteriorated like so many other things.
FRANK J. OTERI: I went to my first baseball game, I think, maybe three years ago…
MILTON BABBITT: Well, you’re a native New Yorker, of course.
FRANK J. OTERI: Right, but even though we have the best team allegedly…
MILTON BABBITT: Well, yeah, you’ve had some great teams.
FRANK J. OTERI: But I went to the game and what thrilled me about it is I saw the analogy between sports and the concert hall. I thought, “Wow, here’s something that’s this public ritual, this, this secular ritual, just like a concert, yet there are so many more people here. So many more people are engaged, so many more people are involved.” And I thought, “How can we make music more like sports?”
MILTON BABBITT: You’ve done it. It’s badly played! I tell you, it’s amazing, you see, to be an old man in this respect. My brother, who takes sports much more seriously than I, ‘cuz he was an athlete. He played games. He played, well, he was a Columbia man by the way, an undergraduate. He came up from the South, he went to Columbia. In high school, he played football. He wouldn’t play football at Columbia because he would’ve had to take that big subway ride all the way up to get all the way up to Baker Field, so he was on the wrestling team. And that’s my brother. He was on the 26-mile relay team when he was 60 years old. My brother won’t watch baseball now. It offends him because it’s so inept. These people don’t know how to play the game. I mean, when you think they call…I won’t name names, but the current center fielder of the Yankees is called the second coming of Joe DiMaggio. He’s not the second coming of Dom DiMaggio! I mean this guy, to think of these people, I mean the playing. I happened to have seen Ty Cobb, but at the end of his career so that isn’t what I’m comparing him with…the Philadelphia Athletics in ’29, ’30, ’31, with Lefty Grove and Mickey Cochrane and Jimmie Foxx, the incredible abilities of these people. Joe DiMaggio would be running after the ball to field it the moment it left the pitcher’s arm.
The Philadelphia Athletics, circa 1931
FRANK J. OTERI: But these guys are batting higher batting averages, they just beat the record again.
MILTON BABBITT: Why? Because of lousy pitching. My God, they swing at bad balls, no, I mean, really the quality of play is way below…for a moment they haven’t really had the training. The people who came into the major leagues in my day had been through minor leagues. Most of them hadn’t gone to college, now they go to college, which is a bad idea. But they’d go to the minor leagues when they were sixteen, they’d play in the Cotton States League, which was a class D league when I was living in Jackson. It’s now, of course, an A league, it’s in the Texas league. They would go and they would spend at least six or seven years learning the craft. When they came up they knew how to play the game. Now they go through college, they go right to the major leagues, they go one or two years in the minor leagues. Listen, there’s an announcer who often announces the Mets—I won’t mention his name because I don’t have a right to mention these people’s names, I’m no expert—who says they don’t know the fundamentals. He said, and he always criticizes their base running, which is true; their inability to throw the ball to the right base; to know how to use a pitcher; to know how to react to a pitcher. He’s right. Do you know who that is?
FRANK J. OTERI: No, I don’t follow sports. I went to these games and as a composer and a musician I was interested.
MILTON BABBITT: He had been a catcher with the St. Louis Cardinals. I won’t mention his name and he’s willing to see these things, which are perfectly obvious to any of us who look at this. I think that baseball is the best game there is. It’s the best structured game. I watch others. Football, but I mean football has this funny business: you’re penalized for scoring, there’s a time limit, now they have hash marks so every play is played from the same position on the field. Basketball I don’t even regard as a game. But baseball is a wonderfully structured game. There is very little you can find…
FRANK J. OTERI: And it’s wonderfully structured and it has a huge audience and a huge audience who understand the structure…
FRANK J. OTERI: …But they understand the structure! They’re following with score cards and…
MILTON BABBITT: Oh, yes, some of them are great experts.
FRANK J. OTERI: You know following with score cards, it’s like going to a concert and…
MILTON BABBITT: And following the score, yeah. Oh, yes. Some of them know a hell of a lot more about it than I do. A lot of them know the history of it much better than I do.
FRANK J. OTERI: So why are people so much more interested in sports than in contemporary music?
MILTON BABBITT: Well, I mean. This is a sociological question.
FRANK J. OTERI: Just posit a though, I mean, it’s baffling to me.
MILTON BABBITT: Oh, is it really?
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, to me it is because I care about contemporary music, I don’t really care about baseball.
MILTON BABBITT: I know, but let’s face it, they were brought up with baseball. They know it. Many of them do and it also has other kinds of connotations. It has all kinds of nationalist…. How many people do you know in New York who are Boston Red Sox fans? I mean, there’s tons of fanaticism.
FRANK J. OTERI: But there are a lot of people in New York who are Philadelphia Orchestra fans.
MILTON BABBITT: Well, they’re wrong now, let me tell you. They’re wrong now.