Column: Remembering George Carlin

Comedian's social commentary on baseball, football still shines
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Comedian George Carlin died nearly two years ago, at the age of 71. Almost every elegy for him said, “He is remembered mainly for his skit on the ‘Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Radio.’” But I remember Carlin for a better bit.

I’m not going to discuss his “Seven Dirty Words” routine – it seems a shame to have your life’s work reduced to seven profanities. Carlin was better than that.

I believe Carlin was not only one of our funniest comics – which is, after all, the point of his profession – but also one of the most thoughtful, even insightful. I still use his comparison of baseball and football – and what they say about our society – when I teach my class on the history of college athletics.

Carlin not only breaks down two of our most popular sports, he deftly demonstrates how they define fans as liberal or conservative, dove or hawk, Prius or Hummer.

But I’ll let the man speak for himself.

Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game. Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle.

Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park. The baseball park! Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.

Baseball begins in the spring! The season of new life! Football begins in the fall, when everything’s dying.

Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness. Baseball has … the sacrifice!

Baseball has the seventh inning stretch. Football has the two minute warning.

Baseball has no time limit. We don’t know when it’s gonna end! We might even have extra innings! Football is rigidly timed, and it will end even if we’ve got to go to sudden death.

And finally, the objectives of the two games are completely different:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! I hope I’ll be safe at home!

No sportswriter or professor or deep political thinker ever said it better.

I thank him for that. And I’d like to assume that George Carlin himself is now safe at home.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By Pete Richards
    May 28, 2010 at 7:55 pm | permalink

    Powerful reading.

    UM is all about the football.

  2. By AW
    May 29, 2010 at 1:11 pm | permalink

    I’m certain that George Carlin is not “safe at home” – he would be disgusted by that last comment…he was an outspoken atheist that believed that when you die…you’re dead!