Could Baseball Have Prevented World War I?

The very question sounds ludicrous, something straight out of left field, but in December 1914 the Harvard Bulletin carried this comment from one of its alums:

I truly believe that if there had been a regular major league baseball season in Europe with teams from Berlin, Paris, London, Vienna, etc. as participants, as well as a minor league that included Belgrade and Brussels and some other capitals, the fans would never have tolerated starting this war during the baseball season. (War was declared September 3, 1914) And by the time the World Series was over, people by then would have come to their senses and undoubtedly the war would never have started.

There was one Frenchman who would have agreed with those sentiments wholeheartedly. He was Paul-Henri Balluet d’Estournelles de Constant. Monsieur d’Estournelles was a diplomat, politician and visionary. One thing he was not was an athlete. And yet, were it not for baseball, d’Estournelles might never have won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1909.

Paul-Henri Balluet d’Estournelles de Constant

D’Estournelles was a delegate to the Peace Conference in the Hague which set up the International Court of Arbitration, the forerunner of today’s World Court. His hope was for a political union of European countries and an international society of nations. He also worked with President Woodrow Wilson to set up the League of Nations. The inspiration for all this, he said, came from baseball.

As a young man, d’Estournelles was sent to the U.S. on a diplomatic mission. One day, he was taken to a baseball game. “My goodness,” he exclaimed. “I would like to introduce this sport to France!” What made the greatest impression on him, however, were not the players but the umpires and their ability to “maintain order and prevent disputes.”

Hague Peace Conference 1899

“I know, of course,” d’Estournelles later observed, “that it’s easier to stop a crowd electrified by a sporting event than it is to stop two countries mobilized for war but I was really taken by what I saw on the field and how the umpires exercised control. I saw how they were able to stop outbursts by players and how even if the umpire was wrong, the players had to accept his decision.”

According to Joel Bouzou, head of the international Peace and Sport organization, “It was after seeing that game that d’Estournelles began to dream that these same principles could apply to nations as they apply on the field of play.”

Today, d’Estournelles is honored for having invented the system of international arbitration and conciliation, an achievement for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize more than a century ago.

I don’t think he ever played any sport,” said Bouzou, himself a former Olympic medallist. “And yet, in sport, he found the answer he was looking for, for conflict resolution.”

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