Thursday, March 31, 2011

Baseball and America

OldBaseballGameToday is opening day for Major League Baseball and, as it has for more than a century, attention once again focuses on a game that is so uniquely America and so symbolic of our summers.  Long called the “national pastime”—even now when it probably has been eclipsed by football—the  game continues to tell us much about our society.

The historian Jacques Barzun famously wrote in the 1950s:  “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules, and reality of the game."   Disillusioned by the “commercialization” of the game, he later recanted that but there is still something profound to his argument.

The United States grew up with baseball.  We know that the game saw northerners and southerners  play against each other during the Civil War.  This great conflict, as it did in so many other areas, helped to nationalize the game—at least in sorting through conflicting rules.  It also was an opportunity to bring together enthusiasts from different parts of the country.

The late 19th century saw a growing popularity of the sport, attracting colorful athletes who seemed to reflect that rough-and-tumble era.  But this was all a precursor to the game that we largely know from the turn of the new century, when the two major leagues were in place and the first world series was held in 1903.

Baseball went through various periods in the 20th century, reflecting changing rules, equipment specifications and other issues.  Until the blossoming of the legendary Babe Ruth and the championing of the explosive home run, baseball was characterized by a dead-ball era where so-called “inside baseball” was king.  Shrewd, defensive play and teamwork was the order of the day.

Ruth, a splendid manifestation of the Roaring Twenties, changed all that.  His home run totals in that decade were unprecedented, reaching a pinnacle with the longstanding record of 60 in 1927.  With the advent of the radio, millions began to have access to the thrill of the long ball.  The nation, recently emerging from World War I, was looking for diversions in sports, notably in baseball, but also in boxing and football.

By the next decade there was a growing assimilation of immigrants, including Italian-Americans, into the game.  Joe DiMaggio was perhaps the most notable but there were many others.  Baseball had become a vehicle for fame and some fortune for poor kids throughout the country.  The game expanded its appeal to various ethnic groups.

Baseball provided a valuable diversion through World War II although many star players were serving overseas.   President Franklin Roosevelt even wrote Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1942:   “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.”

But the game, despite its impact and gradual expansion, did not include African-Americans—at least in the major leagues.  And that tells us much about the persistent racism then in the country, despite the great contribution of African-Americans during the war.  Of course, it was the courageous Jackie Robinson and the visionary Branch Rickey who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.

Still, baseball was not truly integrated until years later, and that reflects the ongoing civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s.  Just as Brown v. Board of Education of 1954 was slow in being implemented, so was the embracing of African-American players.  The last big league team to add an African-American to its roster came in 1959.

Baseball probably reached the apogee of its popularity between the 1930s and 1950s.  After that, changes were taking place which recast the game.  The most significant issue, certainly, was the rise of televised sports and the money that was now to be made by owners and, eventually, by players.  This was the start of the time where players, though still gifted athletes, made the transition to high-paid celebrities, largely unencumbered by long-term team and city loyalties.

While baseball remains popular with millions and is an important draw for Latin American athletes and fans, the slower pace of the game seems to have fallen victim to the frenetic lifestyle of modern America.  Football and even basketball, with their quick pace and heightened tension, are more attuned to the quick-burst intensity of the computer age.

So much more can be said about baseball.  Studying each decade, from the early 1900s onward, tells us much about ourselves as a people.  I would argue that Barzun is still largely correct in the sense that this game is a reflection of modern America.

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