Looking back on it now, it’s well researched. But I felt it needed some tuning up before I shared it as one of my published academic essays!
Baseball as a Reflection of American History
Since the turn of the twentieth century, baseball has been the quintessential American game. It has permeated American culture in so many ways. As Steven Reiss writes in his book, Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era, baseball has been the most popular American game for many years, rarely supplanted by any other sport. It is referred to throughout American culture and in many different contexts. It could even be said that baseball is as much a part of America’s national identity as the Constitution!
Through the history of baseball, we can see a game that has grown along with America. Perhaps, the most important things to consider with baseball are the numerous contradictions that have existed in the game. These same contradictions, in principle, have existed in America as well. For example, baseball has the “world” series, but for the longest time it was played only by white Americans!
Look at baseball and American history. For many years, participation in the game was denied to a great percentage of America’s population, just because of the color of their skin. Many of those same folks were denied the chance to pursue success of many kinds in this country! Still, the game serves as a positive beacon of hope for America’s future. There is always a chance to win at this game. Though in some cases it has separated us, baseball has indeed in more ways than one brought America together.
Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams — those are names of American heroes that many people have identified with over the years, figures beloved by so many. There is no other sport in America that has produced such a long line of famous athletes. But beyond Babe Ruth, there is an even deeper connection that baseball has to America and the American dream, one far more basic. Baseball is the great American ball game that we all know.
Baseball in the Community
Baseball has long been a game of community, something that Americans of all backgrounds could enjoy together. Spectators at baseball games have long been of all races, colors, classes, and creeds. Perhaps, the working-class spirit of the game has been lost over the past few decades. This is especially because of the increasing costs of a trip to a major league ballgame. Going to the major league ballpark is now a rather expensive venture. Still, many fans still fill the ballparks of America. However, the television and radio have kept many fans staying at home to follow the games, play-by-play, for free.
But, with all the amateur and professional minor leagues still around the country today, baseball is still probably one of the most accessible professional major sports left in America. As Ken Burns pointed out in his epic documentary about the sport, baseball is a pastoral game that grew in cities. It literally gave urban dwellers a chance to escape city life for a breath of fresh air. Enjoying baseball gives anyone a chance to share in a game that Americans have treasured now for many years.
So many aspects of baseball have permeated American life: baseball caps, hot dogs, and lingo. Hitting a homerun and striking out do not just refer to game-play itself. The American Museum of Natural History once said of baseball on its website, “Every nation cherishes symbols of its history and heritage—traditions, arts, or rituals that capture the character of its people.” Baseball is the greatest of all American symbols. It has produced larger-than-life heroes. The modern game reflects the American culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a game with emphasis on individual performance, but that performance must help the greater cause of the whole team.
Baseball in the 1890’s and early twentieth-century was a game of community. People went to baseball games as entertainment and to share a common love for the sport. It quickly became the hometown game for many Americans. Today, while it is still a big social event, with rapidly rising ticket prices and concession costs, it is far less accessible than it once was. Fortunately, there are many minor league and independent teams that can provide great baseball entertainment for a fraction of the cost.
Still, major league baseball, just like many of the professional sports, is full of a lot of very highly paid players. Even some of the lesser paid players live quite comfortably. The true stars live luxurious lifestyles both during and after the season. It was not always this way. Indeed, the fact that sports stars have become so incredibly well-compensated for their efforts on the playing field reflects a lot on American culture itself. It shows how the pursuit of wealth has just become even more prominent in American society over the years.
At the major league level, baseball requires a great deal of both physical and mental preparation. It is a hard game, one of the hardest of all sports to master. Baseball is such a fascinating game. It's a boy’s game played by adults to serve as entertainment for millions of Americans and a growing international audience. But it is not just a wildly popular major league sport. It is a game that we all know as people play in pickup games and amateur leagues all over the nation, and increasingly today in many places around the globe.
Is Baseball “Boring” or Too Slow?
The uninitiated may say that baseball is “boring.” But as the quintessential “American pastime,” it welcomes all to come and share in the joy of community. Perhaps, many people just don’t appreciate the intentionally deliberate pace of the game. Baseball is not slow at all. It is just that some people are turned off by the many pauses in the action between plays. Everything seems so still, and then suddenly, the ball is thrown, and everything happens so fast.
However, other people still complain that the overall pace of baseball is too slow. As many baseball scholars and true fans of the game will admit, however, this is far from the truth. Noted baseball author George Will points out in his book, Men at Work, that there is in fact a lot of action going on down there on the baseball field. Baseball is a game of many split-second reactions. You have to pay attention to the game to notice them. There are so many little details to be enjoyed in the game.
Baseball is a drama. There is no clock. The teams just play until one team has scored more runs in nine innings than the other. If there is a tie game after that time frame, extra innings are played until one team wins. Someone has to come out the winner, and someone has to come out the loser. But you never know how long the game will take to be played. Even with only one out remaining in a game, a lot can change. There is no race to the finish.
Baseball is a Marathon
Baseball, as we know it today, is a marathon of one hundred and sixty two games. It may at times seem slow-paced, and the season may seem to drag on forever. But as keen observers will notice, baseball is a game of numerous nuances and subtle graces. It is a game that can take time for some people to catch onto. Baseball may not be constant non-stop action, and there may be many pauses. But when the action is on, it is action of split-second reactions, top-notch athletic performances, and “baseball instincts.”
Baseball is a game in which brains can be more useful than the brawn, though both are crucial to a winning team in this game. The little things are equally as important as the big things. The little people “set the table” for the big people. Some people would use these aspects of the game to liken it to a model of American capitalism. That comparison could certainly be made.
As filmmaker Ken Burns says of the game in Baseball, “It is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope, and coming home.” What is especially unique about baseball is that its immense number of games. Players work day-in day-out through a grueling schedule of physically and mentally demanding performances. Baseball doesn’t have nearly the number of breaks that many other sports have. The season is so long and only the top teams will survive.
Some will say that this method of elimination allows only the survival of the fittest. But it can also be said that such a long season leaves hope for those teams that don’t start out well. Hope can stay alive for a long time, just adding to the drama that is so associated with the game. On the most basic level, baseball is a game that many of us can relate to. You can’t win every day — you just have to keep playing the game right!
The World Series vs The Super Bowl
The World Series is not the Super Bowl, either. The Super Bowl is but one game often marred by controversy, bad calls, and overwhelmingly laden with top-dollar advertising. A best-of-seven game series, however, provides a much better chance for the better team to come out on top, with more chance at a fair winner. There is much more drama in playing out a best-of seven game series.
The Super Bowl is just one game that can be commercialized to death, to the point that what is the game but just another TV show? Baseball is not a game in which you can have half-time shows and fill breaks with massive amounts of million-dollar commercials. The game doesn’t have room for those. When the game is on, the game is on.
The Mythology of Baseball
Like America, baseball has plenty of its own mythology. While it has become well understood that Abner Doubleday was not the inventor of baseball, the myth still holds today. This myth was the work of one of baseball’s all-time big businessmen: sports king Albert Spalding. He was known during the late 1890’s and early twentieth century as the “baseball Messiah.” He sent out a team researchers to prove that baseball was a purely American game.
After much fruitless research, an old man wrote to Spalding with a silly story that Civil War hero Abner Doubleday had created the game as a young man in Cooperstown, New York. It just seemed only right to have a Civil War hero, an American hero, cast as the brainchild of baseball. As silly as it is to have an origin myth for a sport, it does prove baseball’s very special place in American history. Baseball is more than just a game; it is a part of American history and culture. In truth, baseball was an amateur sport played all over the country in many different forms for many years before the game as we know it was born today.
Baseball as an American Industry
In reality, what we know as baseball today was brought into official existence by New Yorker Alexander Cartwright. He was the one who drew out the first official rules for the game. Though considerably different from today’s rules, in many respects, it was clearly baseball. So, it can be said that Cartwright is the father of modern baseball.
Within the next couple of decades, the sport became a business venture. American businessmen saw its potential for great profits. Harry Wright created the first major professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. The team toured the nation defeating many amateur teams and private baseball clubs.
Many people of that time found it absolutely ridiculous that a boy’s game could ever become a business. It was widely felt that commercialization of the sport would destroy the game. Contrary to that belief, what began as just a game soon became an industry, the one we know today as professional baseball.
Today, it can be argued that baseball has become just another American industry. It sells beer and all sorts of merchandise. But in true American tradition, if a profit can be made from something, those profits will be maximized by someone or other sooner or later. Baseball was an instant hit at first. But with the many issues surrounding the game, the gambling and betting and the unruliness of crowds, the game by the 1920’s seemed to be in trouble. In the game’s darkest hour, however, the greatest superstar in the game made his appearance.
The “Babe” - The Greatest Superstar Ever in the History of Baseball?
Babe Ruth is the first major star that we think of when we think of baseball. He is what we believe is the first great superstar of baseball. His name is synonymous with the home run. With George Herman Ruth coming on the scene, the American public was exposed to a new brand of ballplayer, the home run hitter. “Babe” was a man with unbelievable natural power who would become the face of the game.
Ruth began with the Boston Red Sox as a fine left-handed pitcher, as well as a great hitter. After winning the 1918 World Series, Ruth would become an outfielder, to take better advantage of his power hitting by playing him every day. However, in a desperate financial move, Boston owner Harry Frazee sold several of his players to the then uninteresting New York Yankees. The stars involved would be pitcher Carl Mays and, of course, the soon to be legendary slugging outfielder Babe Ruth.
The addition of the home run as a viable offensive weapon in baseball gave the game a whole new dimension. In fact, this new development popularized the sport more than ever before. Home run hitters meant huge box office sales. Fans soon came to enjoy a much different game than they had seen until that point. Baseball had been a game of pitching, speed, and defense up until then. With Babe Ruth’s entrance, baseball became a game about power, hitting home runs. Americans came to idolize the home run hitters.
In turn, the proliferation of home runs made great pitchers that much more important. With the appearance of Babe Ruth changing the scene of the game forever, a lighter baseball was developed by the owners to make the game much more exciting. People paid to see home runs hit! It was a great way to profit from the game. But even with all of its immense popularity and great stars, there was still a great injustice within the game. Of course, the most well-documented of all the injustices in which both baseball and America shared was the issue of racism.
Racism in Baseball
While there was never a written rule banning black players, it was generally understood that baseball was a white man’s game. It is very important to understand that before the appearance of Jackie Robinson that all baseball heroes were white. Actually, all baseball personnel were white, players and managers alike. If a black man was to play baseball, he had to play in the Negro Leagues, completely separate from the exclusively white Major Leagues. So, in the land of the free, some of the greatest talents in the country could not showcase their talents in the Major Leagues. Their only disqualification was their skin color!
It took a very special kind of player to finally break that color line. That player was Jackie Robinson. Legendary general manager Branch Rickey helped Robinson break into the major leagues with his Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Roger Kahn wrote a book, The Boys of Summer, which covered his experiences as a writer with the Brooklyn Dodgers. In it, he wrote how we will likely never see a player like Robinson again “He bore the burden of a pioneer,” Kahn wrote, “and the weight made him more strong.”
Robinson may not have been one of the greatest players of all time. But he was certainly a star caliber player that took the brunt of so much contempt and such misplaced hatred. Roger Kahn wrote that a fan, “By applauding Robinson…for an instant…had accepted Robinson simply as a hometown ball player. To disregard color, even for an instant, is to step away from the old prejudices, the old hatred. That is not a path on which many double back.”
Baseball was a great influence in scaling back racism in America. After the excellent play of Robinson, many other African-American stars entered the game. These included the long-time Negro League pitcher, Satchel Paige. Soon, foreign talents such as Roberto Clemente, Luis Tiant, and Juan Marichal, would continue tearing down the walls of racism in the sport of baseball. Later, stars as Joe Morgan and Willie Mays would cement themselves in the major leagues as Hall-of-Fame caliber players.
Baseball and American Progress
Through baseball, we see America’s progress in the areas of diversity. First there were the immigrants – many of whom were some of the game’s first major stars. Later, they would play a key role in breaking the “gentleman’s agreement” that black players should not ever be allowed to play alongside whites. In recent years, baseball has spread across the globe. It is now played all over the globe, especially in Japan, Central American, South American, and Caribbean countries.
Look at the amazing number of star players now coming out of the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and Mexico! The American Museum of Natural History once said on its now-defunct ‘Baseball is America’ exhibit website, “In baseball—as in America—freedom is an ongoing quest.” Now anyone in the world who can play the game of baseball at a high level can join the major leagues. Many of these people come from poor countries that are so glad to see these star athletes make it big in America. The “Baseball is America” exhibit website also said with optimistic nostalgia,
“The game has mirrored American intolerance and efforts to end it. It has greeted immigrants welcomingly and warily, spawning bittersweet scenes such as wartime Japanese-American internees defying prejudice with bat and glove.”
On the baseball field, everyone is equal. They are ballplayers, and all other things are suddenly forgotten. The advent of the World Baseball Classic in March of 2006 can be seen as another step further towards the globalization of the sport. Major league ballplayers have been selected by national teams, who battled in tournament play in which Japan inevitably won the first World Cup. Many people did not care for this World Cup idea of baseball, but it certainly does reflect the globalization of American culture.
Now, countries all over the world share in the game of baseball, and give people with great baseball talents a chance to play in the world-famous Major Leagues. The great American game has become a worldwide phenomenon. Some people are not entirely ecstatic about all the foreign talent. But, as we have seen in the past, that feeling is certainly subject to change with the next foreign superstar.
A Sport to Stand the Test of Time
Baseball has been a cultural constant that traverses time. Minor aspects of the game have changed. There is the designated hitter in the American League, added supposedly to increase overall offense. Also, so much money is made in today's game. Collective bargaining agreements have to be worked out every few years to keep players and owners alike happy.
Otherwise, baseball is still pretty much the same game it was in the 1890's. It's still true to the game that Alexander Cartwright and his friends worked out on the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey. Most importantly, it is still a game, a haven of fond childhood memories and a taste of good old pastoral atmosphere, and a great American drama.
Reaching the major leagues still is the dream of many young Americans. Many older Americans still wish that they could have their shot at the show. But most Americans are content to just root for their favorite team through the long season. They still follow their favorite players as they battle through each win and loss on the road to trying to get into the playoffs. And the promised land is still the same: to reach the greatest of America’s championship series: the World Series.
With the number of countries now represented by the players in the major leagues, it is truly becoming far more realistic to call the championship of the great American ballgame, a World Series.
Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer. Harper and Row: New York, 1972.
George Will, Men at Work. New York: Macmillan Co., 1990.
Steven A. Riess. Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Baseball. Dir. Ken Burns. DVD. PBS Home Video, 1994.
Special thanks to the American Museum of Natural History for their past exhibit “Baseball As America.” While that exhibit is no longer available, and the corresponding website is no longer live, many parts of this essay were inspired by this content. The spirit of that exhibit still lives on through this work.