A People's History of Baseball
By MITCHELL NATHANSON
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter One A GAME OF THEIR OWN
Practically from the inception of the game, baseball and America have been, in a symbolic sense, virtually synonymous. On December 5, 1856, the New York Mercury became the first newspaper to declare the fledgling sport to be our "national pastime;" four years later nationally renowned lithographers Currier and Ives issued a print connecting the sport with the upcoming 1860 presidential election, declaring both to be our "national game[s];" later, poet Walt Whitman would exult that baseball was "America's game," remarking that it "has the snap, go fling of the American atmosphere—belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life." Very quickly, it simply felt natural to speak of baseball and America interchangeably, using one as a metaphor for the other, ascribing values to the game and the men who played and administered it that seemingly rang true on the larger canvas of the expanding and exploding nation as well. All of this seemed inevitable and uniquely American—to be so fortunate to have a game that spoke so clearly to our national character and temperament. What other country could possibly boast of such symbiosis?
In fact, by the middle of the nineteenth century, there were scores of them. In many countries within the vast British Empire, along with many British-influenced societies no longer directly under British rule, people felt toward cricket as Americans were beginning to feel about baseball. Victorian-era colonial rulers, steeped in the British public school ethos of the cultural and socializing influence of team sports such as cricket, used the game precisely for this purpose when confronted with prospect of "civilizing" the non-British "natives." Just as in England, where the game was considered a vital rite of passage in the training of those molded to become the future aristocrats of the empire, colonial rulers in countries such as Barbados deliberately introduced and preached cricket as a "socializing and civilizing agent." In fact, "[c]ricket was considered the main vehicle for transferring the appropriate British moral code from the messengers of empire to the local populations." So central was cricket to the perceived character of the British Empire that it is not unreasonable to assume that had Whitman been domiciled in the Caribbean rather than New York he would have nevertheless issued a virtually identical ode, substituting only the subjects of his exclamation.
The link, then, between sport and society was not unique to America. What was unusual, however, was that despite its British roots and heavy British influence through the middle of the nineteenth century, America nevertheless gravitated to a much less developed game—baseball—and saw in it everything its numerous British-influenced societal kin saw in cricket. Other British-influenced societies had developed native games just as Americans had developed baseball; in this they were no different than America. However, these games largely failed to survive, or if they did, remained confined within the realm of sport. In America, the results were far different. Despite cricket's substantial head start and its historic role as a societal symbol, baseball quickly and forcefully supplanted it both as a game and as the national metaphor. This begs the simple question: why?
The answer lies, at least in part, in another deliberate social policy, this one on behalf of a group of status-conscious Americans who attempted to emulate the small-town values of the Protestant (WASP) establishment of the early and mid-nineteenth century in an effort to increase their societal standing. As baseball became more popular as the century progressed, these men, who would eventually be known as baseball club owners or "magnates," saw an opportunity to hitch their star to the game and use it as a vehicle for self-promotion. For them, the goal was acculturation into the closed world of the respected (but increasingly less influential) WASP elites—a club they, because of perceived shortcomings as a result of familial and/or ethnic handicaps, otherwise could never hope to join merely through the accumulation of wealth alone. Aided by their journalist allies, these individuals set out to promote the game and, in essence, themselves, as "true" Americans, aspiring to a status they were otherwise not assured of achieving because of these familial and ethnic handicaps.
They would achieve this status through their successful proliferation of what has become known as the "baseball creed." Although, as the following chapters attest, the creed has been malleable through the decades, molding and conforming itself to respond to whatever the pressing issues of the day happened to be, its essence has never changed: that baseball, not unlike cricket in places like England, India, and Barbados, to name but a few, is more than a game; instead, it stands in for America in name as well as in concept and is an invaluable tool in the teaching and promotion of American values and ideals. In its most overt and cheerleading form (which was characteristic of its earlier incarnations), the hyperbole was especially thick: the game was promoted as "building manliness, character, and an ethic of success"; it molded youngsters, helping boys become better men not only through playing but simply by watching the game; it contributed to the public health and was an agent for democratization. All of this was neatly summed up by a journalist in 1907 who wrote, "[a] tonic, an exercise, a safety valve, baseball is second only to death as a leveler. So long as it remains our national game, America will abide no monarchy, and anarchy will be slow." Through the baseball creed, these "new money" Americans were ultimately able to gain the status (if not the power) they were seeking, breaking through and eventually opening up the historically closed but rapidly changing American hierarchy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Though initially hardly the "magnates" and "leading citizens" they portrayed themselves to be, eventually they were able to achieve the status they had spent years trumpeting to the American public they had already obtained.
This self-promotional effort was itself not unusual in the sense that social climbing through storytelling has always been, and remains, an American tradition. In fact, America takes its name from a storyteller who hoped to achieve goals similar to those of the early baseball "magnates." Like many of the early "magnates," Amerigo Vespucci was a merchant with aspirations to rise above his station into the aristocracy. Like them, he had obtained a measure of wealth but soon learned that while the closed caste of early sixteenth-century Europe permitted aristocrats to become merchants, it was not so easy for merchants to become aristocrats. More than wealth was required. What was needed was something money could not buy. Therefore, in search of this elusive goal, "[h]e sought to project himself as a magus in touch with the powers of nature, and he frankly wanted enduring renown." Eventually, following in Columbus's path, Vespucci reinvented himself as a world explorer, spinning tales that exaggerated his navigational expertise, accomplishments, and daring. After his death, his legend grew until, by the time of U.S. independence, it reached fruition when he was hailed as a "preincarnation of the spirit of revolutionary America," replete with traits symbolic of the nascent, Enlightenmentera United Statesa nation that, according to the story, had evolved to become the physical manifestation of the spirit of Amerigo Vespucci.
The early baseball "magnates" sought through baseball what Vespucci found through exploration. That they would find it speaks not merely to their efforts at self-promotion, however. To their benefit came, at the same time, a furious attack on the entrenched power structure and societal elites by the growing American underclasses, which were becoming more diverse through immigration and less like the elites who nevertheless still dominated the ruling and societal classes. Together, these movements eventually were able to fracture the closed caste of small-town, upper-crust America, which had been designed to shut these outsiders out in their efforts to keep status, and therefore power, concentrated in the hands of the few.
Excerpted from A People's History of Baseball by MITCHELL NATHANSON Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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