Baseball without Borders

Baseball without Borders

by George Gmelch

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Baseball without Borders by George Gmelch

A televised baseball game from Puerto Rico, Japan, or even Cuba might look a lot like the North American game. Beneath the outward similarities, however—the uniforms and equipment and basic rules—there is usually a very different history and culture influencing the nuances of the sport. These differences are what interest the authors of Baseball without Borders, a book about America's national pastime going global and undergoing instructive, entertaining, and sometimes curious changes in the process. The contributors, leading authorities on baseball in the fourteen nations under consideration, look at how the game was imported—how it took hold and developed, how it is organized, played, and followed—and what these local and regional trends and features say about the sport's place in particular cultures.

Organized by region—Asia, the Americas, Europe, and the Pacific—and written by journalists, historians, anthropologists, and English professors, these original essays reflect diverse perspectives and range across a refreshingly wide array of subjects: from high school baseball in Japan and Little League in Taiwan to fan behavior in Cuba and the politics of baseball in China and Korea.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803256064
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Publication date: 11/01/2006
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

George Gmelch is Roger Thayer Stone Professor of Anthropology at Union College in Schenectady, New York. He is the author of nine books, including Inside Pitch: Life inside Professional Baseball and In the Ballpark: The Working Lives of Baseball People, both available in Bison Books editions. For three seasons in the 1960s, Gmelch played in the minor leagues; he has also played professionally outside the United States for several seasons.

Contributors include Carlos Azzoni, Tales Azzoni, Peter Carino, Thomas Carter, Josh Chetwynd, Joseph Clark, Dan Gordon, Colin Howell, William W. Kelly, Alan Klein, Andrew Morris, Franklin Otto, Wayne Patterson, Joseph A. Reaves, Harvey Shapiro, Thomas E. Van Hyning, and Tim Wendell.

Read an Excerpt

Baseball without Borders

The International Pastime

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.


Around the Horn

A televised baseball game from Puerto Rico, Japan, or even Cuba looks much like the North American game. The players use the same gloves and bats, wear similar uniforms, and play by the same basic rules. But beneath the outward similarity there is usually a very different history, and a culture influencing the nuances of the sport. Even how players and their fans think about the game and what they value may not be the same. As Joseph Reaves notes about baseball in Asia, "It can look so similar and somehow feel so different." The essays in this collection explore such differences in fourteen baseball-playing nations. The essays are diverse not only in the cultures they describe, but also in the perspectives adopted by their authors who range from anthropologists to historians, from journalists to English professors, with a few independent scholars as well. The essays are also diverse because I placed few restrictions on what they chose to write about. I suggested some topics, such as the origins of baseball in their country, its development, and how local versions of the game differ from that played in the United States, but otherwise the contributors were free to write about whatever aspects of the sport they thought American baseball fans (the intended audience) would find interesting. Some of the essays deal exclusively with the professional gameabroad while some, especially where there is not a strong professional league, also look at the amateur level.

I could have organized the essays in several ways. One way might have been by the level of baseball's development, such as tier one, two, and three countries, with tier one comprising nations like Japan and the Dominican Republic, where baseball is a major national sport and a well-established professional league exists; tier three would include countries where baseball is a minor sport with few followers and no professional league, such as Brazil. Ultimately, however, I felt it made more sense to group the essays by geography. Each region-Asia, the Americas, Europe, and the Pacific-share similarities in history and culture that have resulted in some parallels in the origins, development, and local versions of baseball found within them.

The collection begins with Asia, with two essays on the Japanese game. Baseball is not a postwar, General MacArthur-inspired American import as some American baseball fans believe; it was introduced in 1867 by a young American teaching at a Tokyo university. Baseball became popular among schoolboys and eventually won recognition from the government for its educational and health benefits. In the first essay, "Japan: Changing of the Guard in High School Baseball," Dan Gordon reveals the unique characteristics of Japanese high school baseball and the all-Japan national tournament at Koshien. Far more than a mere sport, Japanese school ball is a philosophy and an educational tool. It is considered a spiritual discipline that teaches many of the values that define the Japanese bushido tradition of teamwork, dedication, discipline, and respect. Gordon also notes an unhealthy side to Japanese high school ball, including hazing, corporal punishment, and its sometimes excruciating and borderline abusive training methods-activities that would not be tolerated in an American high school.

Gordon's essay has personal significance for me in that his research on international baseball dates back to when he was a student at Union College, where I have taught for the past twenty-five years. I was on the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Committee, which screened student applicants for a generous grant that enables a lucky few to travel abroad and explore a topic of their choice for one year after graduation. Dan came to my office to talk about the fellowship, and out of that conversation emerged the idea of looking at local versions of baseball in four cultures. Dan wrote a compelling proposal, won the fellowship, and a few days after graduation embarked on an eighteen-month global baseball odyssey to Japan, Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Fifteen years later he returned to two of these countries for follow-up research and is the author of two essays in this volume.

In "Japan: The Hanshin Tigers and Japanese Professional Baseball," Yale University anthropologist William W. Kelly examines professional baseball and its place in Japanese society. American fans may be surprised to learn that Japan's professional league was created by private urban railroad companies which in the early part of the twentieth century built sports stadiums and other amusements to boost business on their trains. Vestiges of that are evident in the time limits on Japanese games (which can result in games ending in ties) so that commuting fans can catch the last train home.

While the Japanese have certainly transformed baseball to fit their own culture, Kelly is critical of the exaggerated and simplistic image in the West of the Japanese game as "samurai baseball"-that is, as a sport that turns play into pedagogy and a character-building enterprise. While Americans play baseball, the Japanese work baseball, goes the stereotype. The most common metaphor used to explain the national differences is the so-called Japanese propensity for playing "Little Ball," with its emphasis on sacrifice bunts, hit-and-run, slap hits, and getting the lead early, versus the American preference for "Big Ball," where hitters swing for the fences and managers play for the big inning until late in the game.

Ironically, some of the most exotic and outlandish aspects of Japanese baseball were borrowed from the early American game, such as the organized chanting and cheering of private fan clubs. This phenomenon originated with American university cheerleading squads, which the first Japanese college baseball teams, which toured the United States in the early twentieth century, observed. The Japanese were impressed and took notes, and upon their return to Japan trained their own student cheerleading squads, thus starting a tradition that was later adopted by the professional game. Discovering this in Kelly's essay was embarrassing for me; while teaching in Japan I had on occasion taken my American students to watch Japanese baseball games and had always drawn their attention to the organized cheering as something uniquely Japanese-an example of Japanese collectivism and group unity.

Kelly notes the many ways in which the Japanese game has diverged from the North American game. For example, baseball is Japan's dominant or "center" sport and does not get much competition from other sports. In the United States, Major League Baseball (MLB) must compete with the NFL and the NBA for fans. Infields in most Japanese stadiums are composed solely of dirt, the games are slower, players' careers are shorter, the salary range is more compressed (with a smaller income gap between superstars and journeymen), and the rosters are much larger because teams do not have much of a minor league system. It is this version of the game, and not the great American game, that has diffused across Asia.

In "China: Silk Gowns and Gold Gloves," journalist Joseph A. Reaves, who covered Asia for the Chicago Tribune for many years and who upon his return to the United States in 1992 reported on the Chicago Cubs for four seasons, charts the erratic history of baseball in China. Surprisingly, baseball was played in China as early as 1863, a decade before the first game in Japan. However, the game did not take root until much later. In nineteenth-century China, baseball was best known for the role it played in the cancellation of China's first and most ambitious educational exchange with the United States. Many of the 120 Chinese students sent to the United States in 1872 to learn the best of Western science and engineering developed a fondness for baseball, along with some other Western habits. When Chinese conservatives reported the students' transgressions back to the Imperial Court, the mission was canceled and the students were called home. Baseball then languished until the early 1900s, when many Chinese students began studying in Japan and became reacquainted with baseball, Japan's major collegiate sport. Baseball then gained a small following in China until the Cultural Revolution (1961-74), when the game was dismissed as a symbol of Western decadence. Across China zealous Red Guards ridiculed and sometimes persecuted players and coaches, and international competitions were no longer held. After the Cultural Revolution the game made a comeback and was even extolled by Chinese leaders for its benefits in military training (e.g., it teaches soldiers how to throw hand grenades more accurately). At times reviled, at times exalted, baseball survived these upheavals; today Chinese leaders are encouraging the development of baseball in anticipation of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Baseball arrived in Taiwan in 1897, shortly after the Japanese colonized the island. First played by Japanese youth, mostly at school, it was later adopted by Taiwanese boys and was an acceptable setting in which Taiwan's colonized population could interact and compete with the Japanese. "Taiwan: Baseball, Colonialism, and Nationalism" is by historian Andrew Morris, who lived two blocks from the baseball stadium in Taizhong while doing research for his doctoral dissertation on another topic. He became a die-hard fan of the President Lions, and eventually became interested in questions of colonialism, nationalism, and ethnic identity in Taiwan's national game, questions he addresses in his essay.

Many American readers will recall Taiwan's unparalleled Little League success (ten Little League World Series titles between 1969 and 1981 and sixteen altogether). Morris examines the role of these championships in developing national pride and promoting nationalism. Morris is particularly interested in the interplay between the local and international dimensions of Taiwanese baseball. The popularity of the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL), for example, has depended on maintaining a balance between respect for local Chinese tradition and the international (e.g., allowing foreigners to play in its league). The league lost much of its fan support in the 1990s when it allowed so many foreign players (up to ten per team) in that they pushed all of the native Taiwanese players out of the starring roles.

In "Korea: Straw Sandals and Strong Arms," Reaves charts the development of Korean baseball. Like Taiwan, Korea was also a colony of Japan; both later became close allies of the United States. Although a U.S. missionary first introduced baseball to Korea in the 1870s, it was the Japanese occupiers who spread the game. The colonial authorities promoted baseball as part of their plan to indoctrinate Korean youth with Japanese ways. Much like in Taiwan, Koreans first adopted the game as a way to peacefully challenge their oppressors, but it later became a way to impress outsiders. Reaves also shows how a government, threatened by a restive population, used baseball as an opiate. Indeed, one of the primary objectives of the Korea Baseball Organization in the 1980s was to divert the public's attention from politics to sports-to find an outlet for its restless and often rebellious young men.

Part 2, made up of seven essays on baseball in the Americas, leads off with the Dominican Republic. Baseball in the Dominican Republic is sometimes described as "a national fever." Dominican children relate to baseball in the same way that American children respond to TV and video games. No other aspect of Dominican life, except perhaps merengue, has provided as much joi de vivre in this Caribbean country as has baseball. As Alan Klein so ably documents in his book, Sugarball: The American Game, the Dominican Dream, the development of Dominican baseball is closely tied to sugarcane. Early on baseball became a diversion for cane workers during their breaks from the sugar fields, and many of the first leagues were organized by sugar factory managers. In "Dominican Republic: Forging an International Industry," Klein explores the Dominican Republic's rise to international baseball prominence. After a brief review of the early history of baseball in the country, Klein turns to the ways talented local youths are developed into professional prospects. These center on the baseball academies set up by MLB organizations to train Dominican youths, and the Dominican network of buscónes or amateur scouts who locate, nourish, instruct, and then link young prospects with a Major League organization (in exchange for a percentage of the prospect's signing bonus).

Klein also examines the transnational relationships between Dominican and American baseball. Where some observers have viewed the relationship in mostly exploitative terms (e.g., Arturo J. Marcano Guevara and David P. Fidler's Stealing Lives: The Globalization of Baseball and the Tragic Story of Alexis Quiroz), Klein shows that while North American interests dominated Dominican baseball in the 1950s and 1960s, severely crippling the local Dominican professional league, relations have become more reciprocal in recent years.

Baseball arrived in Cuba in the 1860s, introduced by students returning from the United States. Folklore credits Nemiso Guillo for bringing the game to Cuba, when he returned from Springfield College in Mobile, Alabama, with a bat and baseball in his trunk. American sailors helped spread the game by playing with locals in Cuban ports. Interest in the game also got a lift from visiting American barnstormers in the 1870s. Just as the Japanese were responsible for spreading the game through Asia, Cubans became the apostles of baseball in parts of the Caribbean. Tim Wendel, in "Cuba: Behind the Curtain," takes us on a personal journey across the island's baseball landscape. Along the way he examines the inflated claims that Fidel Castro was a genuine prospect (he wasn't) as well as the impact of the Cuban revolution on the island's national pastime (considerable). In Wendel's interactions with a baseball official and with fans we learn of their thirst for information about the North American Major Leagues, particularly what American baseball looks like-Cuba's fans have no access to TV or other images of American games and ballparks.

In the second essay on Cuba, "Cuba: Community, Fans, and Ballplayers," anthropologist Thomas Carter tells us more about the consequences of the revolution for Cuban baseball and then focuses on the relationship between Cuban fans and their baseball heroes. Carter, who went to Cuba to study other aspects of baseball for his doctoral dissertation, became enthralled with the easy, unrestricted relations fans have with Cuba's ballplayers, which is in stark contrast to the more distant relationship between fans and players in the United States.

In "Puerto Rico: A Major League Steppingstone," Thomas E. Van Hyning and Franklin Otto write from the perspective of fans who grew up on the island watching Puerto Rico Winter League (PRWL) baseball in its heyday. They survey the early development of Puerto Rican baseball and then turn to the PRWL, where so many fine U.S. and Caribbean Major League players spent their winters in the six-team league. In operation since 1938, the PRWL was in danger of folding in the early 1990s, in part because many of the homegrown stars no longer wished to return home to play-as Major Leaguers they had large salaries and didn't need the money and their American teams didn't want them to risk injury. Today a new generation of Puerto Rican stars is playing in the PRWL, wanting to honor their country and let their fans, many of whom will never travel to the United States, see their heroes in person.


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