National Pastime

Posted on March 16, 2011


In 1954, Jacques Barzun wrote, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”[1] At first, that appears to overstate the case; conventional wisdom insists that no element of popular culture deserves such a central consideration in the definition and characterization of a society. Yet, historians in recent years have lent increasing legitimacy to the place of baseball in America’s historical development as a nation.[2] These historians point out that prior to 1850, America lacked any sort of overarching cohesion, any sort of binding nationalism. They tie baseball and its growth as a national game to the development of a national identity and a national culture, particularly in the years immediately after the Civil War. Echoing the sentiments of cultural anthropologists, many historians have posited that “… a culture’s components reflect its society’s fundamental characteristics.”[3] Baseball’s rightful place in the psyche of Americans must be determined by a careful calculation of the intersection of two distinct but equally weighted interactions between America and its game: first, those ways in which the latter has impacted the former, and second, the ways in which the former has shaped the latter.

Historian Jules Tygiel contends that baseball’s rise to the prominent position of America’s national pastime defies the generally accepted perception of a game peculiarly amicable to some sort of pre-existing American ethos. Tygiel points out that the game gained a cohesive sensibility, a real identity, only in the years immediately prior to the Civil War, in lockstep with the country itself.[4] To project upon baseball any inherent trait that makes inevitable its relationship with American society, is to assume that baseball, in and of itself, possesses some set of sentient qualities all its own, an inhuman intuition or artificial intelligence. Contrary to the predominantly romantic portraits of the game painted by writers on the subject throughout the greater part of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, that kind of personification exaggerates and distorts the reality of baseball’s development, and belies the true source of the game’s sway over its people. Though it ought to be self-apparent, the fact that baseball grew logically from the milieu of urban America in the mid-1800s, and specifically from the values and ideals of its creators, deserves to be illuminated, in the hope of demonstrating the reflexive nature of baseball’s relationship with the American society into which it was born, and indeed, the one that exists today.

New York City gave birth to baseball, at least as any modern American would recognize it.[5] Originally a variation on several different ball games, such as cricket, rounders and townball, baseball began as a pastime primarily for the wealthy and urbane.[6] Indeed, though diamonds and parks often feel like oases of calm and tradition in the hyper-progressive steel and concrete world of the city, “…from the outset organized baseball was an urban product.”[7] As such, it sought to appeal to an urban audience, an enormously diverse demographic. In particular, the game appealed to the rich, since, at least in its organized iteration, its demands upon the time and money of participants exceeded the means of many in the urban working class. This explains the perception, which persisted for over a century before fading in the face of modern media and investigative reporting, of baseball as the gentleman’s game. Rules against swearing, arguing with umpires, and even spitting in some cases, demonstrated the emphasis placed upon decorum among early framers of the game, and revealed the values of the times.[8] Moreover, the game’s earliest proponents strove to widen the swath of citizens to whom the game would strongly appeal, by carefully crafting rules and rhetoric which fit baseballs nugly into the newly industrialized, urbanized, and rationalized culture of American thought. Henry Chadwick, whom some identify as “Father Baseball,” advocated the game as uniquely suited to America, and fought to solidify its preeminence by rationalizing the game—Chadwick pioneered the world of baseball statistic—and by framing the game as “scientific” and “manly,” both of which were prized attributes in industrial America.[9] Historians attached the same attributes to the game throughout its development, presuming baseball as a central part of American culture, and simply weighting its influence according the value they perceived in culture itself as a measuring stick of society.[10]

Competing perceptions of the nature of baseball’s importance in the history of the American city have dictated the emergence of two diverse views. On one hand, a number of historians identify baseball as a sort of American mythology, its stars acting as Greek gods, its stories common knowledge, its metaphors universally understood by the people.[11] Baseball, by this reckoning, fits Mark Twain’s description of the game as “the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive, and push, and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century!”[12] In other words, these historians locate the majority of baseball’s value as a historical and social institution in the symbolic; this view minimizes whatever tangible impact the game may have over America’s history as an urban nation, over industrialization, social trends, or technological innovation. History supports this argument, to a certain extent: Baseball’s popularity waxed and waned throughout the second half of the nineteenth and all of the twentieth century, according to American’s self-image.

If baseball answers on America’s behalf to the Greek mythological tradition, its heroes are the equivalent of the Greek gods, as imperfect and yet omnipotent in their society’s eyes as their immortal predecessors. The first great baseball hero, tellingly, doubled as the first modern American celebrity. George Herman Ruth, “Babe” to the masses, draws the eye of many historians, who identify Ruth’s persona and crossover influence as an example of the transcendent power of the baseball hero in American society. Indeed, Ruth nearly qualifies as an anti-hero; no dearth of evidence that the Babe indulged his every appetite exists. Yet, he achieved universal appeal in the roaring 20s, and even into the 1930s, as his career slowly declined. Ruth encapsulated every side and angle of the American dream: an orphan, he rose to riches beyond the imaginations of the enormous majority of his admirers, but proved not to be above the enticements that whispered in the ear of every American in the new urban world of excess. He exemplified the dangerous double-edged character of this new American dream: it could make a man wealthy, powerful, famous, but it couldn’t instill in him any special morality. Yet, historians remain kind to Ruth, even in the era of revisionist history that has cast great leaders and celebrities into ever-uglier lights.[13] This reflects the very Greek notion that absolute truth, while valuable in its place, takes a backseat in the case of baseball to the value of preserving the sense of identity many Americans glean from their game’s historical mysticism.

The same goes for Mickey Mantle, whose wild antics also garnered a disproportionately small amount of criticism during his reign as the Golden Boy of baseball in the 1950s. Though, by contrast with the inner-city Baltimore kid Ruth, Mantle hailed from the suburban lifestyle small-town Oklahoma, he managed to match Ruth (or nearly do so) in the height and scope of his fame and adoration, despite equally raucous behavior. This illustrates the shifting ideals of the American populace to whom Mantle was introduced in 1952. The New York Mantle met had seen a Depression, and then a War, and no longer saw the same value in the sort of arrogant, relentless ebullience that Ruth had offered. That New York needed a star more suited to the conservative tastes of the 50s, an ideology that championed the virtue of suburban life, settled lives, less flashy and more efficient. Though privately rambunctious, Mantle appeared to meet these standards. One historian wrote of Mantle: “He was the last sports hero we had while we still felt good about ourselves as a country—before JFK was shot and Vietnam and Watergate all took away our innocence.”[14] Though characteristically over-romanticized, the viewpoint expressed merits a second look. It suggests an inevitable, inexorable link between the fate of the national pastime, and the fate of the nation itself. Failing that, it at least embodies the more romantic viewpoint of the game’s place in American life, that hold up baseball as uniquely adroit at the skill of reflecting American society.

A final exemplar of the ramifications of the sort of mythological significance many historians assign to the national pastime poses the question of how to deal with more undeniable wrongdoing among the inhabitants of baseball’s Mount Olympus. The historic and social import of the Black Sox scandal of 1919 inspires widespread debate. Some historians, whose concerns rest primarily with the tangible interactions between baseball and the emergent urban culture of the day, downplay the impact of the disillusionment the fixed World Series planted in the hearts and minds of baseball fans, noting that Progressive-era urban Americans already had experience with corruption, and had long ago let go of the naiveté that would have left them awed by such a development.[15] But others, such as Daniel A. Nathan, posit that Americans assumed baseball to be above such graft, and so identified the game’s values with their own that the “affair may have affected the way many Americans perceived not only the national pastime, but the nation itself.”[16] Nathan and others believe that the symbolic fall of a game to which Americans had attached such moral and cultural import could not help but alter the national psyche in one or another degree. Nathan points out that newspapers of the day reported the scandal as front-page news, and treated the story with no small measure of importance, indeed, nearly sensationalism.[17] He offers an explanation for this phenomenon: “The Big Fix was a meaningful social drama for Americans because it brought their concerns about middle-class standards of appropriate manly behavior to center stage.”[18] His viewpoint implies a connection between urban industrial society’s morality, and that of the fabric of organized baseball, which makes baseball far more than a cultural institution; rather, it rates as a sociopolitical, and even moral, authority. So broadly accepted is this view, that the 1922 Supreme Court ruling protecting Major League Baseball from the federal antitrust laws that would make so many of its current business practices obsolete and illegal, still stands.[19] Thus, though it may come from no special merit inherent to the game itself, Americans have assigned to baseball a place of far greater relevance than simple entertainment or recreation.

In reducing the game’s strengths to the mere psychological, emotional, or folkloric, however, that viewpoint understates the true impact baseball has had over the development of the current American urban identity. Baseball also had a very tangible, formative hand in the creation of a uniquely American urban identity and social structure. As far back as the 1850s, baseball provided an opportunity for middle-class workers, many of whom felt lost and unappreciated in the pervasively impersonal and bureaucratic industrial city, to gain personal recognition.[20] Baseball accommodated the urban working class far better than its predecessors or rivals, in that it took only a few hours to complete, a crucial consideration for workers who, as a general rule, had precious little leisure time at their disposal.[21] Moreover, it worked its way into immigrant culture, as “reformers adapted it to playground use as a means to Americanize ethnic youth.”[22] Finally, it seemed a prime means of defining and uniting the ethos of the working middle class in the city, particularly “as an alternative means of social mobility, one more conducive to their own value of physical prowess.”[23] In only one way did baseball seem incongruous with the industrialized city. But even this proved to be an advantage, as Steven A. Riess writes: “In one important way the sport did not fit in with industrialized urban society: baseball was not controlled by the clock.”[24] This sense of timelessness, wonderfully transposed into the context of a game that took up relatively little of their actual time, made baseball an ideal form of escapism for urban laborers.

Of course, baseball would not fully realize its potential to shift the very foundations of urban social structures until over a half century after the boom of the 1870s. When Jackie Robinson stepped across the foul lines and onto a Major League field as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, it represented the first and greatest leap forward in the fight for civil rights, arguably since the end of the Civil War. Seven years before Brown v. Board of Education and eight ahead of Rosa Parks, Robinson (with a wave of black players to flock into the league at his heels) began the work of breaking down barriers in increasingly diverse urban communities across the Northeast. With African Americans continuing to pour into the cities of the North, particularly the ten large metropolises to which baseball still confined itself as late as 1953, the changing demographics of the urban areas that supported MLB’s sixteen teams irrevocably altered the market to which teams needed to appeal.[25] In Harlem, where the Giants played at the time, “discontent rumbled through… like a subway train.”[26] Branch Rickey, the Dodgers General Manager who (among many accomplishments and innovations crucial to the progress of the game) signed Robinson, surveyed a complex situation before ultimately deciding to make the move in 1945. He took into account the quality of Robinson as an asset to the Brooklyn club, which was undeniable. But he also examined the growing racial tensions throughout New York, his own belief that integration was absolutely necessary to the future of the game, and the obvious controversy with which his team would have to deal if he pulled the trigger.[27] Weighing it all, Rickey decided to take the risk. The decision has been unfailingly praised as both visionary and magnanimous. But historians differ over what, exactly, it foreshadowed for the integration effort; many say the experiment succeeded more thoroughly within the cozy confines of the game itself, than in the social circles the game affected. Others note the popularity of the move on the world stage, but question its real impact on urban problems in America itself. Still others refuse to believe that the experiment of racial integration would have achieved ultimate success without the ensuing developments in the South, or reject the meaningfulness of an integration effort centered upon the North (St. Louis was as far south as the Major Leagues had yet ventured), given the state of affairs across the South.[28] These differences of opinion raise the interesting question of how much importance baseball can claim as an isolated entity, without examining its impact upon the larger context of American society. The majority of historians, however, have come to see in Robinson’s pioneering appearance the benchmark moment at which baseball claimed the greatest degree of social relevance to its country.

Baseball further pressed forward the development of a coherent urban culture and society by encouraging civic pride, American nationalism, and ethnic identification with the game in the industrial city. Baseball clubs fostered unity within communities by giving the widely varied populace of each urban sector something to hold in common, something to rally around, “a source of civic pride and socialization.”[29] Naturally, the ballpark symbolized and focused this effort. Historians lend growing credence to the idea that ballparks served as valuable community centers in industrial cities, especially during the first half of the 20th century. “By creating a monumental recreational structure in Chicago,” wrote historian Robin F. Bachin of Comiskey Park, “Comiskey could transcend the confines of the immediate neighborhood and make his ballpark an emblem of the emerging links between commercial culture, civic pride, responsibility, and Americanism.”[30]

Furthermore, the park fit well into the new ideas about architecture and city planning that gained traction in the years immediately before and after 1900. Many parks were “icon[s] of the emerging City Beautiful movement, which sought to unite the street grid of the modern city with green spaces and monumental architecture to create large-scale efforts of urban planning.”[31] As symbols of a uniquely American movement and a uniquely American urban culture, parks appealed to immigrant classes seeking to fit into the cultural fabric of their new home country. “Ethnic groups, then,” wrote Bachin, “could experience the ballpark both as a site of American civic celebration, and as a vehicle of ethnic pride.”[32] While crediting baseball with some measure of the social and architectural maturation of urban centers, however, historians have correctly demonstrated that the game needed the city as much as the reverse was true. “As baseball matured into a commercial venture, the presence of large population centers and the availability became crucial in the location of a playing field.”[33] Thus, the tie between baseball and city life in America strengthened over years of mutual symbiosis.

Baseball, and not football or any of the other major sports of the era, rapidly emerged as the one best suited to the building of a sense of community, patriotism, and teamwork. While some may again attempt to attribute this primacy to some special virtue inherent to the game, scholars contend that the game won out, as much as anything, by a process of elimination. Football’s pugilistic reputation precluded its evolution as the national sport. Boxing and horse racing, along with a handful of other gambling-based events, faced either legal or ethical hurdles.[34] Baseball proved a natural choice, argue historians, because it fit the needs of those in positions of power. Baseball, Richard Gems, notes, “instilled a strong work ethic, cooperative teamwork, and self-sacrifice, qualities beneficial to an efficient, productive industrial workforce.”[35] Gems’ view illustrates the intersection of the notions of baseball as a cause and as an effect of American urban industrial development, by attributing to the game certain traits or characteristics, and explaining the ways in which these traits appealed to industrial leaders looking to assimilate and satisfy their underlings. Baseball, for many industry leaders and social reformers, became “the recreational equivalent of the factory and corporation.”[36] The debate over whether baseball’s rise to the apex of American sport was an inevitable outgrowth of its well-timed maturation, simultaneous with that of the country, or the result of persistent effort on the part of its architects, remains open. Most historians grant that the game’s fit in American society guaranteed at least some form of survival; however, William J. Ryczek declares, “[at the close of the Civil War] it remained to be seen whether the end of the War would bring a resumption of baseball’s growth or whether the sport would be relegated to the category of a momentary and passing fad.”[37]

The game’s ability to adapt to and exploit new opportunities afforded by technology and shifting social norms helps explain its survival and popularity growth. Baseball, or at least its caretakers, demonstrated constant progressivism throughout the formative years of the national pastime, and indeed the country, to an extent that belies the conservative ideologies many have projected onto the game in modern years. From small weekly operations such as Spirit of the Times in the 1850s and 1860s, there emerged an ever-expanding media following for the game, which amplified the importance of the newspaper in industrial society.[38] Annual guides began to appear, sports sections of papers (particularly in New York and other major baseball cities) flourished, and the writers who surrounded the game gave it urbane and rational qualities via statistical advances and careful rhetoric, which laid the foundation that allowed working-class urbanites to identify with their national game.[39] Baseball facilitated the rise of radio when, in the early 1920s, World Series broadcasts became the first network productions to hit national airwaves and reach mass audiences. Ever the ambitious entity, though, and eager for new revenues, baseball would toss aside radio in 1951 in favor of television, with Bobby Thomson’s historic “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” acting, in the estimation of many historians, as the crucial turning point for the new medium that has since so pervaded society.[40] Some historians also point out baseball’s role in the growth of cable television, as the suburban Diaspora spread fans of local teams across the country, and the internet, as rotisserie baseball leagues sprang up and cries for easily available statistical information became ever louder.[41]

Ultimately, then, baseball and America have affected each other in ways that defy minimization, at several points over the last 150 years. Whether one places importance upon the game itself, or chooses to examine it from a purely social and cultural angle, the national pastime has clearly helped the nation discover and redefine its own identity over the course of the post-Civil War era. Historians do not universally adhere to a view of the game as the central point of American pop culture, but the fact that it garners consideration is telling in and of itself.

[1] (Barzun 2002, 35)

[2] (Riess 1980, 4)

[3] (Riess 1980, 4)

[4] (Tygiel 2000, 11)

[5] (Tygiel 2000, 7)

[6] (Adelman 1986, 128)

[7] (Adelman 1986, 121)

[8] (Tygiel 2000, 14)

[9] (Tygiel 2000, 11-12)

[10] (Tygiel 2000, 9)

[11] (Adelman 1986, 137)

[12] (Tygiel 2000, 8-9)

[13] (Tygiel 2000, 74-86)

[14] (Leavy 2007, 167-183)

[15] (Tygiel 2000, 61-62)

[16] (Nathan 2008, 133)

[17] (Nathan 2008, 136)

[18] (Nathan 2008, 135)

[19] (Zimbalist 2002, 187-188)

[20] (Gems 2008, 3)

[21] (Ryczek 1998, 55)

[22] (Gems 2008, 4)

[23] (Gems 2008, 3)

[24] (Riess, City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports 1989, 66)

[25] (Tygiel 2000, 166)

[26] (Eig 2007, 64)

[27] (Eig 2007, 66)

[28] (Tygiel, Breaking Baseball’s Color Barrier in Brooklyn: More than Jackie, More than the Dodgers 2007, 25-35)

[29] (Bachin 2008, 79)

[30] (Bachin 2008, 79)

[31] (Bachin 2008, 79)

[32] (Bachin 2008, 102)

[33] (Ryczek 1998, 26)

[34] (Adelman 1986, 141)

[35] (Gems 2008, 2)

[36] (Bachin 2008, 87)

[37] (Ryczek 1998, 22)

[38] (Adelman 1986, 137)

[39] (Riess, City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports 1989, 66)

[40] (Tygiel, Past Time: Baseball as History 2000, 144-164)

[41] (Tygiel, Past Time: Baseball as History 2000, 202)