Note: this is part of an ongoing series I’m doing. Part one, and links to all the other parts, can be found here.
Baseball has a long history in America, and its close connection with American culture means that our narratives of baseball history are intertwined with larger culture processes. All of America’s major cultural wars have been fought on the baseball field as well as in the home. Since almost all Americans played baseball growing up and so many watch or listen to games, I think we often experience things more viscerally through baseball than the newspaper. Baseball’s unique hold on the American psyche is why, to give on example, steroids rocked baseball to the point of almost shredding all of its credibility, yet nobody seems to care that the NFL always had a much worse problem, and still does.
Baseball is of course portrayed as the center of American culture and American values are heaped on top of it in a variety of now quite cliché ways. Need a demonstration of paternal love? Play catch. Making it big? Country boy goes to the city and joins the Yankees. Proving the human spirit, beating evil, and resisting a hot temptress? Sell your soul to become a baseball slugger, escape the deal, and then have the terrible team you were trying to help win anyway because they believe in themselves.
A favorite American trope (other than pulling yourself up by your bootstraps) is second chances. American baseball lore is full of second chances. Josh Hamilton would be driven away from your home town with pitchforks if he had been a highly-touted young elementary school teacher instead of a baseball player, not welcomed back again and again and constantly forgiven. Even if he could turn your child’s brain into Stephen Hawking’s, which is basically what he does in baseball terms. Need a piece of life-survival advice? Don’t punch with your pitching hand. Any American knows how to internalize that for his or her chosen profession. (For a historian? Don’t piss off the archivists). There are, thankfully, more successful movies about forgiving corrupt Black Sox than there are about corrupt politicians.
This could of course go on and on forever. Because baseball is made up of individual moments, individuals take center stage even though it is a team sport and are raised or denigrated based on how we feel they reflect the values we hold. It is a sport, supposedly, of honor. Just like in little league, baseball players congratulate the other teams for doing well and hesitate to call them on sleazy moves.
For a prime example of baseball’s central place in American cultural lore, think of it this way: almost all Americans consider Jackie Robinson’s appearance in the major leagues one of the major successes in breaking segregation. In a discussion of high points in that centuries-long battle, who brings up the integration of the armed services? Remember, at the time that was important enough that it spawned the Dixiecrats, helped break the Democrats’ hold on the south, and eventually meant Truman got elected. In our popular consciousness, though, getting an African American to play major league baseball was more important. Finally beating the Yankees in the World Series, with a (contested) steal of home, no less, probably didn’t hurt.
It was more important because people read about, listened to, and talked about baseball every day. Wars end but baseball only hibernates. Jackie Robinson was also the perfect player to break the color barrier. Young, charismatic, handsome, polite, and an excellent player to boot. How many people know, though, that Satchel Paige was originally offered the chance? He would have had to take a pay cut though, and refused, so things worked out (in my mind) for the best, as a young dynamic player was probably the right way to go.
This has also led to one of the most interesting historical narratives in baseball history, to the point where it’s almost a trope, except that it’s also true: can we really consider the old greats, like Babe Ruth, to be the best players in history when they did not face black players? Of course, they did play against non-white competition during the offseason winter leagues, but those records are not where we find the major league records. I do have one problem with this narrative though, because it’s always worded in some form of “because they didn’t play against the best players.”
Using those words makes it seem like Satchel Paige would never have lost a game to the 1927 Yankees. And, while that may be true (Satchel Paige was really, really, really good) Walter Johnson would have equally shut down great Negro League lineups. I guess the part that makes me a little bit unhappy with how it’s usually worded is that it assumes the non-white players were better than the white ones. This does a disservice to both sides. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig would have had many fewer home runs if they had faced the best Negro League pitchers. No question. Those same pitchers, though, would also have a given up a few more home runs than they did historically.
I understand why we talk about it this way, of course. Since the white major leagues were (and still are) considered the major leagues before desegregation it’s important to find ways to talk about the Negro Leagues and to remember the injustice and the greatness. People tend to know the records and the series victories and so on of the Major Leagues which, of course, were all-white, but not only were African American leagues just as popular, just as powerful, just as skilled at baseball – they also accomplished all those feats with barely any real resources.
Admitting players from those teams into the Hall of Fame is a start, but more needs to be done to bring those players into mainstream conversation about baseball. I admit my own ignorance on the topic, and I think saying “Babe Ruth can’t be the best player ever because he didn’t face the best competition” has become a throw-away line. Saying that the Negro Leagues were the best competition without talking about them and telling those stories does not mean anything and it feels like a weak cop-out, especially because Babe Ruth was the best competition, and as noted above, those equally great teams did not face him either.
My question: is there any cultural activity that hits the American psyche harder and more powerfully than baseball? This means for everyone – even those who do not follow the sport or activity very closely.