Why did baseball rather than other sports such as football, basketball, soccer, or golf capture the American imagination and become the national pastime? In Creating the National Pastime: Baseball Transforms Itself, 1903-1953 (Oxford University Press), historian G. Edward White attempts to answer this question by tracing the development of baseball from a mere game into the all-American sport. And along the way he raises further questions about the sport and what it means to be an American.
White notes that baseball emerged as the national pastime in the nationalism of the Progressive Era, at the turn of the century. The owners assumed that fans wanted close competition among rival teams, pride in a home team, and a relatively constant identity of players on the home town team. Hence followed several crucial decisions, which became "baseball law": the reserve clause, backed up an understanding that no club would seek to hire the disgruntled players of another; territorial autonomy; and the establishment of professional baseball as a "buyers’ monopoly."
To instill civic pride in the game the owners sought to identify teams with their cities. Through the principle of territoriality the owners permitted no new major league franchises from 1903 until 1960. None of the original sixteen major league franchises were permitted to move or change cities until the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953 and the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954. Thus teams were rooted in their hometowns. The stability was reinforced by the replacement of old dilapidated wooden parks with magnificent steel and concrete parks. Fourteen of the sixteen original teams built steel parks between 1908 and 1923. Baseball was thus part of the "City Beautiful" movement of the growing urban centers around World War I.
Another decision by the owners echoing the reformist overtones of Progressivism was the decision to clean up baseball— eliminating gambling and drunkenness, thus distinguishing it from sports such as boxing or horse racing (or today’s professional wrestling). "No betting, no Sunday playing, no liquor sold on the grounds!" was the clarion call. Make baseball a family outing of good clean fun. So the owners brought on the Progressive Republican Judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who served as the first Commissioner of Baseball from 1922 until 1944. Landis was an uncompromising moralist who aimed to rid baseball of corruption, just as his do-gooder counterparts in politics, most prominently Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, sought to rid state and local politics of the corruption of big city bosses.
Consider Landis’s actions following the infamous Black Sox Series of 1919, when a jury found eight players on the Chicago White Sox not guilty of fixing the World Series. ("Say it ain’t so, Joe!") Landis, nonetheless, banned the eight White Sox simply for associating with gamblers.
But even more important than territoriality and family fun were the unique rules governing the labor relations of major league baseball. The reserve clause that was present in every individual player’s contract bound him to a club until the club traded or released him. No owner was willing to sign a player who had "jumped" his contract. Besides enhancing civic pride by keeping rosters constant, the owners believed the reserve clause would prevent competitive imbalance among teams by preventing a wealthy club from buying up the best players, and thus also keeping down the cost of contracts. By exempting baseball from the laws regulating business, the Supreme Court in 1922 insulated baseball from changes in labor relations for over fifty years.
White believes that these decisions, especially the reserve clause and territoriality, were fortuitous and locked in a certain cultural moment. He argues that baseball retained its special status because "paradoxically, the anachronistic dimension of baseball helped cement its image as the national pastime, fostering a mythology that the game, instead of reflecting the historical and cultural context in which it came to prominence, was a timeless, even magical, phenomenon, insulated from the rest of life." Baseball’s hold on the American imagination is demonstrated even more strongly in the the owners’ stubborn opposition to night baseball and radio (and later television) coverage because they believed they would destroy the "naturalness" of the game. The Sporting News reported in 1925 that
Baseball is more an inspiration to the brain through the eye than it is by the ear. The greatest value of baseball, next to playing it, is to look upon it. There is nothing about it which appears to appeal to wave lengths. A nation that begins to take its sport by ears will shortly adapt the white flag as its national emblem, and the dove as its national bird.
Night baseball would import a surreal, unnatural quality to the game and would make baseball more like a circus with a make-believe atmosphere. In addition, the owners feared that if the people could listen to the game they wouldn’t be willing to come to the park. They, of course, were wrong on both counts.
While provocative and informative, White’s analysis gives short shrift to what actually goes on on the field as a possible explanation of baseball’s appeal. The owners’ decisions about territoriality and the reserve clause may have been necessary conditions for explaining baseball’s emergence as the national pastime, but they are not the sufficient condition. Jacques Barzun had it right when he wrote: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."
Like any other competitive sport, baseball is a ruthless meritocracy or natural aristocracy. Not just anybody can throw a football sixty yards, consistently hit long jump shots, or foul off a Nolan Ryan curveball when looking fastball. The general principle was recognized by James Madison (as well as by Aristotle, Abner Doubleday, Vince Lombardi, John Wooden, Bart Giamatti and Pete Rose): Justice equals the equal opportunity for unequal talents to excel (or fail). Sheer talent coupled with heroic effort determine one’s place in sports, not family background, wealth, religion, ethnic background or skin color. White clearly recognizes the equal opportunity principle in his beautiful chapter on "Ethnicity and Baseball" which focuses on the career of a Jew, Hank Greenberg, and an Italian Catholic, Joe DiMaggio. In the early part of their careers, Greenberg and DiMaggio were routinely the subject of racial and ethnic slurs from fans and ethnic stereotypes by journalists.
This gradually changed with the emergence of Hitler in Europe. Then, due to their service in the Second World War, they were seen as Americans because they had performed their patriotic duty. Greenberg was the first player to enlist after the attack on Pearl Harbor, enlisting on December 9. DiMaggio was admired as well because he was willing to enlist even though America was at war with Italy. Baseball was the ultimate melting pot. But even before the unity forged by the Second World War, in December 1923, The Sporting News reported:
In a democratic, catholic, real American game like baseball, there has been no distinction raised except the tacit understanding that a player of Ethiopian descent is ineligible. No player of any other "race" is barred. The Mick, the Sheeny, the Wop, the Dutch, and the Chink, the Cuban, the Indian, the Jap or the so-called Anglo-Saxon— his "nationality" is never a matter of moment if he can pitch, hit, or field.
But White denies that there is anything intrinsically American or timeless about the game of baseball. White identifies baseball with a particular political and cultural moment— the Progressive Era— but he fails to connect what goes on the field of baseball with what might be called the American principle of justice. The principle of a natural aristocracy is uniquely manifest in America, and its national pastime appropriately incorporates that principle. Baseball differs from the other major sports in how it applies this principle of equal opportunity for unequal ability to excel.
Let us call this American equality the principle of the Declaration of Independence. It combines the principle of individualism with the principles of citizenship. Baseball is designed to put each individual on the spot periodically. While a member of a team, the batter is alone. He stands up and his success or (failure) contributes to the success (or failure) of the whole. No other team game combines this one-on-one aspect as does the game of baseball.
White may be right in his conclusion that in the last twenty years baseball has lost its special resonance as America’s pastime. The reason may be less in the change from the reserve clause system to a system of free agency, and a change from franchises rooted permanently in cities to free-floating franchises going to the city with the highest bid than in the disintegration of America itself. As the means of entertainment have multiplied and sports is now regarded as just another form of entertainment, so has the notion that entertainment is nothing more than self-indulgence rather than the self-government required in real sports. Thus baseball may be passing away as the national pastime, as the necessary condition for the existence of our national pastime is the presence of a self-governing nation, proud of her liberty and confident in it.
Thus, those who still write ex-Dodger Rick Monday and thank him for preventing the burning of the American flag in centerfield twenty years ago are the true citizens and the true fans. Those who prefer to cheer Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman as he strips his clothes off after being ejected from the basketball court are self-indulgent libertines. G. Edward White’s book is an informative and fun book but he fails to solve the puzzle of baseball’s unique place because he fails to see the true roots of baseball in America’s timeless principles, in "the laws of nature and of nature’s God."
Mickey Craig is the Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Chair in Politics at Hillsdale College.