Three Historical Lessons from Baseball
I can’t let an Opening Day go by without connecting it to the subject of American social history. Baseball history suggests three lessons. Three is a magic baseball number (along with 9).
Baseball arose as a commercial, spectator sport in the late 1800s. Some scholars have suggested that it thrived because it relieved American working-class men’s psychological stress from their industrial jobs, or that watching baseball, like watching boxing, allowed these men to vicariously discharge the frustration of those jobs. This logic is similar to today’s “compensation” explanations for why people watch television or surf the internet.
In fact, the expansion of baseball was part of a widespread boom in public life during the late 19th century — the emergence of department stores, theaters, vaudeville, urban parks, amusement attractions like Coney Island, and the like. All that was made possible by the growing concentration of people in big cities, public transportation, and more disposable income.
Sometimes, Dr. Freud, a good game is just a good game.
Nostalgia affects all our understandings of the past. Baseball is the most nostalgic game we have. People often look back to earlier eras of baseball as more innocent and earlier baseball players as more talented. Historians of baseball, however, point out the exploitation, shenanigans, and corruption of what was always a profit-interested business. And, although comparisons are hard to make, it is likely that the average player of today is (with or without artificial enhancements) a much more accomplished athlete than the average player of earlier epochs.
Umpires should not wear rose-colored glasses.
There is a lesson in baseball on how changing structures affect individual performance. (I borrow this point from an earlier book.) We’d like to think that individual talent will always determine outcomes. But the history of baseball shows that conditions and rules affect what kind of talent matters how much and when. In low-scoring eras – dead-ball, big strike zone, big parks – speed has mattered relatively more than brawn, favoring “small ball.” In other eras, teams sought talent in slow-footed musclemen for the “long ball” game. A striking example comes from Benjamin Rader (Baseball: A History, p. 94): When in the late 1800s, baseball moved the pitching distance further back and gave the pitcher a mound, the advantage of size for a pitcher grew. In about 15 years, pitchers went from being on average the same height and lighter than hitters to being notably taller and heavier than hitters. The formula for individual success had changed.
Baseball history’s lessons about how circumstances help shape which individuals can succeed apply, of course, outside of baseball, too.
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That’s three – three strikes and I’m out of here.