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Posts Tagged ‘baseball’

In the off-season–and any season without baseball is “off,” as in slightly rancid–the big news in the sports world was political, the fierce controversy over NFL players “taking a knee” during the national anthem to protest… well, a variety of things, from police shootings to the rhetoric of the president. A good deal of this sports politics had to do with race–as a good deal of all American politics has to do with race. That helps explain where baseball stands in this controversy.

Hart_McCovey_Mays_1967

Hart, McCovey, Mays 1967

With rare exception, baseball players remained standing during the anthem and stood apart from the protests. While the 2017 World Series winners, the Astros (minus Puerto Rican player Carlos Beltran), made the ritual trip of champions to Trump’s White House on March 12, 2018, the 2017 NBA champion Golden State Warriors spurned the ceremony and several members of the Superbowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles said they would boycott a similar event. This contrast emerges from the historical connection between race and baseball.

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Opening Day 2016

Opening Day 2016 is coming up. And thus an opportunity for me to pursue an issue I addressed in 2014’s Opening Day post: how baseball remains America’s true pastime.

Real sports excitement and engagement rests in large part on the uncertainty of the outcome. This is why the drama of sports exceeds that of the scripted arts like theater, movies, and novels. Overwhelmingly, art scripts end predictably: heroes defeat villains, true love conquers all, innocent babes are saved, and so on. Sports stories, which also have moral plots and subplots, are unscripted and unpredictable and thus more engaging and exciting. And baseball is more so than the other leading American sports.

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Opening Day 2015

Baseball is back this week. Hallelujah!

Actually, it was back earlier, in spring training, which has become highly popular in recent years. One fieldwork observation about spring training in the Phoenix area,where 15 MLB teams train in close proximity, 10 of them sharing stadiums: The teams’ enthusiastic fans seem to mingle in good cheer. Why is this amicability worth noting? Because if one looks to Europe (and Latin America), one sees violence between gangs of fans at a scale and intensity shocking to Americans. The U.S. has a much higher rate of violent crime overall than does Europe and yet, in this regard, our stadiums seem like oases of peaceful sportsmanship.

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To be sure, violence does break out among fans at American sports events, even baseball. Mix together young men, competition and alcohol and you have a formula for brawls in the stands, dousing opposing players with beer, and busting things. In the Bay Area, we have had a couple of tragic fights break out among handfuls of fans just outside stadiums. Last year in southern California, three U.S. Marines were stabbed in a brawl between Dodgers and Angels fans. Post-championship celebrations too often end up in street violence–as did the celebration of the Giants clinching the 2014 World Series–although usually the damage is just to property. Still, American sports have nothing like the brutal battles between the supporters of European football (soccer) teams–for example, 39 deaths in a 1985 European Cup riot. How come?

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It’s time again to talk about the National Pastime. Baseball season is starting this coming week. (I know that there was a quasi-start in Australia on March 22-23 with two Dodger wins; that doesn’t count.)

 

Back in one of baseball’s Golden Ages, the 1950s, there seemed little debate about what sport was the national pastime. (The picture to the right commemorates the 60th Anniversary of The Catch and the then-New York Giants’ upset sweep of Cleveland in the 1954 World Series.) The NFL was just emerging into the mass market and the NBA was still farther behind. Nowadays, however, everyone assumes that professional football has displaced baseball as the National Pastime. I am here to argue otherwise.

Some point to the television extravaganza of the Superbowl as proof of football’s preeminence. But that spectacle gathers many viewers who are not fans except perhaps of commercials, half-time shlockfests, guacamole dips, and partying. Others point to surveys asking Americans what their “favorite sport” or “favorite sport to watch” is. The data here are clear: Until about the 1960s-70s, baseball led; since then football has taken a wide lead.

Gallup polls [gated] show that baseball was comfortably ahead of football in “favorite to watch” through 1960. By 1972, football had the lead (by 19 points in January, 1972, although by only 8 points in October, 1972). About four decades later, in 2013, 40% of Gallup respondents picked football and only 14% picked baseball as favorite to watch. The Harris Poll started only in 1985 to ask  its respondents who followed sports to name their favorite one; baseball and pro football essentially tied. In December, 2012, football led 34% to 16%.

OK. Football is the more “favorite” sport. That’s not the same thing as pastime.

 

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Writers – academic, commercial, and intellectual – have for generations indulged themselves writing about baseball. (This post, of course, becomes a further meta-indulgence.) There is nothing close in either American fiction or literary nonfiction about football or basketball, however much those other sports dominate the TV screen these days.[1]

Shoeless (?) JOe Jackson [Source]

Shoeless (?) Joe Jackson [Source]

Much of the baseball genre now tends to be nostalgic, elegies to a past of country pastures, sandlots, and pickup games. I was reminded of this trope when reading a recent essay in The (new) New Republic by Kent Russell about Amish boys playing ball. Russell’s essay combines two forms of nostalgia in the same space, wistful for a life and a sport that both seemed simpler and purer. (Will anyone ever write nostalgia about suburban kids’ traveling teams and their minivans? Maybe when they start to disappear.) An intriguing historical aspect of this literature, at least my impression of it, is that there are actually two strands of writing, one backward-looking and one forward-looking, although both are about childhood.

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In the first game of the 1911 World Series, all of the 18 starters were born in the USA. Just about every one of them carried a last name suggesting that his male ancestors came from the British Isles  – except perhaps Merkle and Herzog of the N.Y. Giants. (One could be misled. The Giants’ John Meyers was a California Cahuilla Indian.) In contrast, 7 of the 18 starters in the first game of the 2011 World Series were foreign-born; four, including the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols, came from the Dominican Republic. Moreover, the native-born starters of 2011 included a few with such non-Anglo names as Berkman, Kinsler, and Punto.

This is my annual America-is-baseball and baseball-is-America blog post (which can also be seen as the ritual welcoming of spring). It’s about the globalization of the all-American pastime, which has increasingly become many foreigners’ pastime, as well. Globalization – which has sent jobs from here to overseas and workers from abroad to here – has reached baseball.

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Opening Day 2011

March 31 brings Opening Day with your – well, at least my – World Champion San Francisco Giants facing the team that used to be called ‘Da Bums (before they became Hollywoodized). The come-from-behind-the-pack saga of a team of undervalued position players was capped by a tremendous victory parade last November along Market Street that even stunned the veteran players (see Andy Baggarly’s account). San Francisco fans remain, months later, in a blissed-out stupor.

Giants Parade 2010

The social history angle here – there has to be one – is to wonder about such mass adulation of sports heroes. Millions of people spend good money and spend good time watching a bunch of men play a game. No paycheck, religious duty, threat to life or family, tribal allegiance, or urge for freedom draws them into the stadium to cheer or onto the streets to celebrate. How does that make sense?

Modern mass spectator sports in America began in the late 19th and early 20th century. Historians have tried to understand what brought the masses out to spectate. Many say it’s all about compensation.

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