Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sport as Socializer: Baseball

To begin the conversation, here are a few thoughts on baseball.

First, we tend to think of baseball as a completely American invention. Of course it's not. David Block's Baseball Before We Knew It details a number of the game's European ancestors. But American promoters of the game insisted it was purely American. They went so far as to create an American inventor of the game (Abner Doubleday) based on the testimony of Abner Graves, who once wrote, "I would rather have Uncle Sam declare war on England and clean her up rather than have one of her citizens beat us out of Base Ball" (cited in Block 60). Baseball execs (notably Albert Spalding) wanted most of all to prove baseball was NOT European, so they believed any legend they could get their hands on without bothering to check the story's authenticity.

Baseball, then, was cast as an American game, as anti-European. As such, baseball served as a means to transform European immigrants into Americans and teach them the values of this frontier nation. Team play is important (when fielding), but individual merit is even more valuable (pitcher v. batter) and ultimately serves the team best. If you can get away with it, do it: "steal" a base; go in spikes up to break up a double play; scratch up or slime up the ball any way you can as a pitcher; argue the ball was fair even if you know it was foul, pitch curve balls, change-ups, or sinkers to deceive the batter, etc. (I wonder if the "steroid era" can be tied back to this fundamental principle of the game?)

Baseball also tapped into a nostalgic longing for a pastoral ideal. Many people left their farming communities to seek employment in urban factories. The baseball field is a patch of farmland in the middle of the city where the ultimate objective is to get "home." Baseball was seen by Walt Whitman as a tonic to the unhealthy, confined conditions of industrial city dwelling.

The umpire is involved on every single pitch. But he is masked, suggesting that he is the one not to be trusted. Trying to deceive him, distract him or make him look foolish is part of the game. The true heroes are the men working: their faces are visible allowing the spectator to see their emotion and personality, they face danger (from a ninety-mile per hour fast ball or a ball batted right back to the pitcher) with each pitch. Once on the bases they are safe, but only momentarily. Safety is only found at home, and to get there the player must get past the masked umpire and the heavily protected catcher, who stands like so many guards preventing the little guy from entering the club, the store, the office... So knock him over if you must.

Food for thought to begin the discussion.

Baseball, of course, means different things to the Japanese and to the Cubans who play it. And it has clearly changed with society over the years, becoming more structured (from little league to Major League Baseball), more concerned with profits, etc.

How else does baseball serve as a socializing agent today? How else did it in the past?


SM Sprenger said...

Is it theoretically possible or desirable for the pitcher to trick both the batter and the umpire? Seems to me the aim is to trick only the batter (with sliders and curves) but to demonstrate to the ump that the ball is still in the strike zone when it crosses the plate.

I assumed the ump's mask was there to protect him from those fastballs! Maybe some overreading there?

As I little leaguer, I was taught to *respect* the umps, even when they made bad calls....that is was bad "sportsmanship" to argue or complain. From this experience, I later assumed some sort of analogy between baseball as a rule-based game (and exposed at every moment to arbitration) and the American juridical culture that teaches a respect for the rule of law and legal judgments.

Corry Cropper said...

Good point. The umpire's mask does protect him from foul tips but also allows him to hide. I would like to say that like justice, he is blind, but that's not a particularly respectful thing to say about an ump... at least not the way I've heard it shouted from the stands.

Corry Cropper said...

RE fooling the umpire, look at this clip:

Apparently the pitcher and catcher (brothers) were unhappy with the way the ump was calling strikes and they decided to get him back for it. Look at the way the catcher tries to deceive the ump.
I've heard the battery mates are rightly facing stiff sanctions.