Friday, July 9, 2010

SPORTS BOOK REVIEW: Robert Elias’ The Empire Strikes Out

Elias, Robert. The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad. New York: The New Press, 2010. 418pp. Hardcover: $27.95.
ISBN: 978-1-59558-195-2

In the interim between Independence Day weekend and MLB All-Star weekend, I find it fitting to review a recently released publication on America’s pastime, in what has been by far my favorite sports book of the year, Robert Elias’ The Empire Strikes Out. Refreshingly, while clearly a baseball enthusiast, the University of San Francisco law and political science professor Elias does not defend the traditional patriotic fanfare typically associated with baseball; rather, he examines the sinister underbelly of the bucolic American game and the jingoism engendered in trying to export the American Dream abroad. In his preface, he offers “a different story: American baseball’s projection of itself, for its own sake and also for spreading American influence around the globe” (xi). The result: a thoughtful, anecdote-laden, exceptionally well researched and documented account of baseball as the backdrop (and, at times, the instrument of choice) of the United States civilizing missions of the 19th and 20th centuries. From episodes of intense militarism amidst conflict to the proselytizing efforts of early diamond heroes, from Kennesaw Mountain Landis to Bud Selig, from “Muscular Christianity” to the Steroid Era, in lively prose, Elias plumbs baseball lore to paint a full picture of the perils and draw-backs of imperialistically imposing the American game—or culture for that matter—upon other unwelcoming nations.

Baseball has long represented a cultural divide between the United States and other nations. Everything about our stick-and-ball game, with its unique set of rules, strategies, lingo, and techniques (even when dismissed as “merely an evolution of British rounders” [47] by the previous global empire), is decidedly American. Rising up in the American Revolution and growing with the nation across her history, baseball was a pastoral game in the urban setting of the Industrial Revolution, a welcome diversion to soldiers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line in the Civil War, a venue of heroes in a post-War era of anti-heroes in the 20s, a racial hotbed in the Civil Rights movement, and a congressional concern in the “age of acronyms” where we distress over WMDs and PEDs alike. To illustrate with a brief anecdote of my own, just this spring I had the pleasure of inviting my Swiss doctoral dissertation advisor (a 30-year resident of Los Angeles) to Dodgers Stadium for his first MLB game. Using terminology borrowed from Quebec, I explained the game in French (as the Dodgers gave Ubaldo Jimenez his only loss of the season, no less!) and my Swiss friend, fine cultural critic that he is, remarked how purely American the game is with its focus on Protestant work ethic, small goals (bases) that build to success (runs), specialization (middle relievers, pinch runners), and the possibility of individual advancement/achievement in a democratic team setting (where everyone participates). Unwittingly, he echoes Walt Whitman, who Elias quotes as stating “[Baseball is] our game… it has the whip, go, fling of the American atmosphere—it belongs as much to our institutions as our Constitution’s laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historical life” (13). The sale of this, the American Way, even following a century of wars fueled by nationalism, has anything but slowed in the new millennium, which is precisely why Elias’ history of U.S. exceptionalism and ethnocentrism, as viewed through the prism of baseball, is ever so timely.

As is the case with all imperialism, Elias’ revisionist history begins on the home front with cases of indoctrination and founding myth, as his two opening chapters explore the surprisingly significant role of baseball in wars fought on American soil (1775-1892) and in what he terms the “missionary efforts” of Albert Spalding (of sporting goods fame) who channeled his intense patriotism and inflated sense of American superiority into an organized effort, a veritable World Tour, to make baseball, and the English language along with it (!), a global lingua franca. Embarking upon Japan, Cuba, Central America, Great Britain, and Western Europe with America’s finest ballplayers, advocates of the American game, as Elias recounts, pitched it to other cultures and into the 20th century using the marked lingo of the period: scientific determinism, machine-like unity, soldierly demeanor, and heroic spirit. Alongside his provocative iconoclasm of Spalding’s efforts, Elias also reconsiders the Abner Doubleday myth—which attempted to establish the Civil War general and West Point graduate as the inventor of baseball and, in so doing, validate it as the national pastime—effectively deconstructing the foundations of the “Baseball Gospel.”

Continuing to chronologically document the global onslaught of baseball through the 20th century in subsequent chapters, Elias takes care to reexamine and provide more naturalistic portraits of various other eminent men from baseball’s canon, including the infamous Charles Comiskey; baseball’s greatest hero (and, perhaps, advocate) Babe Ruth; Dodgers president Branch Rickey’s battles against Jim Crow laws that eventually allowed Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente into the major leagues; much-maligned MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who has led baseball through a particularly difficult period of modernization and commercialization, along with an intriguing cast of many more. Maintaining language germane to U.S. Foreign Policy, Elias leads us through the wars that marked the age, through “horsehide diplomacy,” Vietnam syndrome, the Cold War, and 9/11, highlighting the place of baseball within each. Interspersed throughout are interesting anecdotes and events that have colored the American pastime as well as America’s relationship with the global other. For example, I laughed out loud upon discovering the etymological origins of the name of baseball’s most marketable team, the New York Yankees! And, stories of “foreign” players nicknamed Chief, Dutch, Kaiser, Chink, Jap, and Red made me wonder how far we’ve really come when we consider our own Big Papi.

The Empire Strikes Out is a volume designed to force the reader to reconsider our current position on foreign policy. Elias’ explanation of the steroid witch hunt in light of post-9/11 culture is equally enlightening and thought-provoking as it invites us to synthesize our relationship to baseball with that of global politics. Providing ample endnotes (nearly 100 pages) and posing challenging questions, the author offers multiple avenues of further personal research. In an age of Latino-American and Japanese baseball superstars, where the World Baseball Classic is having a hard time catching on, and where our trust of hometown heroes has been tainted by performance-enhancing drugs, Robert Elias turns the mirror on contemporary American society and asks “Has the Empire indeed struck out?” and, if so, what can we learn about our nation from our national pastime before it, too, is reduced to a mere vestige, reserved for nostalgia?


Corry Cropper said...

Great review!

And, out of curiosity, what IS the origin of the term "Yankee!"?

Robert J. Hudson said...

Read the book!

Anonymous said...

Yankee- to yank. And doodle which stems from the british term dildo. To yank on your -----