If the America that was survives anywhere as more than a memory, it is in baseball, that strangely pastoral game in no matter what setting—domed stadium or Little League field. As hindsight improves upon foresight, memory improves upon reality, so that the endless monotony and grinding physical labor of small-town life before the Civil War are now thought quite romantic. I may be in a distinct minority, but in my opinion life in today’s urban, technological, contentious, crime-beset, debt-ridden America is, for the vast majority of us, better than it ever was.
Given the calamitous labor-management war of 1994, there are few who would say the same about baseball. However, today’s players are better than those in the game’s golden age; the strategy of the game and even its execution are more adept (forget all that moaning about how nobody knows the “fundamentals” any more ... the average player of fifty years ago didn’t know them either); and the opportunities to watch baseball, if not to play it, far exceed those of say, the 1950s, today broadly regarded as the game’s halcyon era. (A golden age may be defined flexibly, it seems, so as to coincide with the period of one’s youth.) For all its pull toward the good old days, for all its statistical illusions of an Olympian era when titans strode the basepaths, for all its seeming permanence in a world aswirl with change, baseball has in fact moved with America, and improved with it. One wishes only that baseball, which first taught America to play, might now learn from it.
The period after World War II was a heady time for the nation and its pastime, both of them buoyed by returning veterans and removed restrictions. But in 1946 the major leagues still represented only the sixteen cities that had participated in the National Agreement of 1903, none west of St. Louis; a handful of African Americans were just entering the minor leagues after a half-century’s exclusion; and because television was not yet a staple of the American home, most baseball fans had never seen even a single big-league game.
Women had been courted as patrons (even nonpaying patrons) ever since the game’s dawn. Baseball management hoped that their presence would lend “tone” to the proceedings and keep a lid on the rowdies, in the stands and on the field. But women’s participation in the game’s labor force and management was even more limited than their role in the nation’s business and industry—Rosie the Riveter and Eleanor Roosevelt as yet had no counterparts in Organized Baseball. The All-American Girls Baseball League made its debut in 1943, the brainchild of Chicago Cubs’ owner Philip K. Wrigley. The women’s “league of their own” won many admirers over the next decade, but the majors always regarded it as separate and unequal.
On the amateur level, while American Legion Junior Baseball had begun as early as 1928, and Little League in 1939, neither attained their heights until after the War ended. Naysayers will point out that baseball has lost ground as more kids today play football, basketball, soccer, and tennis than fifty years ago—but far more play baseball, too, and not only in America. The annual pursuit of the Little League championship in Williamsport, Pennsylvania (like the Pan-American Games), has become an international affair, an instrument of diplomacy that State Department officials envy. Indeed, baseball may yet hold the key to neighborly relations with all nations in the hemisphere.
Baseball in the colleges, now so vibrant and so fertile with major league talent, was on the path to extinction by the end of the War, only to be brought back from the brink by the G.I. Bill: the explosive growth in enrollment that the returning veterans produced also created a sudden need for expanded athletic programs, and baseball was the prime beneficiary. The NCAA’s introduction of the College World Series in 1947 affirmed the game’s recovery on campus, and since locating in Omaha three years later it has grown steadily.
In 1951 Major League Baseball, as dated from the inception of the National League in 1876, reached the august age of 75 and proclaimed its “diamond jubilee.” Celebratory banquets were held, a plaque was erected at the old hotel where the league was founded, and all NL players wore a commemorative patch on their sleeves. (Coincidentally but less flashily the American League marked its fiftieth birthday as a major circuit.) Let’s take a moment to look at where baseball stood at that point.
There was no question it was booming. On the professional level, a whopping 59 leagues contained 448 teams employing about 8,000 players—or 19 minor leaguers competing for each of the then 400 spots in the big show. Little League would soon send its first alumnus to the majors, which had already accepted hundreds of graduates from Legion and other programs. Happy Chandler secured from television a then mind-boggling but now quaint $6 million for broadcast rights to the next six World Series. And with the game’s most powerful teams bunched in New York City—the Yankees, the Dodgers, and the Giants—the publicity mills and the turnstiles were spinning as they had never spun before.
But the excitement of the first five postwar years was not confined to New York: even such perennial tailenders as the Boston Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Cleveland Indians fought their way into the World Series; and staid old Cleveland, under Bill Veeck’s carnival-barker aegis, set staggering new attendance records. Many of the newly admitted African-American players had become stars and—satisfyingly, though few but Branch Rickey had predicted it—box-office attractions: Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe of the Dodgers; Monte Irvin and rookie Willie Mays of the Giants; Sam Jethroe of the Braves; Larry Doby and Satchel Paige of the Indians. Many prewar stars continued to shine, like Bob Feller, Stan Musial, and Ted Williams (though with the Korean War he answered Uncle Sam’s call yet again), and new ones like Gotham’s center field trio of Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle, and Mays replenished the stock as heroes like Joe DiMaggio hung up their spikes.
But most of these blessings had their downside. Opening the game to African Americans was indubitably right, but it killed the Negro Leagues, ruining owners and abruptly ending many playing careers. The increasing organization of youth baseball, particularly the rise of Little League, heightened the stress of the game at its formative levels and drained much of the fun, as driven parents began to see their Junior as tomorrow’s big leaguer, not as just a boy having fun while learning a thing or two. The game on the field was dominated by the home run, making for a brand of ball that might be termed, well, dull. League champs registered such stolen-base totals as Dom DiMaggio’s 15 or Jackie Jensen’s 22; Early Wynn led the AL in ERA one year with a mark of 3.20; and the three-base hit, despite the big old parks still prevalent, went the way of the dodo. And the pennant domination by the three New York teams—principally the Yankees, of course—made the national pastime a rather parochial pleasure; it was hard for fans in Pittsburgh or Detroit to wax rhapsodic over a Subway Series. No, the blessings of the 1950s were not unmitigated, any more than on the national scene the tranquility of the Eisenhower years were without cost.
Take television, for instance: the revenues were great, and so was the publicity value of electronically extending major-league play to people in southern and western areas. But the novelty of big-time heroes on the small screen kept those folks at home when formerly they had gone to the local ballpark. The minors began their long decline, one that didn’t bottom out until 1964; by then the 59 leagues of 1951 had become 19, and the 8,000-odd professional players had dwindled to fewer than 2,500.
Moreover, television whetted the baseball appetites of Californians and Texans (and Georgians and Washingtonians and more). That demand plus the development of faster passenger planes gave ideas to owners of two of baseball’s decaying franchises. Walter O’Malley, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham had seen the solidarity of the original sixteen-city composition broken in 1953, when the venerable Boston Braves (a franchise established in the first year of the National Association, 1871) became the darlings of Milwaukee, and further weakened by the defections in 1954-55 of the St. Louis Browns to Baltimore and the Philadelphia Athletics to Kansas City. Amid weeping and gnashing of teeth that continue to this day, the Dodgers and Giants left for the Golden West in 1958.
In a strange twist, the architect of the move, Walter O’Malley, was (and in the East, still is) widely seen as the snake in baseball’s version of the Garden of Eden, responsible for ending the grand old game’s paradisical age. Yet the placement of franchises in California, as distressing as it was for Brooklyn and Manhattan and as roundly condemned as it was by traditionalists, may now be seen as the best thing to happen to baseball in the decade. And Walter O’Malley, if you will permit your mind a considerable stretch, may be viewed not as the snake offering baseball the mortal apple but as a latter-day Johnny Appleseed (in the footsteps of Alexander Cartwright, who in 1849 also headed for California in pursuit of gold, yet who is remembered not for his venality but for bringing the New York Game to the West).
It was imperative that baseball take the game to where the people were, precisely as it had in 1903. America’s population had already begun the westward and southward shift that was to become so pronounced in the 1960s and ‘70s. The move to Los Angeles and San Francisco, rather than confirming those cities’ stature as “big-league,” as is so often written, brought baseball into step with America, which had long recognized them as such. Baseball could now call itself the national pastime without apology.
Father Chadwick had been typically prescient when he wrote in 1876, the inaugural year of the National League and the centenary of America’s birth:
What Cricket is to an Englishman, Base-Ball has become to an American.... On the Cricket-field—and there only—the Peer and the Peasant meet on equal terms; the possession of courage, nerve, judgment, skill, endurance and activity alone giving the palm of superiority. In fact, a more democratic institution does not exist in Europe than this self-same Cricket; and as regards its popularity, the records of the thousands of Commoners, Divines and Lawyers, Legislators and Artisans, and Literateurs as well as Mechanics and Laborers, show how great a hold it has on the people. If this is the characteristic of Cricket in aristocratic and monarchical England, how much more will the same characteristics mark Base-Ball in democratic and republican America.
Chadwick’s vision of baseball as a model democratic institution would have to wait for the turn of the century to be fully articulated, and for Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey to be fully realized. But Chadwick’s belief that baseball could be more than a game, could become a model of and for American life, presaged baseball’s golden age of 1903-30.
The tumultuous 1890s witnessed a player revolt against high-handed and monopolistic management, epitomized by a cap on salaries, followed by a nearly ruinous contraction from three major leagues to one twelve-team circuit. The national economy suffered a panic in 1893 and a sluggish recovery thereafter; baseball attendance dwindled; and the lack of postseason interleague competition after 1890 (as there had been since 1884) was sorely felt. The game was in a period of consolidation, or hibernation, or stagnation; one’s perspective depended upon whether he were an owner, fan, or player.
But then Ban Johnson came along, fired by the same vision of a rival league that had inflamed the Players League and the American and Union Associations before him, and that would beckon to the Federal and Continental Leagues later on. With the declaration by the American League that it would conduct business as a major league in 1901, and the signing of a peace treaty with the Nationals two years later, the World Series was resumed, prosperity returned, and the popularity and influence of the game exploded.
Baseball mania seized America as new heroes like Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, and Nap Lajoie found a public hungry for knowledge of their every action, their every thought. A fan’s affiliation with his team could exceed in vigor his attachment to his church, his trade, his political party—all but family and country, and even these were wrapped up in baseball. The national pastime became the great repository of national ideals, the symbol of all that was good in American life: fair play (sportsmanship); the rule of law (objective arbitration of disputes), equal opportunity (each side has its innings), the brotherhood of man (bleacher harmony), and more.
The baseball boom of the early twentieth century built on the game’s simple charms of exercise and communal celebration, adding the psychological and social complexities of vicarious play: civic pride, role models, and hero worship. It became routine for the President to throw out the first ball of the season. Supreme Court Justices had inning-by-inning scores from the World Series relayed to their chambers. Business leaders, perhaps disingenuously, praised baseball as a model of competition and fair play. “Baseball,” opined a writer for American Magazine in 1913, “has given our public a fine lesson in commercial morals.... Some day all business will be reorganized and conducted by baseball standards.” (Today, oddly, the major leagues have committed to reorganizing along business principles.)
Leaders of recent immigrant groups advised their peoples to learn the national game if they wanted to become Americans, and foreign-language newspapers devoted space to educating their readers about America’s strange and wonderful game. (New York’s Staats-Zeitung, for example, applauded Kraftiges Schlagen hard hitting—and cautioned German fans not to kill the Unparteiischer. ) As historian Harold Seymour wrote, “The argot of baseball supplied a common means of communication and strengthened the bond which the game helped to establish among those sorely in need of it—the mass of urban dwellers and immigrants living in the anonymity and impersonal vortex of large industrial cities.... With the loss of the traditional ties known in a rural society, baseball gave to many the feeling of belonging.” And rooting for a baseball team permitted city folk, newcomers and native-born, the sense of pride in community that in former times—when they may have lived in small towns—was commonplace.
Thus baseball offered a model of how to be an American, to be part of the team: Baseball was “second only to death as a leveler,” wrote Allen Sangree. Even in those horrifically leveling years of 1941-45, when so many of our bravest and best gave their lives to defend American ideals, baseball’s role as a vital enterprise was confirmed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “green light” for continued play.
Many of baseball’s finest players—Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, to name a few—swapped their baseball gear for Uncle Sam’s, and served with military distinction or helped to boost the nation’s morale. Even oldtimers like Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, and Ty Cobb donned uniforms in service of their country—baseball uniforms, as they staged exhibitions on behalf of war bonds.
Servicemen overseas looked to letters from home and the box scores in The Sporting News to keep them in touch with what they had left behind, and what they were fighting for—an American way of life that was a beacon for a world in which the light of freedom had been nearly extinguished.
If you will indulge a personal aside, I was one of the countless immigrants who from the 1860s on saw baseball as the “open sesame” to the door of their adopted land. A Polish Jew born in occupied Germany to Holocaust survivors—on Alexander Cartwright’s birthday, I later learned—I arrived on these shores at age two. After checking in at Ellis Island, I happened by chance to spend the first night in my new land in the no-longer-elegant hotel where in 1876 the National League had been founded. (And in an aside within an aside, unwittingly went on to graduate from Beloit College, alma mater of NL founder William Hulbert.) I learned to read by studying the backs of Topps baseball cards, and to be an American by attaching myself passionately to the Brooklyn Dodgers (who also taught me about the fickleness of love).
The Brooklyn Dodgers, in the persons particularly of Rickey and Robinson, also taught America a lesson: that baseball’s integrative and democratic models, by the 1940s long held to be verities, were hollow at the core. David Halberstam has written:sports was the great American equalizer, that money and social status did not matter upon the playing fields. Elsewhere life was assumed to be unfair: those who had privilege passed it on to their children, who in turn had easier, softer lives. Those without privilege were doomed to accept the essential injustices of daily life. But according to the American myth, in sports the poor but honest kid from across the tracks could gain (often in competition with richer, snottier kids) recognition and acclaim for his talents.
Until October 23, 1945, when Robinson signed a contract to play for the Montreal Royals, Brooklyn’s top farm club, the myth as far as African Americans were concerned was not a sustaining legend but a mere falsehood.
Rickey’s rectitude and Robinson’s courage have become central parables of baseball and America, exemplars of decency and strength that inspire all of us. Their “great experiment” came too late for such heroes of black ball as Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston and Ray Dandridge, but its success has been complete. Once the integrative or leveling model of baseball—all America playing and working in harmony—was extended to African Americans, the effect on the nation was profound. Eighty years after the Civil War, America had proved itself unable to practice the values for which it was fought; baseball showed the way. This is what Commissioner Ford Frick said to the St. Louis Cardinals, rumored to be planning a strike in May 1947: If you do this you will be suspended from the league. You will find that the friends you think you have in the press box will not support you, that you will be outcasts. I do not care if half the league strikes. Those who do it will encounter quick retribution. They will be suspended and I don’t care if it wrecks the National League for five years. This is the United States of America, and one citizen has as much right to play as any other. The National League will go down the line with Robinson whatever the consequence.
As Monte Irvin said, “Baseball has done more to move America in the right direction than all the professional patriots with their billions of cheap words.” The Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education; civil rights heroes like Martin Luther King, James Meredith, Thurgood Marshall, and others; the freedom marches and the voting rights act—all were vital to America’s progress toward unity, but the title of one of Jackie Robinson’s books may not overstate the case: Baseball Has Done It.
A final way in which baseball supplies models for America is one that has been present from the game’s beginning: a model for boys wishing to be men, wrestling with their insecurities and wondering, What does it mean to be a man? What does a man do? (Most of us old boys occasionally wonder this as well.) The answers in baseball, at least, are unequivocal; as Satchel Paige said in his later years, “I loved baseball. There wasn’t no ‘maybe so’ about it.”
Baseball gives boys—and girls—a sense of how wide the world is, in its possibilities but also in its geography. Reading the summations of minor-league ball in The Sporting News each week piqued the curiosity of baseball-mad boys like me: where were Kokomo and Mattoon and Thibodeaux and Nogales? How did people behave in Salinas or Rocky Mount? What did they eat in Artesia? How many exciting, exotic places this enormous country contained! But a note of comfort—they couldn’t be all that strange if baseball was played there.
And to that other vast terra incognita the world of adults—baseball also offered a road map. How many boys learned to talk with adults, principally their fathers, by nodding wisely at an assessment of a shortstop’s range or a pitcher’s heart, and mock-confidently venturing an opinion about the hometown team’s chances? Our dads are our first heroes (and, decades later, our last); but in between, baseball players are what we want to be. For heroes are larger than life, and when as adults we have taken a measure of ourselves and found we are no more than life-size, and our bad days seemingly less than that, baseball can puff us up a bit.
Douglass Wallop put it nicely:Saturday morning and hurtling from the house with a glove buttoned over his belt and a bat over his shoulder, rushing to the nearest vacant lot, perhaps the nearest alley, where the other guys were gathering, a place where it would always be spring. For him, baseball would always have the sound and look and smell of that morning and of other mornings just like it. Only by an accident of chance would he find himself, in the years to come, up in the grandstand, looking on. But for a quirk of fate, he himself would be down on that field; it would be his likeness on the television screen and his name in the newspaper high on the list of .300 hitters. He was a fan, but a fan only incidentally. He was, first and always, himself a baseball player.