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.