August 11, 2014

Book Review: The Devil's Snake Curve, By Josh Ostergaard

Coffee House Press, a small publisher in Minneapolis, Minnesota, states that Josh Ostergaard's The Devil's Snake Curve
"offers an alternative American history, in which colonialism, jingoism, capitalism, and faith are represented by baseball. Personal and political, it twines Japanese interment camps with the Yankees; Walmart and the Kansas City Royals; and facial hair with patterns of militarism, Guantanamo, and the modern security state."
With a description like that, how could I not love this book?

The Devil's Snake Curve shows the interconnected history of baseball and the United States in a social, political, and personal way that Ken Burns would not have dared to attempt. Ostergaard conveys the wonder of the national game while also shining a light into its darker corners, drawing connections between seemingly odd and disparate events. If I can fault Ostergaard for anything, it's that each nugget of information is often too short. I wanted more information, more unpacking of symbolism and meaning, more book.

Ostergaard writes that he is offering "one man's radically subjective American history", showing "the ways in which baseball has been represented in the U.S., and how these representations can be understood in the context of American history". He is examining "the seepage between the culture and the sport", using the language and history of baseball through which to convey his "deeper concerns about contemporary life". It's incredibly refreshing to read a history of the game from someone who, as the book's subtitle slyly notes, is coming from a leftist perspective.
This book is like a day at the ball park. Histories are the murmurs between innings. They are the pitches that make up a game. They careen off the wall and roll into dark corners. The game is played in fragments. Meanings accrue. Memories interrupt history.
The book is divided into five sections - Origins, Machines, War, Animals, Nationalism - and moves through the game's history roughly chronologically. All of us have been taught of the links in the national game, links between events, players, games - invisible threads that bind generations. Ostergaard shows how these myriad threads extend out beyond the game, into social and political events and trends. In his view, it is impossible to truly discuss the game's history without discussing the history of the United States in all its complicated forms, good and bad, virtuous and ugly.

Early in the 20th Century, facial hair - seen as a statement of individuality - was outlawed in the game, ushering in an era of professionalism and the supposed domestication of players. Owners regarded their teams as complex pieces of industrial machinery, and cast aside unproductive players as though they were broken or useless machine cogs. The players wearing Yankee pinstripes, for example, were expected to behave like widgets in Jacob Ruppert's factory. (Ostergaard says that Mark Rupert's Producing Hegemony: The Politics of Mass Production and American Global Power "influenced how I came to see the game".)

The New York Yankees and their dominance over the sport in the 20th Century is a constant theme throughout the book. Ostergaard grew up in Kansas, and harbours a special hatred for anyone wearing pinstripes ("We were bred to scorn the Yankees").
In Kansas City in the fifties, the worry had been that the A's existed solely to increase profits for the Yankees. Decades later, this is the same predatory relationship the average American shares with the 1 percent: we are hosts for parasites.
The theme of exploitation, especially of Native Americans, is strong. As a child, Ostergaard played in Arrowhead Park and Black Bob Park (named for a Native American who led a Shawnee revolt), and attended Indian Trail School. During a research trip to Cooperstown, he stays in a hotel called the Mohican. He notes a portion of Terry Mann's speech in "Field of Dreams" that is not often repeated: America has "been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again". And Ostergaard bluntly criticizes the management of the Cleveland Indians for "naming a team after a group of people subjected to organized repression, expulsion, and genocide".

A construction company owned by Del Webb received a government contract to build concentration camps near Parker, Arizona - camps that housed thousands of Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. These camps were built on Native American land. The internment camps were finally closed during Webb's first season as co-owner of the New York Yankees. Webb called the camps the "greatest thing our company ever did". Time and again, he draws very clear parallels between the Yankees and the United States. "Anything they feared ... they pacified or acquired."

When Ostergaard mentions Allen Dulles and John Foster Dulles, the one-time director of the CIA and the Secretary of State, respectively, he writes plainly that the brothers "went about their task of making the world safe for capitalists". They had an "intense fear of a world in which foreign countries determined their own destiny, and the damage true autonomy could do to moneyed interested in the West".

Ostergaard gives numerous examples of how baseball pops up in unexpected places. He reminds us that numerous members of the bin Laden family were secretly escorted out of the United States two days after the 9/11 attacks and then notes that the previous passengers on one of the airplanes were the Baltimore Orioles. ... "A Study of Assassination", a once-secret U.S. government manual suggests that baseball bats can be used as a weapon: "blows should be directed to the temple".

Ostergaard refers to the United States as "a country that loves freedom but often demands uniformity". He quotes Noam Chomsky:
[Sports] occupies the population, and keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter. In fact, I presume that's part of the reason why spectator sports are supported to the degree they are by the dominant institutions. And spectator sports also have other useful functions,too. For one thing, they're a great way to build up chauvinism - you start by developing these totally irrational loyalties early in life, and they translate very nicely to other areas . . . [T]his sense of irrational loyalty to some sort of meaningless community is training for subordination to power ... this stuff is a major part of the whole indoctrination and propaganda system, and it's worth examining more closely.
Two snips about steroids:
In a bait-and-switch reminiscent of the way George W. Bush used terror alerts to distract the public from Iraq's nonexistent nuclear weapons, Selig used Jackie Robinson to turn fans' attention from steroids. This prefabricated self-righteousness failed to overshadow the steroid scandal ...

I was not disillusioned by athletes using steroids, because I never had an illusion of baseball's purity in the first place. ... I realized the steroid scandal was just another window into the problems of America: fake home run records, illusory weapons of mass destruction, economic bubbles hyped by Wall Street.
Speaking of "fake home run records", I do disagree with Ostergaard on one point. He writes that we have no idea how many home runs were hit by Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGuire. At the same time, Ostergaard gives exact HR numbers for Ken Griffey and Jim Thome. Ostergaard's categorization of these six players as either 100% clean or 100% dirty is not based on any evidence. And we absolutely know how many home runs those first four players hit: 762, 654, 609, and 583, respectively. Ostergaard can choose to believe some of those home runs were not "legitimate" (however he defines that term), but he cannot deny the fact that they were hit.

Early on, Ostergaard writes:
I used to think baseball was a game of certainties. The pitcher and batter did their gritty work, and the blurred ball thudded into the catcher's mitt or bounced off the right field fence. The official scorekeeper recorded precisely what happened. Every pitch was tabulated, digested, and put to use in understanding what might come next. ... The game was predictable, yet it birthed infinite stories about what happened in the past or could happen next. Even within these variations, it felt comforting to see the same pattern, game after game.
By the end of the book, he is not so sure of those certainties:
I have come to believe the history of baseball is a history of questions, and anecdotes and events that raise still more questions. Its boundaries have dissolved ...
There are few boundaries in The Devil's Snake Curve. Like a game of Six Degrees Of Separation, Ostergaard can connect just about any social or political event to baseball. For example, he somehow connects reliever Brian Wilson's chalupa commercial and Abu Ghraib.

The Devil's Snake Curve is a fascinating, enlightening book. I look forward to reading whatever Josh Ostergaard writes next, whether it is about baseball or anything else.

1 comment:

allan said...

Ostergaard, from an interview earlier this year:
"Since 2001, there's been such an almost nationalistic, right wing takeover in baseball. It just dominates the game. There's always "God Bless America" at games — that didn't used to be there. Baseball teams wearing camo uniforms, religious overtones and war themes everywhere. It's become this huge business with powerful marketing arms pushing this hypernationalistic message. I found that I couldn't just enjoy the game, without having all this aggression rubbed in my face. It's made me lose interest in pro-level baseball."