October 4, 2012

Book Review: A People's History Of Baseball, By Mitchell Nathanson

America is the opiate of the people.
Philip Roth, The Great American Novel

A People's History Of Baseball (University of Illinois Press) is easily one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking baseball books I have read in more than 35 years as a fan. I don't think I have enjoyed immersing myself in a baseball book this much since George Will's Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball (1990).

From author Mitchell Nathanson's introduction:
Through the game's historical narrative, larger themes emerge: ones focused on equality, patriotism, heroism, capitalism – the usual suspects within the American canon. And to be sure, all of those themes can be found in baseball, some of them in abundance. Therefore, in many ways, baseball's narrative is idyllic America’s as well. Assuming we choose to see it that way.

Because we can also see it another way. Rather than see baseball through a patriotic, sepia haze, we can choose to see it through a more critical eye, one that permits us to see our collective selves at something less than our best. Through the growth and development of baseball we can see the corresponding potential of influence – the petty power struggles as well as the consequential ones – that have likewise defined our nation for well over two centuries. Though baseball as a game is sharply defined, constrained by tangible boundaries such as foul lines and a strike zone, baseball as a concept is a far more malleable entity.
Nathanson, a professor of legal writing at Villanova University School of Law, presents history from an alternate viewpoint, challenging convention and taking a clear-eyed look at some of game's most cherished legends and myths. The title deliberately alludes to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, but Nathanson does not mimic the path of that essential volume. Rather, he focuses on five or six specific incidents/eras, illustrative of the game as a whole, including the birth of baseball's mythology, its anti-trust exemption, the huge changes re television, expansion, and the players' union, and Branch Rickey's decision to sign Jackie Robinson in the mid-1940s.

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner: "Each age tries to form its own conception of the past. Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time."

If Turner is correct, then history is not static, but is always evolving. Past events are repeated and manipulated for various ends, and those manipulations merge into other interpretations of the same event, creating another version of "reality". Rough details are invariably worn away, like the surf's constant wash smooths a jagged piece of glass. Complexities are simplified, and contrary or confusing elements are discarded in favour of a concise and logical narrative. Nathanson cautions us about accepting any of baseball's narratives at face value.
Fictional stories are oftentimes the most persuasive stories precisely because their freedom from the constrains of truth allows them to hang together so well and so neatly match their audience's expectations. . . . "True" stories suffer in comparison because of the inherent contradictions and missing pieces present in messy, everyday life. . . . In this sense, the more resonant the story, the more suspect it becomes. . . . [A]ll stories, whether they confirm our beliefs or challenge them, are manipulative, political, anecdotal, and, to the extent they are used to illustrate larger, universal truths, unfair. For in the end, all stories are just that – stories.
The Baseball Creed

Nathanson returns time and again to what he calls the "baseball creed", which states that the game is far more than simply a game.
[I]nstead, it stands in for America in name as well as in concept and is an invaluable tool in the teaching and promotion of American values and ideals. In its most overt and cheerleading form . . . the hyperbole was especially thick: the game was promoted as "building manliness, character, and an ethic of success"; it molded youngsters, helping boys become better men not only through playing but simply watching the game; it contributed to the public health and was an agent for democratization.
Baseball has been referred to as the "national pastime" at least as far back as 1856. Walt Whitman later wrote that baseball "belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life". Hugh Fullerton, a New York sportswriter, believed that baseball was "the greatest single force working for Americanization. . . . [N]othing, not even the schools, teaches the American spirit so quickly or inculcates the idea of sportsmanship or fair play as thoroughly." According to one observer, writing in 1907: "So long as [baseball] remains our national game, America will abide no monarchy, and anarchy will be slow."

Jacques Barzun – best known to followers of baseball as the author of the line, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules, and reality of the game." – was a believer in the baseball creed:
Accuracy and speed, the practiced eye and the hefty arm, the mind to take in and readjust to the unexpected, the possession of more than one talent and the willingness to work in harness without special orders, these are the American virtues that shine in baseball. . . .

That baseball fitly expresses the powers of the nation's mind and body is a merit separate from the glory of being the most active, agile, varied, articulate, and brainy of all group games. It is of and for our century.
Baseball was seen as a way for both children and immigrants to acculturate into mainstream American life. Nathanson illustrates how new ideas in the social sciences – the emergence of evolutionary environmentalism, for example, the idea that cultural environment (and not heredity) was a key factor in achieving success in life – influenced the popularity of baseball in the early years of the 20th Century.

Sportswriters like Fullerton portrayed the various club owners as respectable, praiseworthy Americans who were emblematic of these new social theories; unlike the WASPs of the previous generations, these were self-made men. Outside of baseball, these ideas served the interests of the upper classes as the downtrodden believed that through hard work, they, too, could climb the social ladder. Such optimism ignored the huge barriers of race and ethnicity, as well as long-standing structural impediments. Under this boot-strap theory, which plagues society to this day, a person's failure to achieve success was conclusive proof that she simply did not try hard enough (or was perhaps lazy, dumb, etc.).

Nathanson links this way of thinking to rooting for the underdog and a fan's general optimism every spring about her particular team's chances at winning a championship. All of us ignore the fact that our team will almost certainly be one of the 29 losers at the end of October. But we happily dismiss the cold fact of that reality.

Nathanson, in an interview with The Classical:
So if you want to root at all, it has to be a matter of blind hope against the odds. Otherwise it's just a frustrating experience. But digging deeper, I think that we're uncomfortable rooting for losers so we actively seek to trick our minds so as to enable us to see hope where there really is none. . . . Speaking solely as a baseball matter, this is a harmless enough trick but, as I discuss within that chapter, it's indicative of a larger societal malady that is anything but.
As Nathanson writes in the chapter "Wait Til Next Year and the Denial of History":
For more than a century, unwarranted, irrational optimism has been seen by some of its critics and most ardent supporters alike as a diversionary device used to great effect to preserve the status quo and fend off change: the heroic stories of underdogs (from Horatio Alger's tales onward) being fodder used to present the facade of overcoming even the most dire of situations, which in the process diverts attention from the world as it actually exists. With each underdog that emerges victorious, the focus remains on the extraordinary individual who accomplished the feat rather than on the situation that created the imbalance that necessitated the superhuman acts to surmount it.
Society's support for the underdog is limited (for the most part) to the sports arena and other entertainments. It has not leaked over into larger society. The general public does not often support workers against management, for example, or individuals against corporations.

Rickey, Race And "All Deliberate Speed"

The highlight of the book is the chapter on Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, and baseball's uncertain path to integration in the mid-1940s. Nathanson calls the Robinson story "one of the most resonant and powerful in our culture"; to challenge it is to challenge the essence of America itself (or perhaps more accurately the essence of America's view of itself). But as Nathanson shows, "like most stories, [it] is complete with gaps and inconvenient facts pushed to the side".

Commissioner Bud Selig has never missed an opportunity to pat major league baseball on the back for finally recognizing people with dark skin as equal human beings. Every year, on April 15 – the date of Robinson’s 1947 debut – all players wear Robinson's #42 and many self-congratulatory speeches are made. No mention is made of the shameful, decades-long fight MLB waged against the idea of equality – and how, even after Robinson and Larry Doby broke the National League's and American League's colour lines, respectively – teams moved at a glacial pace to integrate.

Lester Rodney, a sportswriter for The Daily Worker had been calling for integration from the time he joined the Communist paper in 1936, "highlighting the hypocrisy of the owners presiding over a segregated game that they nonetheless presented to the public as emblematic of the nation's highest and best qualities".

The call to integrate grew during World War II, as more and more people wondered why blacks were considered "good enough" to fight for their country, but not to play the country's national game alongside whites? Various black sportswriters – Nat Low, Wendell Smith, Joe Bostic, Sam Lacy – applied relentless pressure on teams to give Negro Leagues players try-outs. When a team relented and scheduled a try-out, it was only a publicity stunt; no team had any intention of signing black players.

Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey, a social conservative (and, by his own admission, not a social reformer), had previously refused to allow black players to try out for the Dodgers. He was shamed into giving two black players a try-out in April 1945 by Bostic, who had the backing of New York Congressman (and civil rights leader) Adam Clayton Powell. The movement to integrate was building in New York, with pickets outside Yankee Stadium, and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia voicing his support for integration.

Nathanson rightly calls Rickey as a "baseball genius". However, Rickey was also a man whose "instincts [for improving his team] just happened to run right smack into America's burgeoning civil rights movement. . . . [H]e recognized the rising tide and understood that major league baseball was going to have to integrate sooner rather than later." Obsessed with getting any possible competitive edge, Rickey was always willing to think outside the traditional parameters of the game to gain any advantage. At its core, his decision to sign Robinson was a baseball decision, an early example of Moneyball thinking.

Later in 1945, Rickey must have seen the light, because he referred to the black race as "the greatest untapped reservoir of raw material in the history of the game". And when he learned that Mayor LaGuardia was set to give a radio address on integrating baseball on October 18, 1945, Rickey urged him to postpone that address. He then quickly announced the signing of Robinson five days later. While Rickey maintained that signing Robinson was strictly a baseball decision, as the years passed, his story, as well as the official story, would morph into something different.

Major league baseball in the 1940s was powerless to stop the onrushing tide of integration, but it was, in Nathanson's view, "nevertheless able to control something nearly as significant – how the story of the game's integration was going to be told and, ultimately, remembered. More than six decades later, their power in this regard still resonates."

Rickey's famous statement that the first black player needed to have "guts enough not to fight back" against the aggressive slides and beanballs and racial slurs effectively neutered the feisty and aggressive Robinson. More importantly, Rickey's edict negated equality as a natural right, establishing the idea that there was a "right kind" of black player suited for MLB. Rickey's gag order also exposed Robinson to unwarranted and ignorant allegations that he was an "Uncle Tom" for acquiescing to Rickey's request, and it troubled him for the rest of his life.

Nathanson explains how the Robinson signing actually slowed further integration, setting the movement to fully integrate the national game back years. Rickey's move neatly took the issue away from progressive groups and politicians and put it into the hands of organized baseball "to be doled out on its terms and through its good graces". His decision to sign Robinson "allowed major league baseball to escape greater scrutiny of its racist practices", "glossed over the deep and long-standing institutional racism that was truly at the core of the issue", and "conveniently neglected and ignored the enormous social pressures that the rising integration movement . . . had on major league baseball".

It is interesting to note that when Rickey left Brooklyn and became Pittsburgh's general manager in 1951, it was not until his fourth year on the job that a black player (Curt Roberts) wore a Pirates uniform. Nathanson concludes:
To many who have tried to tackle the Rickey story and legacy in print, he remains a conundrum: an archconservative civil rights pioneer who opposed what he termed "radicalism" in any form and in any manner save this one instance. . . . His actions in that one instance not only seem out of character but a direct contradiction to everything he believed in, and how he lived his life both before and afterward. . . . Perhaps he simply wanted to win baseball games and was willing to take whatever avenue existed that enabled him to achieve this goal at the lowest possible cost. This simple narrative does not require the elaborate twists and turns that the Rickey story traditionally takes. However, this narrative is hardly a symbolic one, hardly one that stands in for "America," so it is not surprising that it is not as widely embraced.
The Storytellers

In his final chapter, Nathanson looks at the storytellers – the journalists who have written, and then zealously promoted and defended, the various narratives that have been dissected in the book's preceding pages.

This chapter begins, as it must, with Henry Chadwick, the undisputed "father of baseball". Chadwick's impact on the game cannot be overstated. Not only did he have input into the evolving rules of the game in the late 19th Century, but he was the game's first influential writer, as well as its self-designated moral conscience.

Under Chadwick's direction, baseball became a reflection of his opinions about sport and society.
Aspects of the game he considered to be curative he promoted; those he considered to be destructive to the national character he attempted to either eliminate or punish through his chosen methods of statistical analysis. In short, how America came to understand the game emanated in large degree from Henry Chadwick's personal beliefs of right and wrong, not merely on the ball field but within society. . . .
He believed that the game was in the process of evolving from a lower form to a higher one and felt it to be his responsibility, as the foremost baseball journalist of his era, to mold it, tweak it, alter it until the public saw a game that conformed to what he believed to be the best aspects of American society . . . Thus, he tinkered and fussed with the game until he developed one that served as an exemplar of larger American life.
Even Chadwick's invention of the box score – which allowed fans not present at the game to get a good idea of what had happened on the field – reflected his moral philosophy:
[T]he choices of what to include and what to omit reflected his beliefs as to what skills most benefited the game, and, in a larger context, society. Without their even realizing it, baseball fans were coming to learn and appreciate the game through Chadwick's eyes, seeing the game as he did, unconsciously making the same moral choices he did.

One of the most obvious examples of this comes through Chadwick's beliefs concerning the base on balls. To him, there was no value in the walk; it was not a true test of a batter's skill. Rather, it was merely a case of bad pitching. . . .

Although he did not create the batting average (Chadwick credited H.A. Dobson with that invention), he fervently promoted it because he believed it . . . highlighted the skill he valued above all else: the clean base hit. . . . Despite the fact that a batter likewise reached base on a walk and had as much of a chance to score that way, walks were not factored into the compilation of the batting average. . . . The moral decisions involved in the creation and promotion of the batting average as a valuable statistical tool were many. . . . [F]ans were becoming inculcated into Chadwick's moral and social philosophies every time they opened their sports pages.

In the 1880s, his quest to encourage individual sacrifice and team play led Chadwick to once again seek out the necessary statistical incentive. Eventually, he developed the Run Batted In (RBI) which, by 1891, became an official element of the box score. To Chadwick, the RBI represented an act which brought out the best in man: taking action for the betterment of others (in this case, enabling one's teammates to score runs). Viewed in this light, it was a singular act of achievement that spoke volumes of the individual who successfully accomplished it. As such, it quickly became one of the most important statistical measures in the game. . . .

Chadwick also used nonstatistical means within his columns to hammer home his philosophies. . . . In an 1861 column in the New York Clipper, he attempted to define the characteristics of what he believed to be the model player. Tellingly, none of the attributes that drew his attention were directly relevant to success on the field.
It is remarkable how much of what Chadwick introduced into the game remains with us today, from the supremacy of batting average and the RBI (and the idea of a player "giving himself up" through a "sacrifice" to improving his team's chances of scoring) to the issue of character, of players who possess various intangibles and "play the game the right way".

In his role as baseball promoter, Chadwick "encouraged fawning journalism rather than a critical examination of the game", and there was no shortage of writers willing to to act as "optimists, myth makers, and sentimentalists", reporting dramatic stories rather than facts. In the early decades of the game, boosterism of the local team and the game in general "had become the accepted, unchallenged approach to baseball writing and reporting". Writers "considered it their job to give voice to the feelings of the club and its supporters, rather than objectively analyze the game". (Again, nothing seems to have changed in 150 years.)

Future generations of writers grew up learning the game in Chadwick’s shadow (although they likely did not realize it) and were obviously "unwilling to present a more complex, perhaps less zealously patriotic image of something they had looked up to all of their lives".

Nathanson includes a fascinating bit concerning radio re-creations, where in-studio announcers received the basic facts of the game via teletype and then invented a surrounding narrative, as if they were truly announcing the game live. In the early 1950s, even as television began showing the actual games on screen, many fans preferred the made-up drama of the radio re-creations.

Bill James

Nathanson posits Bill James as both Chadwick's intellectual heir and a revolutionary and heroic figure from outside the baseball establishment who allowed fans at long last to wrest control of the game's secrets and nuances from the traditional storytellers. James's obsession with questioning every facet of the game, along with his acerbic and humorous style of writing, did nothing less than "challenge and dismiss a century of baseball beliefs".
James embarked on a broader analysis of the game, taking his cues on how to understand the game not from sportswriters but from academia. James, much like Chadwick a century earlier, was fascinated by the social sciences and often found within them explanations for things he was seeing on the diamond.
Thanks to James and ever-expanding technology, "fans were finally free to frame the game through their own eyes rather than through the filter of the game's protectors." James was a populist who wrote for those fans "to whom the hurried and casual summaries of journalism are a daily affront". Like Chadwick, James was also a baseball promoter, but he was promoting the separation of the sports from mythology – imploring fans to look at baseball as baseball rather than as a grand metaphor.

While the traditional media continued to tell fanciful stories "based on untested assumptions and misplaced morality tales", James insisted that there was a better way:
What James did was to inform [fans] that what they saw when they read a box score was merely the tip of the iceberg; that lying underneath it was an entirely new way of understanding the game that theretofore had remained untouched. The concept of the batting average was one such example. Ever since Chadwick's era it has been seen as an end unto itself (players with high batting averages were de facto believed to be more valuable than players with lower batting averages). James reasoned that because the point of baseball was not to hit for a high average but to score runs, the batting average might be an incomplete statistical measure . . . In this sense, he urged that it was necessary to look beyond the traditional box score, to look within the numbers we all thought we knew and try to understand not merely what they said but, more important, what they meant. . . .

Despite his reputation, James's analysis was not solely grounded within the world of statistics. . . . He, like Chadwick, often wrote narrative pieces on players that drew upon the social sciences and the humanities. Regardless of the form of his critiques, they routinely challenged the long-held tenets of the system that had become "baseball" as an iconic culture. Not surprisingly, the system fought back.
James proved it was not necessary to have access to players in the locker room to understand the game. And, as Nathanson puts it, "[I]f everyone had access to information, then the 'baseball men' could not possibly known more than their fans." James was promoting "populist baseball – a game owned and controlled by fans who were no longer dependent upon insiders for their enjoyment of the game."

This scared the bejesus out of the baseball establishment and so it belligerently rejected James and his ideas exactly as it had previously rejected every other "different" thing that came down the road: print media, radio, television, integration, expansion, free agency. Even now, almost 40 years after the appearance of James's first Abstract, far too many baseball writers continue to ridicule most of the progressive thinkers who have come along in James's wake. (The current debate about advanced statistics and the 2012 AL MVP Award is merely the latest skirmish in this long-running battle.)

Nathanson calls baseball blogs "the first journalistic medium that is potentially completely outside the control of MLB and the traditional media; they are answerable to no one and pose a unique threat to the game's storytellers. Ever since James made the point through his Abstracts that one need not be an insider to understand the game, such a challenge was inevitable." Thanks to the internet, technology has finally fully caught up with James's philosophy.

Fans writing on the internet are threatening to end or, more likely, have already pulled the plug on, "an unchallenged monopoly on baseball's nuances". It is now quite easy to follow a team and get all the information you need while still avoiding the traditional sports media.

Internet writers who are not dependent on access to team executives or players are free to be as blunt and honest as they like, with no fear of reprisal. The traditional baseball media cannot afford to be so brash – their jobs depends on access, and so a form of censorship is imposed. In the process, "slanted, self-interested journalism [is] passed off to the public as critical analysis."

Nathanson worries about larger online conglomerates like SB Nation becoming the norm, creating a blogosphere "with entry barriers no different than those that exist within traditional media". But I question whether it is possible to truly threaten the impartiality and independence of the blogosphere. If anyone with something to say and an internet connection can start her own website, then those entry barriers do not exist. Independent voices may be, as always, hard to find, but they will exist.

If even half of this post excited you, you will love this book. Re-reading parts of it to get the various quotes posted above, I found myself getting immersed in the ideas all over again. (This book also reminded me that I must finally read John Thorn's Baseball In The Garden Of Eden and track down Andrew Schiff's biography of Henry Chadwick.)

Nathanson helped me see things I have been looking at all my life in new ways, exposed connections between seemingly disparate things, and, most of all, made me think. Is there any higher praise for a writer?


Jere said...

Sounds pretty sweet. In 2004 in my earliest days of blogging, I wrote something similar about the blogosphere and how "we" can replace the media, but then "we" might turn into exactly what they were. New boss same as the old boss kinda shit. I had been noticing how DirtDogs went quickly from "independent voice" to "same old voice" to "actually owned by the Globe."

laura k said...

I've only read the first two sentences of this review, but now I can't wait to read the book.

(I will finish the post asap.)

laura k said...

In 2004 in my earliest days of blogging, I wrote something similar

Similar to this book??

allan said...

I think he means something similar to Nathanson's final point, a worry that blogs will become the staid, traditional media.

Jim said...

Thanks allan, looks like I got a "must read". ((note to Laura, I'm passing this on to my Library branch. They're pretty good at listening to (and acting upon) suggestions)).

I hate TV commercials, internet pop-ups, the Red Sox playing like shit and dumb sports mediots--but I really, really hate gasbags who intone "plays the game the right way".

Jere said...

Yes, "about the blogosphere" was the key phrase ;) Was not claiming to have written this book years earlier...

Tom DePlonty said...

I'm going to have to read it. Terrific review, Allan,

laura k said...

Jim,thanks for that!

Jere, got it now. I was parsing your sentence in the wrong place. :)