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Baseball and Foreign Policy--Yes There is a History Here

July 12th 2010

Book Covers - The Empire Strikes Out

The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad. The New Press, 2010. 448 pages.

In The Empire Strikes Out, Robert Elias, who teaches law and politics at the University of San Francisco, interrogates popular assumptions of baseball as America’s pastime, while suggesting that perhaps William Appleman Williams provides insights into baseball and American life more valuable than the exploits of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Barry Bonds. Elias contends that Major League Baseball officials did, indeed, succeed in making the sport an integral part of American expansionism from the 1880s into the twenty-first century. By attaching itself to American empire and militarism, however, so-called Organized Baseball (in which American Major League Baseball assumes that it is the only legitimate voice for the sport in the global marketplace) has earned the ire and resentment of many in the world who might, otherwise, be attracted to the mental and physical challenges of the sport. As a true patriot and baseball fan, Elias, nevertheless, believes that the game has the potential to detach itself from the pursuit of empire and profit by pushing “the nation to live up to its ideas.”

In his chronological survey of baseball and expansionism, Elias points to Albert Spalding’s 1888 World Tour as establishing the pattern of baseball’s close connection with American exceptionalism and manifest destiny. Seeking markets for his sporting goods company in Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, Ceylon, Egypt, and Europe, Spalding identified baseball with America’s civilizing mission in the world. Elias writes, “Spalding’s trip was a model for other industries going abroad. New markets were needed, and imperial conquests offered the solution; such interventions were rationalized by social Darwinism, in the ‘interests of civilization and humanity’ and to proliferate the American dream."

Baseball also embraced the Spanish-American War, establishing an identification of the sport with militarism which still resonates in patriotic celebrations at American ballparks. American service personnel brought the game with them to Cuba and the Philippines as part of the nation’s civilizing mission. Cubans initially embraced the game as offering a cultural sporting alternative to Spanish bull fighting, but they would later take great pleasure in challenging imperialism by defeating the Yankees at their own game. Military conquest brought America’s game to the Philippines, and numerous leagues were formed during the occupation. Baseball’s popularity, however, declined after Filipino independence was granted. The Filipinos had fiercely resisted annexation, and baseball as representative of American imperialism failed to resonate in the long run.

As Elias notes, Japan was a special case. While baseball was introduced to Japan by missionaries and the American military, the game was not associated with conquest and occupation. Accordingly, Elias argues that the Japanese found baseball a useful means through which to implement a modern national identity by asserting control over their own version of the game; instituting a policy of Japanese baseball imperialism in their dealings with China, Taiwan, and Korea. In fact, contemporary baseball may be more accurately described as the national pastime of Japan rather than the United States.

Japanese exceptionalism, notwithstanding, baseball officials continued to follow the flag, supporting American military and business ventures into Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Panama, and the Dominican Republic. The sport’s identification with militarism was furthered by the Mills Commission which fostered the founding myth that baseball was conceived in Cooperstown, New York by General Abner Doubleday. By associating itself with the state, professional baseball was able to establish a monopoly that was recognized by the court system.

Nevertheless, baseball’s special status was challenged by the sport’s somewhat ambiguous response to the First World War. While Major League Baseball embraced the war effort by fund raising and having players conduct military drills, many Americans were critical of how some baseball owners and players attempted to circumvent the government’s work or fight mandate. Elias maintains that baseball officials vowed to reaffirm their alliance with American militarism so that allegations of wartime shirking would never arise again and threaten the sport’s status.

As the United States edged toward entering the Second World War, both politicians and baseball management placed the sport on a pedestal, insisting that the game’s continuation during the national emergency was essential for the nation’s morale and well being. Selling war bonds and having most of their star players drifted into the military (where many of these athletes spent their service time playing for Armed Forces clubs) allowed baseball to embrace patriotism and militarism during the Second World War. And even though there was a shortage of players and the St. Louis Browns resorted to the employment of a one-armed outfielder, Major League Baseball continued to affirm the segregationist policies of the military by failing to enlist black players during the war years.

Nevertheless, Elias observes that Pearl Harbor and the war with Japan in the Pacific demonstrated the shortcomings of baseball diplomacy. Concluding that baseball “failed” by becoming entangled in U. S. military adventures, Elias argues, “U. S. political and military leaders had used the game to further imperial policies, and thus baseball became associated with American aggression. For Japan, baseball was a symbol of U. S. intervention as much as it was a common denominator and peacekeeper."

Despite the obvious limitations of the Japanese example, baseball eagerly enlisted in the Cold War crusade against the Soviet Union and communism; again asserting that the sport modeled the virtues of American democracy. Recognizing that the sport’s color line provided propaganda opportunities for the nation’s ideological enemies, Baseball Commissioner A. B. “Happy” Chandler supported the signing of Jackie Robinson by Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers. In embracing the interventionist Cold War policies of the United States, Elias,however, suggests that Organized Baseball antagonized many third world citizens. The sport’s association with militarism and patriotism was also evident in Organized Baseball’s support for Little League and American Legion baseball. Wrapping itself in the flag allowed baseball to suffer minimal losses from conscription during the wars in Korea and Vietnam. In fact, Elias intimates that there was somewhat of a gap between baseball’s patriotic rhetoric and the sport’s willingness to protect top prospects from the draft. Nevertheless, Elias concludes that Organized Baseball’s identification with the quagmire in Vietnam led to the growing popularity of football; a game which seemed better suited to the violence plaguing American society in the 1960s and 1970s.

Despite these problems, during the 1980s baseball aligned with the nostalgic vision of President Ronald Reagan; regaining a degree of influence in the culture by supporting Reagan’s military interventions in Central America and the Persian Gulf War under President George H. W. Bush. The failure of Fidel Castro to allow Cuban players to be plucked by Organized Baseball increased support for the embargo against Cuba, and Elias suggests that the desire to embrace American power after the Vietnam experience encouraged baseball to turn a blind eye to the growing use of steroids by the sport’s leading home run hitters.

Major League Baseball also adhered to the economic exploitation of globalism by seeking new sources of cheap labor in the Caribbean where players could be employed free from the restrictions imposed upon the signing of young athletes in the United States. Elias perceives the rise of baseball academies in Latin America as somewhat dangling the prospect of the American dream before economically-strapped Latinos; few of whom would ever be able to sustain a career in baseball. The sport also relegates the production of baseballs and replica merchandise to sweatshops in Latin America and Asia. In addition, Elias is critical of the World Baseball Classic as a means for Major League Baseball to maintain control of foreign markets by focusing upon individual stars as “trailblazers” who can be signed by Organized Baseball and then marketed in their home nations.

Elias is especially perplexed by the decision of Organized Baseball to endorse President George W. Bush’s war on terror and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—or what Elias terms “foreign policy on steroids.” Baseball games today regularly include displays of military hardware and fly overs by jets and tributes to the troops accompanied by the patriotic trimmings of flag decals on uniforms and the singing of both the “Star Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America.” And there is no room for dissenting voices in these militaristic and patriotic displays promoting the war effort. Celebrating the return of professional baseball to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2003, this reviewer was stunned to witness a fireworks display accompanied by a recording of George W. Bush’s speech announcing the shock and awe campaign launched against Iraq.

Elias concludes, however, the decision to cast its lot with American Empire has cost the sport dearly. As the international critics of American empire grow more strident, baseball‘s reputation and place in the world have suffered. Organized Baseball has sought a special relationship with American empire, and as a business it has often prospered at the expense of the sport. Elias. who loves the game, urges baseball to separate itself from militarism and empire by championing the principles of equal opportunity contained in the promise of the Declaration of Independence and American dream.

The Empire Strikes Out is a provocative work of cultural criticism which clearly recognizes the politics of sport. Cloaking sport within the flag certainly does not de-politicize sport, and Elias is willing to question this hypocrisy. Elias’s work is carefully documented in an exhaustive survey of both primary and secondary sources on the relationship between American expansionism and Organized Baseball. Those who profess to love the sport of baseball and claim that it represents what is best in American life would do well to read Elias carefully and see if it is possible to rescue the game from those who would exploit it in the name of empire, militarism, and the search for markets abroad.

Ron Briley is a book reviewer for History Network News, from where this article is adapted.

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