Baseball and American Democracy

Donald Trump in his high school baseball uniform

Baseball, for generations, has been called America’s National Pastime. Yet, football and basketball have been ringing up better television ratings than baseball for several decades. NFL broadcasts typically capture 10.5 million viewers, nationally broadcast baseball games attracted about half that number. Attendance at major league ballparks is dropping too — about 70 million people line up to see baseball games each season. That translates into an average of 29,000 fans per game, enough to fill about half the seats in Dodger Stadium.

Broadcasters and commentators have been fretting about the decline of the game for years. Much of the worry can be described, rather fairly, as the nostalgic anxiety of old white men. They complain about the declining number of fans, but their real trauma, their deeper pain, is associated with how the game is played. They want the game they grew up with. Played by the players they remember.

If you think that sounds like a description of a segment of the American electorate too, you wouldn’t be wrong.

The view of these aging baseball fans can be captured by the aura-ringed words of Terence Mann, the character played by James Earl Jones in the achingly earnest, blindingly white movie Field of Dreams:

The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.

What’s wrong with baseball? Like our politics, it depends who you ask.

Nostalgists will argue there is nothing wrong with the game. What’s gone wrong is the world around it.

Others see sabotage. Meddlers have reached in and rewired what was good and holy about the game. Donald Kagan, a Professor of History and Classics at Yale, viewed it this way:

If, in a future age, Western civilization should come to an end, some perceptive scholar will point with certainty to the era that marked the beginning of its decline. The first clear sign came in 1953, when the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee; the next year the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles. Beginning in 1961 new teams were added, and in 1969 each league was divided into two divisions.1

While I’m confident future historians will tie the decline of Western civilization to climate change and the shredding of stabilizing constitutional norms by a platoon of political troglodytes across America and Europe, Kagan’s panic over the proliferation of baseball teams is a window into what old white men like Kagan fear: the erasing of their past.

As we race forward into a multi-cultural age of shortened attention spans, where technology and data shape our fates, these men worry that their contributions to our shared narrative will be lost to future generations.

As I have drawn closer and closer to being an old white man myself, I find myself surrounded by old white men. And as a rule, from one to the next, old white men worry about their legacies. Not content to have owned the past, increasingly nervous they are losing their grip on the present, they are trying to engineer some certainties that they will still be able to shape the future, even after they are gone. They want to be remembered and revered.

Why get so upset that we are forgetting Babe Ruth and Gil Hodges and Cal Ripken? Why fret over the shift? Why hate Moneyball so much?

And why get so worked up about plans from municipality to municipality all across the nation to dismantle statues memorializing long dead confederate heroes?

Old white men are anxious that the future will sweep aside everything they built. And new truths will push aside everything they once believed about the world.

The style of baseball that depended on the intuitions of crusty old scouts, of loveable baseball elves like Don Zimmer, is being left behind. Employing data and technologies, welcoming speedy, hard-hitting Latinx players like Nolan Arenado, Jose Altuve, and J.D. Martinez, the future of baseball looks like the future of America: shaped by numbers, anchored by analysis, and Latinx.

Latin and Latinx players make up about a third of baseball’s rosters. But writers can’t stop writing about Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. Trout and Harper are remarkable ballplayers. I don’t want to stumble into a trap where I complain about acknowledgement of their accomplishments. What I am trying to say is just this: fear of their own irrelevance makes old white men celebrate the past, and players who resemble that past.

Let’s rewind. In the movie Field of Dreams, the character Terence Mann is a substitute for J.D. Salinger, who is cast in the role of the reclusive author in the movie’s source, Shoeless Joe, a brief novel by writer W.P. Kinsella. Played by James Earl Jones, and bringing Jones’ deep, resonant voice to the role, the character paradoxically is drawn as a hero of the counterculture — a peace activist from the 1960s — and a champion of conservative values. The payoff of Mann’s perspective: Baseball reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.

What does this nostalgic view of baseball look like? Well, for one thing, all white. The players who find their way out of that cornfield to play on Ray Kinsella’s magical field, without a single exception, are white. Only one — Gil Hodges — played after Jackie Robinson broke the color line. And it was rough and tumble. It was a game played by men, by pitchers prepared to take a batter’s head off, and base runners ready to bloody second-basemen.

In his sepia-toned reflections on baseball, Kagan fretted about the use of the word “craft” to refer to baseball. In his mind, baseball was, and should remain, a competition — a game — played by heroic figures. What Kagan liked about baseball players in the revered past was what he liked about American automobiles from the era: they had size and power. They didn’t think of the game as a job. They weren’t prone to intellectualize the game. And there certainly was no number-crunching, or, as Kagan phrases it, “charts, computers and videotapes.” 2

Why would an American academic worry himself about baseball becoming too intellectual? What did he think we were losing? Here’s a long passage from his reflections on the origins of baseball’s trouble, which he situated in the 1950s:

For the last time the national game held its place as part of nature, timeless and regular as Newton’s universe. In the beginning God created sixteen major-league baseball teams, eight in the National League and eight in the American. Baseball was played on natural grass and mostly in the daytime. Each team played every other team in its league twenty- two times a season, eleven games at home and eleven away; the seventy-seven games at home and seventy-seven away made for a perfectly symmetrical season. The Yankees ruled this world as the Olympian gods ruled theirs. The mighty Dodgers and Giants challenged their supremacy as the Titans and Giants challenged the Olympians, and to no more avail. The Yankees ruled with steadiness, serenity, and justice, and only the unworthy gnashed their teeth in envy and prayed for chaos to shatter the unwelcome order.

Then, at last, the forces of disorder held sway. The Yankees, a pale copy of the great teams, won their last pennant of the era in 1964. Then came Gotterdammerung: burning cities at home, frustrating and divisive wars abroad….3

Wow. Who knew the unrest of the 1960s was caused by the collapse of the Yankees? Kagan’s choice of words is interesting: the 1965 Yankees weren’t a pale copy of early Yankees teams, they were actually more colorful. The Yankees were slow to integrate. Their first African American player, Elston Howard, didn’t join the team until 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League, integrated baseball. In 1965, the apocalyptic year Kagan’s Yankees began their stumble, the Yankees had two African American starters (Elston Howard and Al Downing), and Panamanian-born Hector Lopez playing in the outfield alongside Mickey Mantle. Their closer was Cuban American Pedro Ramos.

Kagan’s anti-intellectualism seems to percolate up from a dark place, and we get a hint of it from his bizarre belief that natural forces had placed the Yankees on the pedestal they had occupied for so long. The Yankees were great because it was part of God’s plan. And for many anxious nostalgic old white men, their rule over society was a product of nature’s plan.

Kagan worried that the forces of chaos and disorder had laid the Yankees low. The angry white men at MAGA rallies, in a very similar way, feel a topsy-turvy world has reordered the hierarchy, allowing women and people of color to acquire power and influence. The horror of that.

And what about Kagan’s burning cities and wars abroad? The stale play of a too-slow-to-innovate Yankees team didn’t bring about the chaotic 1960s. Unrest in America and wars across the global south were products of simmering frustrations among African Americans and a growing assertiveness among long-subjugated colonial territories.

Those burning cities and foreign wars reflected the thing nostalgic old white men become anxious about: that their work in society— their legacies — will be erased by a changing world.

Old white moderates in the Democratic Party worry that they are losing white working class voters. Joe Biden, they argue, is better suited than Kamala Harris or Cory Booker or too-brainy Elizabeth Warren to win this important voting bloc. Harris and Booker and Warren, these party strategists argue, are too threatening to white working class voters.

But if one steps back and looks at the future of the nation, one can’t help but think that the nostalgia that clouds the vision of aging baseball purists and Democratic Party elders obscures a path forward.

America has changed — it is more diverse — and how we consume entertainment and acquire information has also changed. Our rapid-fire, over-saturated media landscape, accessed through mobile devices, means that we visit programs (or games) for brief moments, before moving on to the next channel or website. Susan Jacoby views this as an unmistakeable threat to baseball’s relevance in American culture. The average baseball game unfolds slowly over two or three (or four) hours. Pitchers dominate, then tire. Hitters get on base, and are driven home an out or two later. Or are stranded, as promising innings turn disappointing. How do you watch a game like this when switching back and forth between different media?

But for Jacoby, the future of baseball isn’t in any superficial fixes to the game, to speed up play, or emphasize power-hitting. The aim should be to widen the fan base. In her words:

Baseball is hospitable to fans in a wide variety of formats and platforms (how easily digital language seeps into a sentence about a nondigital subject), but the game cannot prosper in the future as it prospers today if it does not attract the fans who are missing not only from ballparks but from the camaraderie of watching with friends and family in their own homes.4

You do this, as a starting point, by acknowledging that Latinx viewers are the one segment of the demographic landscape that is increasingly interested in baseball. Rather than romanticizing the all white past, embrace the vibrant Latinx present. And build a robust multi-hued future, by investing in baseball programs in America’s cities, in African American communities, and for girls. Baseball is a complex game. The way to expand the game, and viewership, is to encourage more Americans to appreciate the game in its full complexity.

Is there a message here, too, for the aging white leadership of the Democratic Party? The future of the country is multi-ethnic and multi-racial. Democracy, and the issues that contemporary American democracy struggles with, are complex.

Rather than speaking to the nostalgic anxiety of aging white men, shouldn’t baseball, and our democracy, embrace its complexity, and seek to recruit new fans — and voters — across the full diversity of a changing America?

And if data and technology can improve the quality of play, and the competitiveness of games, shouldn’t baseball embrace that? And shouldn’t the Democratic Party embrace data and technology if they can bring more people into the political process and make the electoral map more competitive?

Baseball and America have traveled a long road together. Maybe they still have things to teach each other.

__________________________________________

  1. Donald Kagan (Fall 1990),“George Will’s Baseball — a Conservative Critique”, The Public Interest, №101, pp. 3–20.
  2. Kagan, p. 6.
  3. Kagan, p. 10.
  4. Susan Jacoby, Why Baseball Matters, Yale University Press, 2018, p. 89.

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