By Dain TePoel
The Little League World Series (LLWS) came to a close on Sunday in a record-setting slug-fest. The Kitasuna squad from Tokyo out-mustered the Lewisberry, Pennsylvania, Red Land team 18-11, but the 29 combined runs were the most ever for a LLWS championship game. One of the main U.S. media narratives for the duration of the tournament was Lewisberry’s dominating run as the first team from Pennsylvania since 1990 to claim the U.S. championship. This is significant, of course, because the LLWS tournament has been held annually in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, since 1947.
With Lewisberry taking over the LLWS limelight this past month, the complicated major story lines from the 2014 tournament feel light years away. Namely, the buzz around overnight (and lasting) sensation Mo’ne Davis, and Little League Baseball’s (LLB) decision in February to vacate Jackie Robinson West’s U.S. championship. For example, consider Nicole LaVoi’s contention that coverage of Davis was “empowering and transformative,” but also “regressive and exploitative.” Or, pause to reflect on the racial and class privileges at play in determining when, where, and how media constructions situated the Jackie Robinson West team (referring to the kids) as “classy” and “resilient”, or conversely, as a team (referring to the adults) that “stooped low”, threatened the “integrity” of Little League Baseball, and violated “policies designed to preserve traditional community-based leagues.”
Little League Baseball, coincidentally, must be very pleased this year watching the narrative unfold around Red Land as a team that received a “hero’s welcome” from fans for putting its little town “on the map.” What better way to paraphrase LLB’s policies to “preserve tradition” along with the imagery of “adoring fans” mobbing their archetypal heroes? It is these turns of narrative and meaning-making around the LLWS that I take as my point of departure.
In full disclosure, I do not regularly watch or pay much attention to the LLWS. Nor do I aim here to provide a history of the LLWS with a genealogy of its political and cultural significance and meanings. Rather, I engage with the LLWS for the way the tournament seems to serve a dual purpose: on the one hand it holds up youth (usually exclusively boys) in a nostalgic and romantic turn to all that is well and good about sport (the love of the game, family, sportsmanship, volunteers), while on the other, Disney-owned ABC/ESPN selectively constructs the LLWS as a commercialized spectacle to promote, as Ryan King-White argues, “their version of youthful innocence, wonder, and excitement.”
For example, an article listing 10 MLB stars who played in the LLWS begins with a nod towards the LLWS as a typical sports spectacle offering the “thrill of victory and agony of defeat” with a twist. Fans witness the drama through the novelty of 12 year-olds on national TV instead of millionaire professionals. While the audience’s pleasure is ostensibly rooted in watching kids play a game with stakes (a “world” title) usually reserved for well-compensated grown-ups, the list rhetorically suggests that at least some of the relatively anonymous boys of today are tomorrow’s rightful heirs of MLB stardom (while “Davis’ future in baseball has yet to be written”). Consequently, the list consists of a father-son tale in the case of Gary Sheffield hoping to inspire his son to pursue a career in MLB. In the examples of (younger) Todd Frazier and Colby Rasmus, the boys are literally positioned next to surrogate baseball fathers Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte, respectively, and become their peers years later.
The ability of ABC/ESPN’s LLWS media production to reproduce baseball as a family ritual and rite of passage for boys, fathers and sons forms a significant part of its annual resonance with mainstream U.S. cultural values, beliefs and gender norms. It is not only, or even primarily, the LLWS however, that creates and perpetuates these values and beliefs through baseball. Narrative films create vividly memorable scenes, establish identifiable characters, present privileged subject positions, mobilize particular desires, and can influence impressionable audiences – in the ongoing and fluid process of identity formation – to see the world in restrictive and constraining ways.
The Sandlot, Rookie of the Year, and Little Big League were part of a trend of baseball films targeted specifically at youth and family audiences between 1993 and 1994. [Angels in the Outfield (1994) can also be included within this pattern, although it was a remake of the original made in 1951]. Together, they offer lessons on what it means to play sports, make friends, interact with girls and women, be part of a family, experience failure and success. In sum, they are instructions for how to “be a man,” assert one’s identity, develop a set of values, and establish goals deemed worthy of hard work and effort. What does their lasting popularity – evidenced by celebrations of The Sandlot’s and Rookie of the Year’s 20th anniversary at professional baseball stadiums (see here and here) – indicate about contemporary myths, values, and identities?
In an analysis of popular media and masculinity during the era of U.S. President Bill Clinton, Brenton Malin notes that representations of male heroes in the 90s offered departures from the hypermasculine icons of the 1980s. Namely, this “new man” was more sensitive, loving, and ensnared in the tenor of political correctness that critiqued heterosexist, patriarchal, classist and racist values. His presence rendered masculinity less invisible, and opened up possibilities for new conceptions of multiple masculinities.
As Kyle Kusz illustrates, representations of disadvantaged and victimized youthful White masculinities (in and outside sport) in the early to mid-1990s signified a new strategy of White male backlash politics – the ‘youthification’ of the White male victim. Sports films in the 80s and 90s such as Hoosiers and Rudy project young White male protagonists’ ascent in status, and as a whole, form an attempt to assuage the perceived “spreading White inferiority complex” with images and symbols of rejuvenated vitality, restored leadership, and boosted confidence.
These films imply a return to innocence and subsequent reclamation of White male confidence. Their narrative structure foregrounds preteen boys who in essence become professionals, or at least miniature men, through elements of fantasy. Set in an idyllic California town in 1962, The Sandlot emphasizes the struggle of socially and athletically inept Scott Smalls to make friends. Through the intervention of an athletically revered neighbor boy (conspicuously named Benjamin Franklin Rodriguez), Smalls partakes in a summer filled with endless baseball games and highly exaggerated episodic (mis)adventures with his eight newly acquired best friends. By working with his friends Smalls finally earns the respect of his intimidating stepdad by losing, and then recovering, the latter’s signed Babe Ruth baseball.
The kids are self-sufficient throughout the summer, reflecting a time when boys allegedly became men outside the supervision of constraining social systems. In this terrain, they negotiate and form identities that exclude women and girls, except for their mothers, sexy lifeguards, and “pool hunnies.” Although the sandlot boys are somewhat mixed racially and ethnically, the film includes significant ahistorical inconsistencies that omit systems of white supremacy. For example, James Earl Jones plays a mysterious old Mr. Myrtle who owns the boys’ nemesis, an exaggerated monster dog called “the beast.” Coincidentally, Myrtle too was a ballplayer, but was blinded when he was hit in the head by a pitch. He tells the boys he would have been better than Ruth if not for this unfortunate accident. Racial segregation, and the fact that he could have only played in the Negro Leagues, is entirely ignored as a reason he did not play in Major League Baseball.
Rookie of the Year is set in contemporary Chicago and tells the story of a preteen little leaguer, Henry Rowengartner, living with his mom Mary, a single mother. All is ordinary in Henry’s life – he loves baseball, is an average kid at school, and dislikes his mom’s boyfriend Jack – until a freak injury gives him the ability to throw a big-league fastball, earning him a spot on the Chicago Cubs. He leads the woeful team to the playoffs, and, in the meantime, helps break up Mary and Jack. In a crucial revelation at a critical moment, Henry learns his mother was a ballplayer. She has hidden this fact from him his whole life, instead fabricating a story that his deceased father was once an excellent pitcher because she felt Henry needed someone to look up to.
In actuality, his father abandoned his mother when she was pregnant with Henry. She does not entertain the idea that she could be his role model. Regardless, Henry redeems Mary and also revives the career of disgruntled pitcher Chet Steadman who, as the film’s final scene implies, marries his mother and gives Henry the father figure he’s been missing. In the end, Henry gladly returns to a “normal” life, shunning the commercialization and demands of his experience in MLB for suburban little league glory, as he claims, “I love the Cubs and I love baseball, but there’s other things I wanna do first.”
Little Big League takes place in Minneapolis. Like Rowengartner, Billy Heywood is a fatherless twelve-year-old living at home with his mother, Jenny. Heywood’s grandfather, however, owns the Minnesota Twins and is very close with Billy, acting as a surrogate father. He dies unexpectedly, and as an even bigger surprise, bequeaths ownership of the franchise to his grandson. Billy replaces the club’s ineffectual manager with himself and directs the team to a tie atop the division standings, forcing a one-game playoff.
Billy mentors and is mentored by a veteran ballplayer, Lou Collins. Ultimately, with Billy’s approval, Lou proposes to Jenny and reconstitutes Billy’s family as a father figure and husband-provider. Jenny is similar to Mary in Rookie of the Year, because she too disavows any potential status as a role model for her young son. At a point in the film when Billy is struggling with his new responsibilities, Jenny advises, “you gotta remember you’re just 12 years old, there’s a lot going on in your life…and your dad’s not here for you anymore and your grandpa’s not here for you…it’s not easy.” After losing the elimination game, Billy retires, and confesses, “I wanna spend a little more time fishing. Between that and little league I just don’t think I can handle the job.” He eschews the life of a major leaguer in favor of savoring each moment of the freedom of his youth.
Particularly problematic is the way these films collectively situate their boy-heroes as miniature adults, engaging in responsibilities of work and family. The films place social, political, and economic struggles onto the shoulders of supposedly apolitical children, thus qualifying and relativizing their (re)production of typically masculine, misogynist behaviors safely within the innocuous sphere of youth. Their replication of gender norms, for example, thus appears cute, funny, and harmless, as natural and common sense. As preteens, Billy, Smalls, and Henry infantilize the trend of “little big men” who appeared in pop culture media representations of masculinity in the 1990s.
So what are some possible meanings from Hollywood’s turn to the representation of little boy heroes in baseball films, appearing alongside grown-up men in the world of professional sports?
For one, they are not little big men, but boys becoming men. The distinction is critical, for these films not only play upon tensions and anxieties of adult men grappling with changes and challenges to their previously unquestioned and uncontested achieved masculinity. They acknowledge, however subtly, the socially constructed nature of “becoming a man” in the processes and socialization of formative adolescent years. By relocating these conflicts onto youth, the films stand in as “fathers” (for there are no “real” dads in the movies) providing the boys on the screen – and those in the audience – with a moral and political education for how to navigate their social worlds. These films urge boys to develop hybrid masculine identities that are neither too abrasive nor wimpy, but firmly ensconced within typical notions of American manhood.
Extending beyond a nostalgic longing for the old days (“when men were men”), these films perform critical teaching functions. In various scenes, the mini-protagonists outmaneuver, outsmart, and overcome the failings of the institutions and the individuals surrounding them, including core agents of the home, family, and school, and figures such as absent fathers, negligent stepdads, overprotective mothers, imposing teachers and principals, and selfish professional athletes. As such, the films narratives contain double-audience appeal, concomitantly drawing in parents and guardians to consider their shortcomings.
By foregrounding the absence of the father, specifically, the films challenge fathers in the audience to evaluate their priorities. For example, in Rookie of the Year Henry and his friends build a boat alone out by the river, but interpellate their fathers as one boy remarks “are you sure your dad said this was ok?” Similarly, one scene in Little Big League shows Henry too busy working to play with his friends. One boy states, “hey, you sound like my dad.” Thus, fathers too absorbed in their work are also abandoning their children and families, and suggests that men are taking their careers too seriously. A way to reclaim their power, if not at work, is in the home. In short, the films replace pop culture images of little big men with small boys and their attendant needs for family and security.
Smalls, Henry, and Billy each refuse to succumb to the pain of rejection, abandonment, and disappointment by facing their fears through establishing intimate homosocial bonds of brotherhood. The films depict these boys and their friends escaping into nature, mimicking groups of adult men who jaunt into the wilderness to rediscover manly instincts that have been squashed by the demands of work, consumption and domestic duties. An apparent way to solve society’s demands for a more emotional, feeling man is to join up with other men (and boys) in a safe space of expression that protects them from challenging discourses of gender and sexuality while simultaneously negating counter, alternative, or oppositional masculinities. Here they can temporarily skirt the dangers of commercialization and consumerism. In Little Big League, one of Billy’s friend’s states, “one day there may not even be any rivers. I dunno I just heard it on a commercial.” Similarly, in Rookie of the Year, Henry is literally bought, sold and exploited by professional baseball franchises, greedy agents, and sponsors such as Diet Pepsi.
Addressing the place of baseball in young boys’ lives during an era when baseball fans increasingly criticized professional sport as tainted (in no small part due to the MLB strike and cancellation of the 1994 World Series) these films may operate as a politics of myth and maturity with tales of desertion and reconciliation for their young viewers. As with the LLWS examples cited earlier, the characters experiences engender ambivalent attitudes towards baseball. For Smalls, baseball is a singular and unrelenting force for good, the sole reason he was able to forge through a potentially isolating childhood and emerge as a confident and well-adjusted man. But for Henry and Billy, baseball is only an inherent positive if it remains grounded within the fantasies and promise of a white, middle-class, suburban childhood.
Dain TePoel is a PhD Candidate in the Department of American Studies at the University of Iowa. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @DainTePoel.