Nathanson, Mitchell. A People’s History of Baseball. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012 (hardback), 2015 (paperback). Pp. xiv+272. Notes, index, and appendices. $19.95 paperback.
Reviewed by Jorge Iber
An effective way to summarize Mitchell Nathanson’s book, A People’s History of Baseball, can be found at the very end of the work when the author notes that baseball, no matter how much fans may enjoy the action on the field and seek to find greater meaning in events between the foul lines, is merely a game, and not “a unified entity that spoke to morality and American values” (p. 208). In this book–and unlike so many about the history of the “national” pastime–the author bludgeons the notion that the sport demonstrates that which is best about American life and values.
Nathanson proceeds to take an historical and metaphorical sledgehammer to many of the myths that have surrounded the history and personages of the game. Among the themes dispelled are, for example: that gambling was an “anomaly” among ballplayers and had been eliminated from the sport; that players of all backgrounds would be given a “fair shot” to compete, based on talent, at the highest levels; that Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson into the Brooklyn clubhouse right after World War II out of a sincere sense of “fair play” and not because of the influence of “radicals”; and finally, that players throughout the history of baseball have been heroes who have upheld “wholesome, American” values.
In the acknowledgements Nathanson notes his intellectual debt to the late Howard Zinn, arguing that from him he learned that “received wisdom is hardly the only wisdom.” The remainder of this book most certainly goes on to challenge the “usual” stories presented in myriad offerings of baseball history. Nathanson breaks down his study into six chapters, covering topics such as relations between players and owners, the “free pass” that most in the media gave to management, the issue of race, the arrival of Marvin Miller, our infatuation with “underdogs” (of a certain type), and the rise of new ways to tell the story of baseball.
In Chapter 1, Nathanson proceeds on his “Zinnian” historiographical path by offering criticism of the actions of the early “magnates” (team owners) of baseball. He shows how they managed to overwhelm the “elite” game of cricket and replace it with baseball; thereby tying the sport to the notion that the Victorian values owners espoused were the way to make newly arrived immigrants into “real” Americans. Thus, Irish, Italians, and others, were duped into playing the game (and buying tickets for MLB franchises) in hopes of finding “something to guide them” into the promised land of America. Unfortunately, Nathanson asserts, it “was on the backs of these people that the club owners were able to elevate their game and, in turn, their own status. . .” (p. 16) Therefore, baseball, like American life in general, sold immigrants a “bill of goods” that forced them to give up their language, lifestyle, and traditions in the very limited hope for a better life.
In Chapters 2 and 3, Nathanson takes on two other key issues of baseball’s role in American life: presenting athletes as “examples” of the heroic ideal, and the issue of race. In regard to gambling, Nathanson rightly argues that this scourge was merely swept under the rug and that the transgressions of certain players were overlooked (like with Ty Cobb) whenever convenient. When not ignored, as in the case of Pete Rose, baseball was more than willing to bring down the hammer. It is in Chapter 3, however, that Nathanson does his best work. Here, he convincingly challenges the notion that Rickey brought Robinson onto the Dodgers because of his commitment to “fair play” and “justice.” Instead, the author presents persuasive evidence that it was the actions of “radicals,” such as writers connected to the Daily Worker and the progressive-inspired Quinn-Ives Act, which actually backed Rickey into a corner and forced his hand.
Chapter 4 focuses on how the owners lost control of “their game” and the impact of Marvin Miller’s efforts in baseball. More significantly, in Chapter 5, he demonstrates how the union’s success in challenging the dictatorial powers of owners actually helped to turn most of the baseball public against the MLBPA and the players. By resisting the “traditional” arrangements in baseball, Miller and the players challenged the notion that baseball (and America) where wholesome and just. This, Nathanson argues, points out yet another fallacy of the sport and national life. Suddenly, the downtrodden (the athletes) were using a union, a mechanism suspect in the minds of many, to address grievous wrongs and “rather than trigger our supposed desire for social justice . . . victims of inequality often lead us to withhold our support. . . . In short, when our values are put to the test, we are more likely to turn away, not unlike those we consider to hold un-American beliefs” (p. 152).
In the final chapter of the work, Nathanson argues for the impact of Bill James’-led SABR revolution and how it has demythologized the game. Further, he goes on to assert that SABR-metrics have changed the way we look at and play the game, further democratizing the sport. For example, this work has proven that batting averages were not the be all and end all of baseball, and thus players with other skills could be of value to teams (Moneyball anyone?) that did not have the hefty payrolls of the Yankees or Dodgers. Lastly, the author notes that the myriad of blogs about the sport and teams have become an effective challenge to sportswriters and team marketing personnel who have always (for obvious reasons) tended to support management’s perspective. Thus, he finalizes this chapter by examining the differences between “team sponsored blogs” and their “independent cousins” (p. 217).
One major shortcoming is the very limited discussion about the role of Latinos in the sport, given the dramatic increase of players of this background in the Majors over the past few decades. Overall, however, Nathanson’s work provides much fodder for the baseball fans to consider. Whether this will resonate with “average” aficionados is open for debate. Does that mean that Nathason’s study has no merit? Of course not. It does present ample evidence of how thorough is the association of baseball with the “positives” of American life. Can this be overcome in the near future? We will have to wait and see. Still, it is clear that Nathanson has achieved his stated objective: he had presented the “national pastime” in a way that many devotees of the game would certainly have not considered.
Jorge Iber is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. His area of specialization is the study of Latino/a participation in the history of American sports. He is the author/co-author/editor of eight books. His most recent work, a biography of former Major Leaguer Mike Torrez (he of the pitch to Bucky “Bleeping” Dent in the 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees) will appear in the Spring of 2016 and is being published by McFarland.