By Katherine Walden
Major League Baseball’s (MLB) 2017 season began over the weekend, with the reigning World Series Champion Chicago Cubs falling in the bottom of the 9th to their National League Central Division rival St. Louis Cardinals. St. Louis expats in Cubs fan territory rejoiced. Elsewhere, San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner hit two home runs and took a perfect game into the 6th inning before the Arizona Diamondbacks came back to claim the victory.
Baseball is back. Winter is over. The start of a new season offers hope, redemption, and possibility.
On the Friday before Opening Day, I was in Ottawa, Kansas, for the 22nd Annual Baseball in Literature and Culture conference, listening to Jonathan Eig’s opening keynote remarks. A journalist with by-lines in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, his first book Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig is one of the definitive Gehrig biographies. Another one of his works, Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season, chronicles the critical months in MLB’s integration experiment. Excerpts of his research on Robinson come through in Ken Burns’ 2016 Jackie Robinson documentary.
In his keynote, Eig shared anecdotes from his research for Luckiest Man and Opening Day, as well as in-process comments on his forthcoming Muhammed Ali biography. Stories included finding the collector who had Gehrig’s correspondence with his Mayo Clinic physician during his post-baseball battle with ALS, along with Rachel Robinson’s guardedness about the year she spent with her husband and small child in the bedroom of a shared Brooklyn apartment, with the eyes of the world watching.
Eig talked about the challenge of writing history in a way that pushes beyond myth or standard narrative. Gehrig’s story wasn’t over after he delivered his “Luckiest Man” speech at Yankee Stadium in 1939. The meek Robinson of the 1946-1947 “turn the other cheek” seasons stands in sharp contrast with the longer biographical arc of a pioneering civil rights figure. With Ali, we may never know with certainty who was in the back of his car as he drove away from his famed 1974 victory over George Foreman.
Any number of sport historians and sport studies scholars have written on the Great Sport Myth, most notably Jay Coakley. Reflecting on Coakley’s scholarship, Andrew Guest for the Allrounder described the Great Sport Myth as a simple message, “the widespread assumption, built on both raw emotional attachments and personal interests…that sport is inherently pure and good, that this purity and goodness are transmitted to those who play or consume sport.” Eig’s keynote was a reminder that critically-engaged sport research has a responsibility to complicate the Great Sport Myth.
I’ve been thinking about myths a lot lately, or at least since Hillary Clinton’s campaign bus showed up on the University of Iowa campus nine months before the 2016 Iowa causes. Throughout Donald Trump’s campaign and first months in office, I’ve been part of many conversations about the roles power and inequality play in American identity and history—or whatever versions of American identity and history are politically expedient for a particular agenda.
As Jill Filipovic pointed out in a recent editorial, excusing or dismissing the misrepresentations and outright fictions that have marked Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” misses their strategic impact, specifically talking about recent photos of Trump signing an executive order to reinstate the global gag rule and Mike Pence negotiating the Affordable Care Act’s replacement, both in rooms filled almost entirely with white men. “Mr. Trump promised he would make America great again, a slogan that included the implicit pledge to return white men to their place of historic supremacy. And that is precisely what these photos show . . . The men of the Republican Party know this just as well as women do.”
History and facts matter, and too often dominant forces in the current political climate seem invested a particular historical amnesia that activates (xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, racist, etc.) white male populist sentiment. And in the wake of Trump’s election, sport seems to have taken on added political and ideological significance. The American Civil Liberties Union encouraged supporters to call the NCAA to uphold their North Carolina “boycott.” A variety of professional athletes have threatened to skip White House visits during the Trump presidency. San Antonio Spurs and U.S. National Team head coach Gregg Popovich has gained notoriety for his fiery anti-Trump public statements. A number of scholars have written on this blog about the significance of Colin Kaepernick as an athlete-activist and the larger tradition of sport as a site of political protest. The critical response to the “Kaepernick effect” and a broader refusal to “stick to sports” suggests some version of the Great Sport Myth is alive and well.
Baseball’s Great Experiment
American baseball history is rife with any number of myths, from fictional origin stories to largely oversimplified integration narratives. While the Great Sport Myth has significant impact across the landscape of American sport, baseball’s fascination with the stories it tells about its own history is a rich site to consider how and why the Great Sport Myth persists.
Steven Riess argues “the fundamental assumption that baseball was a democratic sport epitomizing the best in America” made the sport an ideal tool “symbolically and instrumentally to preserve a familiar social order…to demonstrate the continuing relevance of old values and beliefs in an increasingly modern and urban age.” Rather than see baseball and by extension American culture as progressive or forward-thinking, baseball’s nostalgia reflects an increasing distance between dominant baseball narratives and the sport’s actual material reality, as Dan Nathan and others have pointed out.
Baseball makes many claims about its history to support national pastime status, but few are more ubiquitous than “the Jackie Robinson story”—the moment when progressive baseball magnate Branch Rickey found the first African American player with enough athletic talent and skill to play at the Major League level and signed Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. On April 15, 1947, Robinson stepped up to the plate at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field and in the heightened racial climate of the post-War period struck a blow for racial inequality, marking baseball as a progressive, meritocratic, and democratic space where all who had earned the opportunity to play would be welcomed. Robinson was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, Ken Burns’ 1992 Baseball documentary series designated an entire episode to the breaking of baseball’s color line, MLB designated April 15 as “Jackie Robinson Day” in 2004, and Warner Bros.’ 2013 biopic 42 grossed $95 million. In terms of the stories baseball tells about itself, few have greater significance or higher stakes than this one.
A League Not Their Own
Mitchell Nathanson and others have written at-length about the limitations of these integration narratives, and Ken Burns’ recent Jackie Robinson documentary offers an in-depth exploration of Robinson in full dimension. As Rob Ruck points out, signing black players to Major League teams put black labor in an economic system that treated players as property, had no labor representation, and did not yet include notions of free agency or collective bargaining. Integration in baseball signaled the end of the sport being a cultural institution by the black community, for the black community.
Integration as spectacle limited attention to the lingering racially inequitable structures within American sport and society, and Adrian Burgos Jr. highlights how focusing exclusively on the black/white color line limits attention to the racialized politics of whiteness and passing that had blurred baseball’s color line long before Robinson joined the Brooklyn roster. The disproportionate emphasis on Robinson marginalizes the experiences and obstacles Latino players faced in the wake of baseball’s integration and MLB’s increased globalization.
Fixating on Jackie Robinson as a symbol of racial progress also reinforces the sport’s white heterosexual masculine core. As Eig commented in his keynote, too often baseball’s integration is told from a white male perspective. The emergence of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) during World War II is usually framed as a patriotic effort to continue the “national pastime” during the war. The gender negotiations at work within the AAGPBL (sexualized uniforms, highly gendered conduct requirements, etc.) reflect the policing of gender boundaries within sport so that even when women have opportunities to demonstrate athleticism and subvert existing gender structures, their involvement does little to challenge the larger construction of sport as a masculine preserve.
The overarching narratives of breaking barriers and gender equality told around AAGPBL history wholly avoids confronting the League’s blinding whiteness. Marginalizing the contributions of women like Mamie Johnson, Toni Stone, and Connie Morgan who played professionally in the Negro Leagues during the late 1940s and early 1950s obscures baseball’s more complex race and gender politics. Women do now have increased access to a variety of baseball opportunities, media narratives around Fox’s new series “Pitch” (a fictional story about the first woman to play in the MLB) show baseball’s problematic gender dynamics.
Popular culture representations around baseball continue this pattern of invoking particular ideologies and narratives about baseball history, mobilizing nostalgia about the past to establish significance in the present. From films based on novels (The Natural and Field of Dreams) to sweeping historical biopics (The Babe, Eight Men Out, and Cobb), idyllic, nostalgic representations of the national pastime reinforce baseball as a white masculine space. Jaime Schultz and others, including an SB Nation article on Field of Dreams’ 25th anniversary, have pointed out the conservative ideologies often reflected in the sport film genre. Despite frequent historical inaccuracies and overwhelming nostalgia, each spring when MLB.com hosts an online poll for “the best baseball movie ever made,” Field of Dreams wins, usually by significant margins. David Leonard’s critique of Field of Dreams is an apt analysis of the broader genre of baseball films, whose popularity can be attributed to their “ability to codify ideologies of whiteness, masculinity, and nostalgia” and in the “deployment of conservative ideologies under the guise of emotional story telling. Equally powerful is their construction and dissemination of ideologies and tropes of white supremacy in the absence of clear racial texts.”
Rather than face these omissions or complications, baseball continues to reinforce a white-washed dominant narrative for its history and contemporary relevance. MLB actively mobilizes this nostalgia, as if there’s nothing at all strange about having Venezuelans Pablo Sandoval and Félix Hernández, Dominican Carlos Gómez, and Puerto Rican Yadier Molina alongside American-born players talking about the need to build a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield.
Comedian Chris Rock appeared on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” in 2015, pointing to the whiteness of baseball’s traditions and unspoken rules as the culprit for declining African American participation. Rock mentioned the controversy surrounding the playing style of Los Angeles Dodgers Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig, and Toronto Blue Jays Dominican outfielder José Bautista faced similar backlash after his bat flip during a 2014 American League Division Series playoff game. Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper’s March 2016 ESPN The Magazine profile, “Sorry, Not Sorry,” made waves for critiquing baseball’s inflexible adherence to a narrow vision of appropriate conduct. In an ESPN radio interview, Hall of Fame pitcher Goose Gossage accused Harper of having “no respect for baseball.” As Sporting News’s Jordan Heck pointed out in the aftermath of Harper’s ESPN piece, “There needs to be a change, and it’s important that Harper is the one to say this, and, yes, race is a factor.” In a follow-up article, Houston Astros’ Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa commented that MLB has “romanticized the game’s past so much that we’ve forgotten about its future.”
Baseball fans following the most recent World Baseball Classic (WBC) noted the vibrancy and passion on display in the tournament (as well as significant global viewership numbers). From heated exchanges about differing national playing styles to baseball games that echoed a late September playoff race, this iteration of the WBC left many fans and journalists to ask why MLB seems at a loss for strategies to revitalize the game and improve fan engagement. For Bleacher Report’s Danny Knobler, “It was so much fun that after years of asking what Major League Baseball can do to save the WBC, the question some of us were asking Wednesday was what the WBC can do to help save baseball.”
For Jay Caspian Kang, baseball is relatively financially stable but “baseball’s cultural relevance has been in a steady decline,” and how popular culture and social media marketing of baseball—the way baseball attempts to find a foothold in the American imagination—has become increasingly separated from the actual, real-world dimensions of the game. That said, increases in Spanish-language game coverage, resources like the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s newly-launched La Vida Baseball project, and events like the Detroit Tigers’ ¡Fiesta Tigres! may develop critical mass to substantively challenge American baseball’s white hegemony.
As Kang points out, “baseball used to be seen as a reflection of the country’s progress on race…But there was always a saccharine dimension to the idealism about the game: Baseball represented a very particular, buttoned-up version of American identity.” In the wake of the Kaepernick debate, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones commented publicly that similar anthem protests would likely not spread to baseball, because “baseball is a white man’s sport.” MLB’s establishment was less than thrilled. Last year, former All-Star pitcher Curt Schilling was first suspended and then fired at ESPN after multiple homophobic and transphobic social media posts that referenced North Carolina’s HB2 ‘bathroom bill’ legislation. Despite the popularity of the most recent WBC and the increased conversation around sport as a political site, in a moment of sad irony, dominant forces in American baseball appear determined to reenact some version of “respectable” white masculinity from the sport’s past.
Baseball Myths in Trump’s America
According to Nathanson, “challenging the perspective of these deeply entrenched stories of baseball and offering alternative ways of approaching them” creates space to consider how “the conventional ‘concept of baseball’ stories are not so much stories of equality, patriotism, heroism, and capitalism as they are stories of power—how it is obtained, how it perpetuates itself, and how those who have it use the weapon of storytelling…to convenience the audience that they are not wielding it when in fact they are, and in significant measures.”
Nathanson could just as easily have been describing the first quarter of a Trump presidency. Seeing the 1960s roots of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric in Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign and Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” is a chilling example of how power, ideology, and hegemony operate—to quote Hamilton, “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” California Assemblywoman Shirley Weber commented in a San Diego Union-Tribune op-ed how a Trump presidency is making visible the structural inequalities that underpin many dominant national myths, even as it works to reinforce them.
Andrew McGregor’s recent post looks at the various ways American sport institutions are responding to “Trump’s America,” and others on this site and elsewhere have written about the role of sport as a site of activism in the contemporary political moment. As a baseball fan, I’d like to see American baseball culture challenged by these trends, but my optimism is guarded. Adam Jones is ridiculed for calling baseball a white man’s sport just months after MLB celebrates Jackie Robinson Day. But, Washington Nationals fans unfurl an “Impeach Trump #Resist” banner at the Washington Nationals’ first game of the 2017 season. Reading my Twitter feed, I’m seeing more and more baseball writers and fans refusing to “stick to sports.”
Jonathan Eig opened his keynote with an excerpt from James Earl Jones’ famous Field of Dreams monologue, with a call to keep pushing back on the Great Sport Myth and other forms of historical amnesia. As someone who reads, writes, and teaches about baseball, I’d like to think that people will still come. People will come to baseball, look into its contentious past, and see imagined history in a new light. The dominant baseball establishment (at least in the United States) will probably mind.
As a fan, I want to see the field of baseball as a piece of our national past, reminding us of all that once was and is good, but also terrible. Showing us the lasting ideological power of the game across American history and culture, and the legacies of oppression and inequality that continue as present-day realities. Offering a contemporary reality that challenges and rebuilds the known and loved baseball history, and a baseball we might actually want to make great again.
Katherine Walden is a PhD candidate in the American Studies-Sport Studies program and is also enrolled in the Public Digital Humanities Certificate at the University of Iowa. Her research explores race, ethnicity, and gender in baseball, as well as baseball in American popular culture, with a particular focus on baseball and music intersections. Her Twitter handle is @KWaldenPhD, and she has an online presence at www.kwaldenpond.wordpress.com.
 Jay Coakley, “Assessing the Sociology of Sport: On Cultural Sensibilities and the Great Sport Myth,” International Review for the Sociology of Sport 50, no. 4-5 (2015), 402-406.
 Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).
 Steven Riess, Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1980), 9.
 Dan Nathan, Saying It’s So: A Cultural History of the Black Sox Scandal (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005).
 Rob Ruck, Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game (Boson: Beacon Press, 2011).
 Adrian Burgos, Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line (Berkley: University of California Press, 2007).
 Ibid., 140; Robert Elias, The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad (New York: New Press, 2010).
 Jaime Schultz, “Glory Road (2006) and the White Savior Historical Sport Film,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 42, no. 4 (2014), 205-2013; Jaime Schultz, “The Truth about Historical Sport Films,” Journal of Sport History 41, no. 1 (2014), 29-45.
 David J. Leonard, “Do You Believe in Miracles?” in All Stars and Movie Stars: Sports in Film and History edited by Ron Briley, Michael K. Schoenecke, Deborah A. Carmichael, (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2008), 220.
 Nathanson, xiv.