Babicz, Martin C. and Thomas W. Zeiler, National Pastime: U.S. History through Baseball (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2017).
Reviewed by Jorge Iber
Martin Babicz and Thomas Zeiler’s National Pastime: U.S. History through Baseball seeks to present readers with a single tome that uses the sport as a mechanism with which to examine and clarify a wide array of topics on American history. The intended audience, they note, is “students” who may find the discussion of sports a more palatable way to read about and, hopefully, begin to understand, key issues of our national existence. This is an admirable goal, and for the most part, the authors succeed in their endeavor.
In this one volume, it is possible to find an overview of a myriad of topics that would require the reading of a plethora of works. A perusal of the work’s first chapter presents connections between the game and the American proclivity (as first noted by Tocqueville) for “joining” organizations in pursuit of common goals. Other topics highlighted in subsequent chapters are the attempts by players (like other workers) to seek better conditions and pay (along the lines or works by Robert Gelzheiser and Robert Ross) and endeavors by management to maintain (total) control over the “product.” Also covered are the development the mythology of baseball; attempts to move the game to the rest of the world; the rise of the color line; the reasoning behind the reserve clause; baseball’s intersection with the expanding consumer and technological culture of the 1920s; how the sport survived the Great Depression; and World War II. Finally, also covered are junctures between the sport and civil rights, the shifting of the American population to cities beyond the Mississippi River; the rise of television; the arrival of free agency; and (ever so briefly) the increased presence of Latino and Asian ballplayers. All of these topics are addressed, and it can be argued, lay the ground-work for students to pursue readings in the overabundance of more narrowly focused studies on baseball.
While there is much to approve of in this work, there are certain issues that could have been addressed that would have made the overall work a better product. In the earlier chapters, there is nary a mention of Latino (mostly Cubans) who began to move into the Majors in the early 20th century. Basically, one has to get to the final chapter of the work to get beyond the perfunctory acclamations of Roberto Clemente and Juan Marichal. Further, even when the authors do get to a bit meatier discussion on this topic, there is little if any discussion concerning the impact of academies and the use (misuse?) of many Latino ballplayers at the lower levels over the past decades.
Yes, things are getting better in this regard, but the issues extant between the United States and Latin America (and baseball and Latinos) merit a bit more discussion. Surely the Alou brothers are worthy of more than one sentence on page 183? While they did play in the same outfield, they also endured issues in the South while playing minor league baseball. Is that not worthy of mention? Surely the role of US-born Spanish-surnamed players (and how their experiences both reflect and differ from that of their foreign-born counterparts) was worth discussing? I could go on along these lines, but the point should be clear. What about Native Americans and their role in the sport? How about at least touching upon the issue with the Cleveland Indians and their “logo” issue? What about the dramatic decline in the numbers of African American ball players (and fans)? Are these not matters materials to American history and current realities? While a lot of this is pointed to in the bibliographic essay at the end, the manuscript itself would have been improved by incorporating directly some of this information throughout the chapters.
Overall, this is a work that ties (Major League) baseball fairly effectively to many traditional elements of American history. It is a valuable tome that can set the stage for instructors to encourage/move the target audience to engagement with more specialized works that can provide more than just an overview of important topics. There is much out there on women and baseball, Latinos, Native Americans, baseball at the community level, at the collegiate level, that merited at least passing mention. The authors of this work have provided a solid, basic, scaffolding to tie the highest levels of the sport to key issues of American history. Still, they leave out notable swaths of recent works and themes. If possible to use a baseball metaphor as a summation, this book hits a fly ball to deep center field, and possibly drives in a runner from third, but does not clear the wall.
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 nine books. His most recent work, Mike Torrez: A Baseball Biography, is 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) published by McFarland.