Review of Baseball and American Culture

Rossi, John P. Baseball and American Culture: A History. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018. Pp. xii + 255. Bibliography and index. $65 hardback, $28 paperback.

Reviewed by Dain TePoel

baseball and culture

Rowman and Littlefield, 2018

John Rossi’s Baseball and American Culture: A History beckons earnest readers of baseball scholarship with a title suggesting the book will deliver cultural and historical analyses of the inextricable connections between the sport and America, particularly in terms of culture. Rossi, professor emeritus at La Salle University and author of several articles and books on baseball history, succeeds in producing a highly readable, quickly-paced narrative that adeptly juxtaposes baseball alongside several classic themes in U.S. history. The book should be well-received by students, scholars, or fans new to thinking about sport and American history as interrelated. The all-too familiar gaps, silences, and invisibilities remain, however, that prevent the work from reaching its full potential.

Baseball and American Culture follows well-worn paths in baseball historiography, starting with the argument that one can study American history by tracing the development of baseball. For most scholars of American baseball, Rossi’s story of how baseball has helped shape the United States and vice versa is a familiar one. There are several works the author relies on throughout his narrative that have already told that story, and told it well, such as those by Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills, David Voigt, and Robert Burk. More frustrating is Rossi’s truism that baseball “is the only sport through which the student can delve deeply into the nation’s past” (xii). More on that later.

The purpose of the book is to provide a narrative of American history and culture through the prism of baseball, buttressed with the oft-repeated claim that baseball has been “woven into the American way of life” and has a special and unique influence on American culture in comparison with other sports or athletic endeavors. The book’s back cover indicates Rossi is building on the research and writing of “four generations of baseball historians to create an indispensable resource” and “tracing the intimate connections between developments in baseball and changes in American society.” Rossi succeeds in these endeavors, but only to an extent. Chapters are lightly footnoted and rely heavily on a handful of works. The book does not engage with some of the best works over the past decade-plus, such as Adrian Burgos Jr.’s Playing America’s Game, Rob Ruck’s Raceball, or Jennifer Ring’s Stolen Bases. Connections between baseball and the “nation” are not so much intimate as they are of the high-level, top-down variety.

The book is organized into ten chapters, each roughly fifteen pages, that cover baseball from early colonists’ bat and ball games up through some of the issues confronting Major League Baseball in the 21st century, such as whether the game is losing its appeal. Jorge Iber’s summary of topics highlighted in National Pastime: U.S. History through Baseball (another recent Rowan & Littlefield title on this subject) more or less maps onto Rossi’s work. Giving readers a bird’s-eye view of the content in National Pastime, Iber describes “attempts by players (like other workers) to seek better conditions and pay . . . and endeavors by management to maintain (total) control over the ‘product.’ Also covered are the development of 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 baseball survived the Great Depression; and World War II. National Pastime also explores 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.” Rossi’s book includes additional topics such as (a similarly perfunctory focus on) women and baseball, relocation, expansion, drug abuse, and steroids.

A unique aspect of the book is the addition of complementary readings and discussion questions at the end of each chapter. There is little discussion of this strategy in the introduction, however. In fact, Rossi only provides two sentences on the matter stating his wish that these additional readings (a mix of primary sources, popular, and academic articles) will highlight the book’s themes and reflect what he considers “the major cultural aspects of the sport” (xii). More valuable for the reader would be a discussion of how Rossi defines culture, and a statement of the cultural aspects he finds significant. The selection of readings begs several questions. Why, specifically, did the author choose the readings he did? How does he want readers to engage with them? Why print the readings in the text itself, instead of providing them as an option for further engagement on the publisher’s website? With these readings, is this intended to be the sole book an instructor might adopt for a college course on baseball and American history? The inclusion of the appended readings is an original strategy that invites readers to further exploration, but I found them to be uneven. Their adoption comes at the expense of disrupting the narrative, and in some cases, they stand in for analysis and discussion that could have appeared within the chapters.

The most pressing issue is the inclusion of the word “culture” in the book’s title. In my estimation, the best cultural histories seek out silences and invisibilities related to the subject matter and explicate struggles over meaning and representation. This work tends to replicate the dominant frameworks. Intentionally or otherwise, what we get is mostly the association of “Baseball and American Culture” with the substantial history of white male organized professional baseball, business and politics, as largely (but not exclusively) researched, written, and published by white male journalists and scholars. The goal of the book is worthy and admirable. But what kind of “deep delving” into U.S. history are we doing when we claim baseball is the only sport that allows one to do so? Is it important to have a singular sport or activity through to which to study history? There are several sports and physical activities one might study to obtain a fuller picture of U.S. history. I am a lifelong fan of the game, but find it very limiting to discern a view of “the American way of life” (is there just one?) exclusively through baseball.

The problem of asserting exceptional status for baseball in the study of sport and American history is exacerbated when the baseball in question becomes nearly synonymous with organized, professional, and subsequently Major League Baseball, which leaves out entirely or pushes to the margins several communities and groups that play ball. African Americans and black baseball are granted secondary status in many of these works, and it is hard to contend otherwise about Baseball and American Culture. Rossi characterizes black baseball organizers, players, and stars with a lens gazing from the center outward, missing much of what Cat Ariail referred to as the rich, complex, and contradictory history of black baseball. In regard to Latin ballplayers, the work repeats the misnomer of their status in the highest levels of the sport as a recent, emerging trend. As mentioned, women receive passing reference, and there is miniscule or no attention to youth, high school, community or college baseball. LGBT issues in baseball remain outside the book’s purview, as does adaptive baseball.

A quick perusal of the baseball books reviewed on this blog shows an appetite remains for the traditional baseball history fare covering notable figures, characters, teams and seasons from the sport’s past. But there is also a steady drumbeat of takes on baseball and less explored topics. Following Iber’s review, there’s much more on baseball that merits attention. To borrow language from baseball and advanced analytics, Rossi has laid down a bunt rather than try to hit through the shift. The book gets the intended audience of students, scholars, and fans “on base,” as it were. From there, readers can seek what else the game, and the scholarship on it, reflects, refracts, diffracts, inverts, diverts and reverberates about America.

Dain TePoel is an Assistant Professor of Sport Administration at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa where he researched the relationship between long-distance walking, activism, and social movements.

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