Baseball and American Popular Culture
Baseball is an integral part of American pop culture. Many Americans grow up with baseball, playing it before they can even count all the bases. It is glorified, taught, and fed to us. When we play baseball, we find a respect for the game. The respect we gain from playing it has turned the game into a tradition of American culture. It has formed itself into the business of professional baseball, namely major league baseball. Professional players have become recognized all over the world. They are sought out and admired by fans. Because of their popularity, these players have written books, endorsed commercial products, and found successful and rewarding careers by playing a game. According to Wallup, author of Baseball: An Informal History, baseball has been apart of our culture since the mid to late nineteenth century(Wallup, p16). Our great grandparents, grandparents, and parents have been brought up with it and our parents teach the sport to us.
When the notion of baseball comes to mind, a feeling of nostalgia and tradition come to me. Many of my feelings and memories originate from my childhood. I remember a beautiful summer day. My dad and I arrived at the baseball stadium to watch the game. We walked up the concrete walkway inside the stadium. The concrete walls and floors made my surroundings drab and grey. Finally, we made it to entrance into the stadium. I came out of the dark tunnels into the bright sunlight. The first thing to catch my eye was the vivid rush of color. Underneath the fluffy white clouds and their deep blue canvas, I could look down and see players in vibrant red and blue uniforms warming up for the game. The well-watered grass on the field was a brighter green than any other grass I had seen. The outfield seemed to be so perfect. It appeared that each blade had been cut by hand. The edge of the infield, where the dark, watered-down dirt met the intensely green grass was a precise and well-defined contrast. We sat down and I took in my surroundings. There were men walking up and down the stairs selling various concessions. They had peanuts, beer, soda, ice cream, popcorn, and many other tempting treats. The players soon finished their warm-ups and the crowd became frenzied with excitement. The game was about to start.
Baseball has its own traditions in America and playing the national anthem is one of them. This well-practiced act of group togetherness serves two purposes. First, it pays tribute to our country, bringing our American values to the game. Secondly, it seems to hype up the game, making the cheering crowd an active part of the contest. This enthusiasm leads to cheers when their team turns a great play or to boos and catcalls due to an umpire’s bad judgement.
It hard to describe why Americans likes to watch baseball. For me, it has to do with the excitement and appreciation of the game. Since I was big enough to hold a baseball, I have been playing the game. I appreciate it because I have played it and I have experienced the struggle between pitcher and batter. Neither one hates the other, but when the pitcher takes the mound, he or she wants to blast it past his opponent. Conversely, when batters step up, their personal goal is to put a hole through the pitcher when they send the ball blazing back. It’s this understanding of the emotions involved that makes watching the game enjoyable to me.
It has become a tradition to go watch a game with the family. Rooted in this custom are our culture’s values of family and passing the experiences from parent to child. According to A.G. Spalding, author of America’s National Game, baseball “is the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness …Dash, …Determination, …Energy, …Enthusiasm
…Spirit, …Vim, Vigor, and Virility”(Spalding, p.4). We see the game of baseball as an activity for family to go to the local ball park to see a son, daughter, nephew, or niece play. It pleases us to see our friends or family playing the game and enjoying it. Baseball gives us reason to get our friends together and have fun.
Professional baseball has become an institution that reflects shifting values in American society. In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, changing race relations appeared in the major leagues. Nineteen ninety-seven marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first black baseball player, Jackie Robinson, permitted to play in major league baseball. He tolerated death threats, white teammates spitting on him, and lack of enthusiasm by the press. Eventually, people came to realize that African Americans had a place in baseball and the rest of society. Soon, more black players gained positions into the realm of professional baseball.
Jackie Robinson was a college educated and outspoken individual. In 1957, he retired from the major leagues and took a position as Vice President for a restaurant chain. Later, in 1959, Robinson began writing a regular column for the New York Post. He wrote of social issues, foreign affairs, and the upcoming elections. In the 1960 election, he decided to back Richard Nixon instead of John Kennedy. His logic was that the black community should be represented by the Republican as well as the Democratic Party. This decision led to his fall out of favor with much of the black community. Later in life, he admitted to the bad decision saying, “I do not consider my decision to back Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy for the Presidency in 1960 one of my finest ones. It was a sincere one, however, at the time.”(Lester, p2) In 1964, he organized and founded the Freedom Nation Bank in Harlem. The black-owned bank had the goal of being owned by the African-American community it served. Robinson was able to raise 1.5 million dollars for the community. Also in 1964, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller asked Robinson to be one of his deputy national directors. He accepted and was later named to the Executive Committee as Special Assistant to Community Affairs. “He had many firsts in his life. He became the catalyst of many emerging civil movements. His impact on the national pastime proceeded several breakthroughs in the social and political arena”(Lester, p.3). In his book, Never Had It Made he recapped his life, “As long as I appeared to ignore insult and injury, I was a martyred hero to a lot of people who seemed to have sympathy for the underdog”(Lester, p.2).
Many important people have lived past their professional baseball careers, continuing in politics or community development, using their popularity to raise money. Many players also use this influence to sell products. Whether it is Nolan Ryan plugging Advil or John Kruk endorsing Pert Plus shampoo, they all have found ways to reach out to American society. The personality of the players and their values transfer to the product they endorse. The general public sees the player’s endorsement as a promise that the product will stand up to its application. Overall, professional baseball players, exhibit a great deal of influence on the public because of their popularity.
This influence has led to many acts and movies. The first performance that comes to mind is Abbot and Costello’s Who’s on First? routine(Abbott, p.1-5). Though it was created during a different era than my own, it shows how long the game of baseball has gripped the enthusiasm and interest of American culture. Many motion pictures have recently been made regarding the subject of baseball. Field of Dreams was a movie about a farmer who heard a voice telling him to, “Build it and they will come!” Christopher Sharrett of USA Today, described it as a motion picture that “used baseball as an image of a golden, half-remembered past” (Sharrett, p81). The farmer built a baseball diamond in his corn field. He had faith in this voice and followed by it even when his farm was being foreclosed. The movie communicates throughout how the American views of baseball as tradition and pastime are a vital part of American culture. Other movies relating to baseball include Pride of the Yankees (1942), Babe Ruth Story (1948), Babe (1993), The Natural (1984), and Baseball a documentary that delved into the underside of professional baseball(Sharrett, p81).
Baseball has been used in many media to relay a message to the public. It has been a testing ground for change, a marketing ground for commercial interests, and an icon in the American way of life. Baseball has the ability to be all of these things because of the public’s fascination with the game. The game is a major ritual in our society. We grow up with it, playing very young, and as we mature it teaches us about fairness and values. When we grow up, we will pass it down to the next generation who in turn will pass it to their children. Baseball found its way into our culture more than 125 years ago (Wallop, p15) and will be played for 125 more.