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Creating the National Pastime

Creating the National Pastime: Baseball Transforms Itself, 1903-1953

G. Edward White
Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 384
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x0sm0
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    Creating the National Pastime
    Book Description:

    At a time when many baseball fans wish for the game to return to a purer past, G. Edward White shows how seemingly irrational business decisions, inspired in part by the self-interest of the owners but also by their nostalgia for the game, transformed baseball into the national pastime. Not simply a professional sport, baseball has been treated as a focus of childhood rituals and an emblem of American individuality and fair play throughout much of the twentieth century. It started out, however, as a marginal urban sport associated with drinking and gambling. White describes its progression to an almost mythic status as an idyllic game, popular among people of all ages and classes. He then recounts the owner's efforts, often supported by the legal system, to preserve this image.

    Baseball grew up in the midst of urban industrialization during the Progressive Era, and the emerging steel and concrete baseball parks encapsulated feelings of neighborliness and associations with the rural leisure of bygone times. According to White, these nostalgic themes, together with personal financial concerns, guided owners toward practices that in retrospect appear unfair to players and detrimental to the progress of the game. Reserve clauses, blacklisting, and limiting franchise territories, for example, were meant to keep a consistent roster of players on a team, build fan loyalty, and maintain the game's local flavor. These practices also violated anti-trust laws and significantly restricted the economic power of the players. Owners vigorously fought against innovations, ranging from the night games and radio broadcasts to the inclusion of African-American players. Nonetheless, the image of baseball as a spirited civic endeavor persisted, even in the face of outright corruption, as witnessed in the courts' leniency toward the participants in the Black Sox scandal of 1919.

    White's story of baseball is intertwined with changes in technology and business in America and with changing attitudes toward race and ethnicity. The time is fast approaching, he concludes, when we must consider whether baseball is still regarded as the national pastime and whether protecting its image is worth the effort.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5136-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-2)
    G.E.W.
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-9)

    THERE IS A body of literature on baseball that takes for granted the special cultural resonance of the sport for Americans: the status of baseball as America’s “national pastime.” In that literature several interesting and suggestive themes have been introduced, such as the “pastoral” dimensions of a game played on green spaces in the midst of urban centers, or the distinctive mix between individual accomplishment and team play that marks the game. Among other things, the literature demonstrates the hold baseball has had on Americans who regard themselves as intellectuals. But although I found the literature on baseball’s cultural appeal...

  6. 1 The Ballparks
    (pp. 10-46)

    ON APRIL 14, 1911, shortly after midnight, a fire swept through the wooden grandstand of the Polo Grounds, the field where the New York Giants baseball club of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs played its home games. The Polo Grounds, which at the time had a capacity of 31,316 seats, was the largest structure of its kind in major league baseball. It was located in the north Harlem area of Manhattan Island, in a meadow framed by a large bluff on the west and the Harlem River on the east. The bluff and the meadow, at the time...

  7. 2 The Enterprise, 1903–1923
    (pp. 47-83)

    ON APRIL 23, 1902, the Baltimore Orioles of the newly formed American League opened their season against the Philadelphia Athletics. An overflow crowd of 12,276 attended the game at Baltimore’s Oriole Park, witnessing the first contest in which two legendary managers, John McGraw of the Orioles and Connie Mack of the Athletics, opposed one another. For most of the game, however, the home crowd was disappointed. The Athletics jumped ahead early and eventually won 8–1. The result augured a disastrous year for baseball in the city of Baltimore, which was to lose its manager to the New York Giants...

  8. 3 The Rise of the Commissioner: Gambling, the Black Sox, and the Creation of Baseball Heroes
    (pp. 84-126)

    BASEBALL had begun its professional life as a working-class sport. Its first teams that played for money had been composed of “roughnecks,” many of Irish or German as well as British ancestry, lacking education, mainly products of the working-class neighborhoods springing up in late nineteenth-century American cities. To A. G. Spalding, three unfortunate public perceptions about the sport had surfaced during its infancy: that it attracted rowdy fans and was thus not necessarily an inviting spectator sport; that its players were prone to drinking; and that it was linked to gambling and gamblers.¹

    A mission of Spalding and the other...

  9. 4 The Negro Leagues
    (pp. 127-159)

    BETWEEN 1903 and 1923, baseball was firmly established in America. In each of the major league cities new concrete and steel ballparks were built, “permanent” features of the city landscape. The organizing legal and economic principles of the enterprise—the reserve clause, blacklisting of contract jumpers, and territoriality—were in place, creating a monopsonistic industry that had nonetheless been held to be outside the scope of federal antitrust laws. The close connections between baseball and gambling had been exposed, and largely severed, by the Black Sox scandal and the installation of Kenesaw Mountain Landis as baseball commissioner. Years of prosperity...

  10. 5 The Coming of Night Baseball
    (pp. 160-189)

    IN SEPTEMBER 1880, a group of spectators gathered on a lot adjacent to the Sea Foam House Resort in Hull, Massachusetts. Other onlookers sat on the balconies of the resort. They were watching an exhibition of the versatility of Thomas Edison’s new invention, the electric light bulb. Lights on poles were arranged around the corners of the lot, and a group of locals played a baseball game. There is no indication of the quality of the baseball played that night; the purpose of the exhibition was not to publicize baseball but electricity. The incident did demonstrate, however, that baseball was...

  11. 6 Baseball Journalists
    (pp. 190-205)

    AS THE YEARS PASSED, it became increasingly important for the owners of major league franchises to give the residents of their cities every incentive to identify with their local baseball teams. Thanks in part to the reserve clause, early twentieth-century ballclubs had become, instead of anonymous groups of professional athletes, familiar collections of personalities. Very few fans, however, had the time or resources to attend games on a regular basis, and clubs spent a good portion of their seasons away from their home city. How did the franchise retain the interest of fans during the large percentage of time when...

  12. 7 Baseball on the Radio
    (pp. 206-244)

    IT IS CONVENTIONAL WISDOM among baseball aficionados that baseball presents itself better on radio than on television. According to this view, which I share, the game and the radio medium are good fits because of the gaps between action in baseball that can be filled in with knowledgeable talk. In contrast, television emphasizes those gaps in the action by showing an image of a baseball diamond populated by players doing nothing. Television also flattens out baseball’s angles, thereby eliminating the simultaneous flights of ball and runner, or outfielder and fly ball, that make the game so dramatic for spectators. Moreover,...

  13. 8 Ethnicity and Baseball: Hank Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio
    (pp. 245-274)

    IN DECEMBER 1923,The Sporting News, in commenting on reports that some baseball players were members of the rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan, decided to reaffirm its position on the role of ethnicity in Organized Baseball. “In a democratic, catholic, real American game like baseball,”The Sporting Newsmaintained, “there has been no distinction raised except tacit understanding that a player of Ethiopian descent is ineligible…. No player of any other ‘race’ has been barred…. The Mick, the Sheeny, the Wop, the Dutch and the Chink, the Cuban, the Indian, the Jap or the so-called Anglo-Saxon—his ‘nationality’ is never a...

  14. 9 The Enterprise, 1923–1953
    (pp. 275-315)

    IN THE WINTER of 1945–46 baseball executives surveyed what promised to be a new, and revitalized, landscape for their game. With the close of World War II a flood of players was expected to return to the major and minor leagues, and club owners anticipated an end to stopgap measures to maintain baseball as a profitable entertainment, such as the creation of a women’s professional baseball league,¹ or the appearance on major league rosters of players not eligible for wartime service—including a one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray of the St. Louis Browns, and several players whose only claim to...

  15. 10 The Decline of the National Pastime
    (pp. 316-330)

    IN MANY BOOKS on baseball, perhaps in most “serious” books on baseball, the historian Jacques Barzun, who was born in France but spent his scholarly career at Columbia University, is quoted for the proposition that “whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” But although the Barzun quote is regularly offered and just as regularly solemnized, its context is rarely given, and Barzun’s reasons for his conclusion rarely analyzed. Here is a longer version of the Barzun quotation:

    Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball…. Baseball is...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 331-354)
  17. Index
    (pp. 355-368)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 369-370)