Part 1 of a 4 part series on baseball, culture and social change
Much has been written about the pastime of baseball and the connection that it has to national culture. I will endeavor to add to the discourse.
I appreciate both participatory and spectator sports, I know many people might not share such passions. Of sports, baseball, for me, singularly stands above all the others. My experience is that if you play baseball, you learn its pleasures, which to the uninitiated, may be impossible to describe. You also know that a baseball player is simultaneously a spectator. In the dugout, awaiting your turn at bat, you watch the action, as the ramifications of what takes place will impact your potential contributions to the game. On defense, in the field, you’re found waiting and watching plays that you aren’t directly involved in. Eight position players watch the confrontation between pitcher and batter, prepared to spring in to action in a split second.
Major League Baseball, for many, offers the best of what the sport has to offer. It has the best practitioners, the best facilities, concessions, and perhaps the best atmosphere. One reason the sport as a whole and MLB in particular have been significantly woven into the fabric of our culture is that it has evolved alongside modern American history from the time of its earliest introduction in the 1800s.
Here let’s touch on slavery.
Some would argue that slavery has been in existence in various forms throughout human history. I would argue for the premise that an aspect of slavery exists within a symbiotic relationship. The slave and slaveowner share a commonality. The lives of both slave and slaveowner are closely connected. They have a shared priority, that being the quality of life of the slaveowner. Wrong or right, for worse or for better, there are potentially more damaging things than slavery. “Racial” segregation is one.
Slavery has as a fundamental characteristic, the role of status. The single dividing aspect between slave and slaveowner is social status. Remove status, and you are left with equals. I will not assert that people are basically equal, but I offer this fact, all people can be treated as equals. “Racial” segregation, on the other hand has no such purity, for it assumes people are different, and by implication are not equal, therefore should not be treated equally. It also assumes that these “different” people prefer to be separated from those who are “different” from them and integrated with those who are not.
Here is where it is not equal by any measure. Segregation means you will have no part of my life. I will have no part of your life. You are denied the experience of everything that I contribute to our culture, and I am deprived of everything you and your’s contribute. To the extent that people are not equal, winners and losers are born out of the denial of access that segregation causes. What is the implication in the difference created with segregation? If you are a slave you have value to the slaveowner’s life. If you are part of a segregated “race” you have no such value whatever. By extension you are of no value. If anything, you are a detriment. Welcome to my neighborhood. Segregation was the flawed solution to our post-slave society.
Back to baseball.
Our sport existed for a time in a state of separate organized competitive leagues. There were Negro leagues because baseball was completely segregated well into the 20th Century. MLB is a prosperous multi billion dollar industry today. The Negro leagues collapsed long before the first African American player was allowed into MLB in 1947. The success of professional baseball relative to other forms of entertainment is often underestimated.
The prosperity of the nation has parallels to the expansion of professional baseball. Thirty cities house major league franchises. That is double the number of the original 1876 league of clubs. There are close to 240 minor league professional teams. Their existence allows the profession to permeate throughout the country in the small towns and communities which lack the population density to fill 50,000 plus seat stadiums 81 days each year. Revenue is generated from live attendance of games at every level. Concessions, souvenirs/memorabilia (including licensing and merchandising of same), advertising, and broadcast media involve an almost exponential income stream. Forbes estimates the current value of the Los Angeles Dodgers franchise at $3 billion.
The first modern renaissance of the segregated MLB was highlighted by the career of home run champion George Herman ‘Babe’ Ruth who’s 1927 New York Yankees are considered by many to be the greatest team of all time. Flash back to the the economic frivolity of the 1920’s, which culminated with the crash of the New York Stock Exchange in 1929, signaling the beginnings of the Great Depression.
Fast forward through three wars and several economic and political crises to arrive at perhaps the historical peak of the sport. The integrated MLB of the 1980s decade not only had the best American players but a significant number from foreign countries. By the end of the decade close to 15% of the player pool was foreign born. 1993 reached a significant demographic milestone when the percentage of foreign players equaled that of African American players. Today, 228 players from 13 different countries comprise 27% of the league. While the number of African Americans has decreased to 68 players, less than 8%. In part two of this series, I will discuss some of the theories for these numbers and try to determine what role segregation played, if any.