Monday, October 22, 2012

Robert Elias: The Empire Strikes Out

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If you haven't noticed a pattern, I have: baseball and politics take up a large portion of my life. Maybe politics isn't the best way to describe it- perhaps "the system" is a better way, or "the big picture." The idea that nothing exists in a vacuum, including my favorite things- baseball, photography, dogs. I like to take things too far, or at least to the lengths that I think they should be taken, which means way past first glance. Which is why I was eager to pick up "The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold US Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad." If ever a title could sell a girl on a book, this was it. I've always suspected baseball of being intimately connected with nationalism, and here is Robert Elias demonstrating the actual links between the two.

Sadly, I was disappointed. The truth is, Elias did just what I was hoping he would do: discussed baseball and imperialism, baseball and masculinity, baseball and nationalism. But he also wrote a pretty boring book. Although some people might think that baseball and nationalism are intrinsically boring subjects, they don't have to be. And maybe I'm not being fair: Elias has probably written a very interesting history book, but I'm not really a fan of history, and was expecting something else. Three-quarters of Elias' book is devoted to the history America's use of baseball in spreading The Word, and it really reads like a history book: "then the army took baseball here, and after that they did the same thing in this country and the country responded like this and the other country responded like that." Every possible historical reference to baseball and imperialsim, or baseball in the context of US foreign policy is in this book.

On the other hand, I feel like handing this book to everyone who thinks that baseball is "just a game." As a small child, my dad sat through the national anthem- I can't quite remember when he started standing, or when I started feeling uncomfortable sitting along with him, but there was something to this: why is it somehow necessary to stand up for the US (literally) at a baseball game? Robert Elias knows the answer to this: turns out not only was "The Star Spangled Banner" not the official anthem until 1916, in 1918, the anthem was played at a World Series game where wounded WWI soldiers were honored. It was a big hit, partially due to the dramatic performance of the Cubs and Red Sox players who "snapped to attention and faced the flag flying over center field." Players were required to train for war- MLB and the government worked hand and hand- and the spectacle got fans singing along. After that, the anthem, and signing along, became much more common at ballgames, and at the anthem's Congressional ratification in 1931, "its public familiarity at baseball games was given most of the credit." Baseball and America, well, they just go together, and it's by design. 

Taking this a little further, and starting with this example, baseball and war go together. "The Star Spangled Banner," sung at the beginning of every baseball game, is martial to its very core:
Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Elias talks about the war built into baseball: "The batting team pursues a constant war of maneuver." He sees batters as attempting to get the ball by the enemies, who in turn are trying to try to keep their troops in position. If it sounds like a stretch, only even in 1889, near the beginning of the prevalence of the sport in the US sportswriter Henry Chadwick was using these terms in his book, "How to Play Base Ball." From then on, baseball was used in foreign policy: the US brought it along on imperial missions to help pacify and convert the conquered, and the US sought to convert people to baseball in order to prove the US dominance in the sport. This, of course, makes themacinator squeamish: baseball appeals to the pacifist, nonviolent streak in me. I love the balletic, noncontact nature of baseball, especially compared to the modern American sport, football. But, if I'm consistent with my previous thoughts about baseball being an arena (war metaphor anyone?) for Americans to work/play out their stuff, then baseball as an area for playing out war games makes sense, too.

Elias also weaves in the story of baseball's exploitative labor practices, in terms of how they fit into the history of foreign policy. He's not quite as strong on this, but it's not the main focus of the book. He traces the integration of baseball, and how, as the Negro Leagues were absorbed/disbanded, MLB needed somewhere else to find cheap labor. Fortunately for MLB, all of their advance work in nation-building paid off, especially in the Carribbean and certain Central American cultures: where baseball had taken hold, cheap labor in the form of potential athletic prowess was easy to come by. He touches on the current exploitative practices in baseball academies, which I didn't know about, that are deeply concerning: this is something to look into further.

Lastly, my boyfriend made a stunning, and unwelcome guest appearance in "The Empire Strikes Out." Describing modern shows of nationalism, Elias describes how Major League teams have trotted out support for the Armed Forces since the (new) war in Iraq. Back in 2005, when Barry Zito was still on the A's, he founded the "Strikeouts for Troops" program, along with MLB's endorsement. For each regular season strikeout (you've probably heard the commercials), the pitchers donated $100 for every strikeout to funds for war-wounded troops. (As of the publishing of the book, the program was still going on with Zito at the Giants.) Elias continues to talk about this program in the context of the conservative foundation that handles the funds: the Freedom Alliance. Among the players asked to tour US naval bases by the Freedom Alliance? Joe Blanton.

Baseball is a complicated game. It's got all kinds of numbers and statistics and emotions and other things. And it's inseparable from its fans, the money involved, or its history. "The Empire Strikes Out" is weak, but a necessary read for true students of the game.

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