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Heyday of the National Pastime

ISSUE:  Spring 1996

Creating the National Pastime: Baseball Transforms Itself, 1903—1953.
By G. Edward White. Princeton.$24.95.

Once upon a time, baseball, at the higher professional levels at least, liked to look on itself as an enterprise that ranked with mom and apple pie in the American psyche.

It was a Norman Rockwell drawing come to life. A ruddy faced boy holding a baseball glove and clinging to dreams that someday he will be cheered in full stadiums.

But that was then.

Now . . . well, baseball has an image that is colored by multi-millionaire, labor-primitive, imperious, greedy owners—does George Steinbrenner of the Yankees come to mind?—and million-aire, surly, greedy players. Any number may come to mind.

It also is an enterprise that, reflecting much of industrial America, has been beset by strikes, lockouts, and the figurative sight of its expensive labor manning picket lines.

Consumer resistance has, not surprisingly, risen in the face of all of this. And in the mid-1990s, baseball lacks a commissioner to give it a sense of direction. But there is evidence to suggest that the last thing the owners want is a commissioner who will attempt to give strong leadership.

“It may be that the twenty-first century will be one in which commentators gravely announce that baseball was, rather than is, the national pastime,” writes G. Edward White in Creating the National Pastime.

Actually, commentators are saying that in the dying days of the 20th century. Professional football supposedly has inherited the earth but lately a number of National Football League owners have added moving vans to their equipment. This is not good for the image.

And pro basketball and hockey, which were supposed to be models of labor relations, haven’t been,

A prominent civil rights lawyer, assessing the failure of a black political action group to endorse several black candidates, once said, “White folks don’t have a monopoly on stupidity.” The same goes for baseball.

White is a University of Virginia Law School professor whose previous books have dealt with legal figures and affairs. But before attending law school, White earned a Ph. D in American studies which probably equips him to look at baseball as an American study.

He has followed baseball since 1948, when he was seven, and the Boston Braves and the Cleveland Indians played in the World Series. The Indians won. His interest was whetted by the caricatures of Willard Mullin. He created the Brooklyn Dodger bum—for those with long memories—in the defunct—as are the Brooklyn Dodgers—New York World-Telegram.

White deals only peripherally with the present era. The focus is on the half-century from 1903 to 1953. It was a time when baseball, to borrow from White’s subtitle, transformed itself.

He begins in 1903 because that was the year the established National League recognized the upstart American League as a major league and the World Series was started.

The half-century White describes was not one of total peace and prosperity. Early in it, the lords of baseball—to use a phrase that was popularized in some sports pages—had to fend off the Federal League, a pre-World War attempt to establish a third major league.

The stifling of the Federal League led some of its lords to plead before the Supreme Court that the two major leagues were in violation of anti-trust laws. The court, led by Oliver Wendell Holmes, gave baseball anti-trust exemption because, in short, it provided services not goods.

“Gobbledegook” writes legal scholar White of the decision which makes baseball unique among pro sports. (Note: White repeats “gobbledegook” to describe a Supreme Court decision of the early 1970’s that delayed the abolition of the reserve clause that bound a player to a team at the team’s pleasure. The end of the clause led to the millionaire athlete. The free market at work, you know.)

White’s half-century encompasses the Black Sox scandal that threatened to destroy fan faith in baseball, the advent of Babe Ruth who restored faith and ushered in baseball’s golden era, and the arrival of a federal judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, as baseball’s first commissioner. Landis is one reason the lords never want another assertive commissioner.

Early in White’s half-century, baseball owners began building steel and concrete stadiums. Like Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field that, of course, are still in use. At the beginning, the stadium was a metaphor.

Much later, owners began demanding governments build architectural monstrosities, some of which had roofs and some, ugh, artificial turf. Lately, as in Baltimore and Cleveland, architects, amid acclaim, have returned to old virtues. What goes around, comes around.

For the half-century, White faults baseball on four major fronts: integration, what he calls territoriality and the failure of the lords to embrace night baseball as a fan lure and radio as a vehicle to promote their product.

Integration—the lords were adamant in keeping baseball lily white—or lily white and Latin brown—until Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson in the fall of 1945. A rich talent well was uncapped. But at the end of White’s half century some teams were still resisting the obvious, including the Yankees.

Territoriality—the 1903 agreement froze the major leagues in place. The map remained in place despite box office evidence that Boston, Philadelphia, and St. Louis could not support two teams. The thaw began in 1953 when the Braves left Boston for Milwaukee en route to Atlanta. If economic necessity dictated early team moves, what does one say about the flight of ther profitable Dodgers and New York Giants to California in 1958?

Night baseball—the majors fiercely resisted the electric age in the face of evidence that lights were an economic boon. In our time . . . isn’t a total run of World Series at night a mite excessive? It certainly isn’t TV fare for the East Coast kiddies.

Radio—as late as the late 1930’s, some teams—most notably in New York—resisted using radio to broadcast play-by-play as a sales lure. And then, near the end of White’s half-century TV appeared and after a while began paying fees that eclipsed all dreams of avarice and helped make possible millionaire players. Note: White considers Red Barber as the announcing beau ideal. Barber protegee Vince Scully carries on the tradition.

White has a chapter on the press which, during his half-century, did not cover much more than the game. Such things as Babe Ruth’s excesses went unreported. Things changed in the 1960’s with the advent of younger sports writers who were collectively called chip-munks. Mickey Mantle’s excesses did not go unreported.

But the same thing happened in political writing. Once a politician’s private life was ignored if he, or she, did not molest children or drink on the job. This began changing during the time of Watergate. I suppose this is a good thing.


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