Posted Under: Baseball's Best Books
In 1980 Howard Zinn published A People’s History of the United States (P.S.) One of the more controversial interpretations of the American experience, Zinn attempted to describe the American past from the bottom up. In A People’s History of Baseball by Mitchell Nathanson, a professor of legal writing at Villanova University takes a similar post modern approach to describe baseball’s past. In so doing he presents baseball as a concept rather than simply a game. He contends that baseball’s “story” (i.e. history) was written to reflect basic American cultural values. By re-assessing some of the game’s most venerated episodes Nathanson attempts to demonstrate that baseball as an enterprise has in fact often diverged from the core values it claims to reinforce. The author proposes that his goal is not to rewrite the past but rather to provide an alternative way of understanding baseball’s place in the American experience. While the end product is certainly tamer than Zinn’s picture of the United States, Nathanson, like Zinn, tells a very different story than the one that is traditionally told.
At the heart of Nathanson’s interpretation is what he has labeled “the baseball creed.” The author proposes that the creed was devised in the mid-nineteenth century by the game’s emerging “magnates” as part of an attempt to challenge the existing American elite. The baseball creed “preached the acquisition of American values through baseball…” and, unlike the social Darwinism that the elite used to justify their own status, the creed asserted that through baseball “even the lowliest immigrant could be taught to be an upstanding, moral American citizen”. Stressing democratic principles and employing capitalistic methods the game’s early financial backers transformed a social past time, baseball, into an industry and then organized the National League as a way to retain control of the new enterprise and its labor force. Endorsed by the game’s early scribes, beginning with Henry Chadwick, baseball’s barons successfully resorted to tactics that were in fact antithetical to their creed in an effort to establish baseball as the protector of America’s cultural values. It is an argument that has been made to varying degrees by other baseball scholars, including most recently John Thorn. However, Nathanson is more substantive and polemical, and therefore more controversial than his predecessors.
In defending his post-modern interpretation the author offers pivotal moments in baseball history as examples of team owners’ avaricious efforts to rule the game. The most important of those moments is the Black Sox scandal. Nathanson contends that the scandal and the creation of an omnipotent commissioner that followed was part of a successful strategy to elevate baseball to a status above the rule of law. Another of baseball’s pivotal moments is the Jackie Robinson saga. It is an episode that most consider an important early step in the Civil Rights movement and one of the game’s grand accomplishments. However, the author proposes that Branch Rickey integrated the game not because of his social conscience but instead as a way to slow the inevitable. According to the author Rickey recognized that it was simply a matter of time before black players were allowed to play alongside white players. Rather than have the change imposed on his game Rickey sought to control the pace of integration in a way that would maintain baseball’s status quo as much as possible. More contemporarily, when assessing baseball’s recent steroid travails the author convincingly argues that though circumstances have changed since the Black Sox scandal “baseball’s elevated symbolic status” remains. Even after the Mitchell Report demonstrated that Major League Baseball, led by Commissioner Bud Selig, had committed corporate malfeasance by disregarding its own drug policies as well as the Steroid Control Act of 1990, “baseball law” limited MLB’s responsibility. Instead, individual players as well as the Players’ Association were tagged as the culprits.
Nathanson contends that though the game’s political structure has changed significantly since World War II the baseball creed is still relevant. According to the author it was television rather than expansion or free agency that brought baseball into the modern era. Television promised significant new revenues which in numerous ways transformed the game. While the new money weakened the traditional owners’ fraternity, it encouraged corporate control instead. In the end despite the creation of the Players Association and free agency baseball remains the domain of ownership. The description of the changes that Bill James has brought to the game is the least satisfying part of the book. Clearly statistical analysis has changed the way we understand the game and particularly the value of each player. However, Nathanson’s explanation of the various far reaching effects that statistical analysis has had on the game relies more on speculation and supposition than documentation.
While A People’s History of Baseball presents a well reasoned thesis, there are moments when additional analysis could fortify the author’s arguments. One example is Nathanson contention that if had it not been for a pesky reporter, Hugh Fullerton, team owners would have quietly resolved the Black Sox dilemma. As the author acknowledges, it was American League President Ban Johnson who gave credence to Fullerton’s accusations. However, Johnson’s motives for embracing the charges need fuller discussion. Was this part of the ongoing power struggle between Johnson and the National League? Was it a self-righteous crusade? Or did Johnson genuinely fear that baseball was threatened? Another example involves Nathanson’s description of Branch Rickey. Virtually every author who has done extensive biographical work on Rickey describes him as an extremely complex individual who at times pursued apparently contradictory goals. Nathanson paints a less complicated portrait of the Mahatma. Rickey is presented as the ultimate paternalist who steadfastly defended his place in baseball’s hierarchy and what he believed was baseball’s role as the protector of American values.
In final analysis, this is an important book that serious baseball scholars should read. It is well written, compellingly presented and the thesis is very capably defended. If as the author states his goal is to provide a thought provoking alternative to conventional baseball history he has succeeded exceedingly well. While I am not an advocate of the post modern interpretation of history, Nathanson has made arguments that will affect the way that I look at baseball’s past well into the future.