A People's History of Baseball

A special Labor Day weekend book excerpt
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A People's History of Baseball

Courtesy of University of Illinois Press

Mitchell Nathanson's A People's History of Baseball is a rewarding detour from the usual sepia dad-whispering of diamond history. Nathanson, a legal scholar, looks at what he calls "counter-stories" from baseball's past and present to see how the simple myths of the game often mask power struggles and politics. After digging the excerpt, we have a bonus Q&A with Nathanson for your Labor Day embiggenment. Here's an excerpt from Chapter Five: "Wait Till Next Year" and the Denial of History.

Despite reality, which necessarily must conclude that underdogs have a less than equal chance of emerging victorious (if they did not, they would be favorites), many Americans somehow believe otherwise. This delusion allows us to preach high-mindedly but to remain disengaged from the struggle—for in our minds the downtrodden will emerge victorious on their own, without the need of aid. This mindset is consistent with American actions, as opposed to the verbal gymnastics used to nevertheless equate “American” values with support for the truly disadvantaged. In sports, the American penchant of rooting for the underdog really has more to do with rooting for the favorite in the mind’s eye—reality be damned. In life, traditional American attitudes toward disadvantaged groups (ones defined by an absence of the type of “looming success” that pervades the American definition of “underdog”) show little sympathy or empathy for actual victims of social injustice—Native and African Americans, immigrants, and women, to name but a few such groups. All of the perceived “American” values somehow fall by the wayside in the face of true disadvantage. It is therefore not surprising that the American definition of “underdog” does not extend far beyond the sports arena. In an athletic contest, we can sit passively in the stands holding firm to our stated beliefs without concern that we will be called upon to act on them. Once the game ends, however, and our beliefs have consequences, we are more likely to shy away from them.

In the end, it is not the underdog after all that Americans cherish. It is instead the optimism to believe that the underdog will win despite reasonable, concrete evidence to the contrary. Returning to the Australians for a moment, it becomes clear that besides a shared attraction to the term, Americans and Australians actually have very little in common when it comes to the national ethos supporting underdogs. Perhaps Americans are unique when it comes to our support for underdogs, but not in the way we normally assume. What may be unique about us (or at least unusual) is not our affection for the term but our delusion fueled by unwarranted optimism that underdogs will emerge victorious more often than not, even though by definition, they will not. It is this unwarranted optimism that, as it turns out, opens the door for what we would otherwise conclude are some very “un-American” behaviors by those claiming precisely the opposite allegiance.

For more than a century, unwarranted, irrational optimism has been seen by some of its critics and most ardent supporters alike as a diversionary device used to great effect to preserve the status quo and fend off change: the heroic stories of underdogs (from Horatio Alger’s tales onward) being fodder used to present the facade of overcoming even the most dire of situations, which in the process diverts attention from the world as it actually exists. With each underdog that emerges victorious, the focus remains on the extraordinary individual who accomplished the feat rather than on the situation that created the imbalance that necessitated the superhuman acts to surmount it. The psychologist and philosopher William James, although considered a “hero” of what would come to be known as the “positive thinking movement,” recognized as much a century ago when he noted that unfettered optimism and happiness presented potential dangers, given that they require “blindness and insensibility to opposing facts.” Although James did not conclude that such happiness was itself a sickness (indeed he believed it to be the socially desired state), the historian Donald Meyer noted that it led to a vulnerability to sickness if the achievement of a state of perpetual bliss became one’s overarching priority. In this way, the shutting out of opposing information and facts was, in James’s view, “wait ’til next year” and the denial of history under certain conditions “quasi-pathological”—although in his view this was not necessarily a bad thing. Several decades later Roth, a critic of the movement, would sound a similar, although more desolate, theme in The Great American Novel when his protagonist considered the magical pull of the word “America” and all it connotes: “America? … [W]hat’s America to you? Or to me? Or to those tens of thousands up in the stands? It’s just a word they use to keep your nose to the grindstone and your toes to the line. America is the opiate of the people …”

Sports, particularly baseball as well as the popular depiction of baseball as America, have helped to grease the wheels of the status quo through tales of triumphant underdogs to the point where that seventy-five-yearold Cubs fan could believe from the stands at Wrigley that this, irrespective of the last hundred, was the year his Cubbies were finally going to put it all together. This mindset, “quasi-pathological” at a minimum, is at its essence quintessentially American. Although the unquestioning devotion, the “blindness and insensibility to opposing facts,” ironically increases the likelihood of this fan’s perpetual misery (after all, there is little incentive for real change to occur if hope and optimism remain regardless of results), he is supportive nevertheless, for to abandon hope is contrary to the national character.

As it turns out, it is by design that this fan, along with countless others, feels this way and continues to look for roses—at the ballpark and, more importantly and with greater consequences, elsewhere—where there are only thorns. For as Americans we are the product of decades’ worth of rhetoric aimed directly at us with the goal of encouraging us to resign ourselves to the status quo and ignore our feelings of unease over our own place within the existing social structure; to give in and accept our fate rather than challenge a social and economic hierarchy where the overwhelming majority of wealth, power, and benefits reside with an ever-shrinking few. This rhetoric is evidenced within the baseball creed and has its roots in the societal upheaval caused by the rapid industrialization of America during the last half of the nineteenth century. The positive thinking movement would find a natural ally in baseball very early on as it attempted to calm the fears of those who had the means, numbers, and ability to overthrow the status quo if something was not done quickly.

Copyright 2012 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be reprinted, photocopied, posted online or distributed in any way without the written permission of the copyright holder.


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I like this passage from the book, but I must say I wholeheartedly disagree with the idea that perpetual optimism is a bad thing. Why should fans, or Americans on the whole as you have wrongfully chosen to apply this metaphor to, believe anything else than that their team is going to be successful. It is a basic American belief that in this country a person can build themselves up from nothing to be as accomplished as they wish. Even those people that reside at the top of the "social and economic hierarchy" are there as a result of this being practiced in real life. Whether it is through their own hard work or simply being born into a successful family, someone had to do the work to get to the top of that hierarchy. This hierarchy is not a stagnant and unchanging group too, as can be evidenced by the new successes rising to the top. Of course not everybody can be successful, but it is the belief that those who try at least have a chance at it that keeps America going. Sure the Cubs may not win the World Series this year, and sure Joe Smith may not make a million dollars, but to give up before even trying or believing is to forfeit that chance altogether.

Like I said, I like the excerpt, but I feel the ultimate conclusion is flawed. I would welcome a counter from the author or one of the writers on this site who disagrees.

Although I do write for the site, I'd like to make it clear that my opinions w/r/t this are only my own, so don't take this as me "speaking for the site", but I think what you are talking about is exactly the problem being tackled in this book and its spiritual ancestor, "A People's History of the United States", by Howard Zinn.

And for a-lack-of-a-desire-to-get-into-an-argument's sake, let's use the idea of the Cubs, as opposed to a specific political party just to stay away from politics as much as possible:

The idea of thinking the Cubs are going to win it all this year is fine, but when you vote (whether it be with your pocketbook or in the polling booth) in a manner that accepts the status quo as okay, and that by simply having a positive outlook you'll be able to affect change is the exact type of thing that these books are warning against. Of course it's fine to be a Cubs fan who openly accepts your chosen identity as a "lovable loser" because you refuse to demand better from your organization in the same way it is fine to vote for people who are explicitly against your interests, because you refuse to demand better from your politicians.

No one is saying you can't, this is America for goodness sakes.

What these books seek to do is allow for a discussion on whether or not this is the place we truly want to be, by looking at history from a perspective not often written about in textbooks and other things of that ilk. Once they present the "people's" history (as opposed to the presumed establishment's version of history ), they then seek to discuss whether the narrative we've created -- in the Cubs example, that "this year could be our year" because of the fickle nature of fate as it relates to baseball and sports in general -- jibes with the facts of the situation, and whether or not this "wait til next year" attitude is the optimum way to reach the ultimate goal (in the Cubs case, a championship, obviously).

And most importantly, neither is saying don't have a positive outlook on what we have the potential to be as a culture, country and community, in fact, they are saying the opposite. These books are just asking whether or not we are truly going in the right direction with the right trajectory.

I hope I haven't come across as condescending, and thank you very much for commenting on our site, we appreciate any commentator looking to bring something interesting to our site, and you've certainly done that.