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Baseball and American Popular Culture
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Baseball is an integral part of American pop culture. Many Americans grow up with
baseball, playing it before they can even count all the bases. It is glorified, taught, and
fed to us. When we play baseball, we find a respect for the game. The respect we gain
from playing it has turned the game into a tradition of American culture. It has formed
itself into the business of professional baseball, namely major league baseball.
Professional players have become recognized all over the world. They are sought out
and admired by fans. Because of their popularity, these players have written books,
endorsed commercial products, and found successful and rewarding careers by playing
a game. According to Wallup, author of Baseball: An Informal History, baseball has been
apart of our culture since the mid to late nineteenth century(Wallup, p16). Our great
grandparents, grandparents, and parents have been brought up with it and our parents
teach the sport to us.
When the notion of baseball comes to mind, a feeling of nostalgia and tradition come to
me. Many of my feelings and memories originate from my childhood. I remember a
beautiful summer day. My dad and I arrived at the baseball stadium to watch the game.
We walked up the concrete walkway inside the stadium. The concrete walls and floors
made my surroundings drab and grey. Finally, we made it to entrance into the stadium.
I came out of the dark tunnels into the bright sunlight. The first thing to catch my eye
was the vivid rush of color. Underneath the fluffy white clouds and their deep blue
canvas, I could look down and see players in vibrant red and blue uniforms warming up
for the game. The well-watered grass on the field was a brighter green than any other
grass I had seen. The outfield seemed to be so perfect. It appeared that each blade
had been cut by hand. The edge of the infield, where the dark, watered-down dirt met
the intensely green grass was a precise and well-defined contrast. We sat down and I
took in my surroundings. There were men walking up and down the stairs selling various
concessions. They had peanuts, beer, soda, ice cream, popcorn, and many other
tempting treats. The players soon finished their warm-ups and the crowd became
frenzied with excitement. The game was about to start.
Baseball has its own traditions in America and playing the national anthem is one of
them. This well-practiced act of group togetherness serves two purposes. First, it pays
tribute to our country, bringing our American values to the game. Secondly, it seems to
hype up the game, making the cheering crowd an active part of the contest. This
enthusiasm leads to cheers when their team turns a great play or to boos and catcalls
due to an umpire’s bad judgement.
It hard to describe why Americans likes to watch baseball. For me, it has to do with the
excitement and appreciation of the game. Since I was big enough to hold a baseball, I
have been playing the game. I appreciate it because I have played it and I have
experienced the struggle between pitcher and batter. Neither one hates the other, but
when the pitcher takes the mound, he or she wants to blast it past his opponent.
Conversely, when batters step up, their personal goal is to put a hole through the
pitcher when they send the ball blazing back. It’s this understanding of the emotions
involved that makes watching the game enjoyable to me.
It has become a tradition to go watch a game with the family. Rooted in this custom
are our culture’s values of family and passing the experiences from parent to child.
According to A.G. Spalding, author of America’s National Game, baseball “is the
exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness …Dash, …Determination,
…Spirit, …Vim, Vigor, and Virility”(Spalding, p.4). We see the game of baseball as an
activity for family to go to the local ball park to see a son, daughter, nephew, or niece
play. It pleases us to see our friends or family playing the game and enjoying it.
Baseball gives us reason to get our friends together and have fun.
Professional baseball has become an institution that reflects shifting values in American
society. In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, changing race relations appeared in the major
leagues. Nineteen ninety-seven marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first black
baseball player, Jackie Robinson, permitted to play in major league baseball. He
tolerated death threats, white teammates spitting on him, and lack of enthusiasm by
the press. Eventually, people came to realize that African Americans had a place in
baseball and the rest of society. Soon, more black players gained positions into the
realm of professional baseball.
Jackie Robinson was a college educated and outspoken individual. In 1957, he retired
from the major leagues and took a position as Vice President for a restaurant chain.
Later, in 1959, Robinson began writing a regular column for the New York Post. He
wrote of social issues, foreign affairs, and the upcoming elections. In the 1960 election,
he decided to back Richard Nixon instead of John Kennedy. His logic was that the black
community should be represented by the Republican as well as the Democratic Party.
This decision led to his fall out of favor with much of the black community. Later in life,
he admitted to the bad decision saying, “I do not consider my decision to back Richard
Nixon over John F. Kennedy for the Presidency in 1960 one of my finest ones. It was a
sincere one, however, at the time.”(Lester, p2) In 1964, he organized and founded the
Freedom Nation Bank in Harlem. The black-owned bank had the goal of being owned by
the African-American community it served. Robinson was able to raise 1.5 million dollars
for the community. Also in 1964, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller asked Robinson
to be one of his deputy national directors. He accepted and was later named to the
Executive Committee as Special Assistant to Community Affairs. “He had many firsts in
his life. He became the catalyst of many emerging civil movements. His impact on the
national pastime proceeded several breakthroughs in the social and political
arena”(Lester, p.3). In his book, Never Had It Made he recapped his life, “As long as I
appeared to ignore insult and injury, I was a martyred hero to a lot of people who
seemed to have sympathy for the underdog”(Lester, p.2).
Many important people have lived past their professional baseball careers, continuing in
politics or community development, using their popularity to raise money. Many players
also use this influence to sell products. Whether it is Nolan Ryan plugging Advil or John
Kruk endorsing Pert Plus shampoo, they all have found ways to reach out to American
society. The personality of the players and their values transfer to the product they
endorse. The general public sees the player’s endorsement as a promise that the
product will stand up to its application. Overall, professional baseball players, exhibit a
great deal of influence on the public because of their popularity.
This influence has led to many acts and movies. The first performance that comes to
mind is Abbot and Costello’s Who’s on First? routine(Abbott, p.1-5). Though it was
created during a different era than my own, it shows how long the game of baseball
has gripped the enthusiasm and interest of American culture. Many motion pictures
have recently been made regarding the subject of baseball. Field of Dreams was a
movie about a farmer who heard a voice telling him to, “Build it and they will come!”
Christopher Sharrett of USA Today, described it as a motion picture that “used baseball
as an image of a golden, half-remembered past” (Sharrett, p81). The farmer built a
baseball diamond in his corn field. He had faith in this voice and followed by it even
when his farm was being foreclosed. The movie communicates throughout how the
American views of baseball as tradition and pastime are a vital part of American culture.
Other movies relating to baseball include Pride of the Yankees (1942), Babe Ruth Story
(1948), Babe (1993), The Natural (1984), and Baseball a documentary that delved into
the underside of professional baseball(Sharrett, p81).
Baseball has been used in many media to relay a message to the public. It has been a
testing ground for change, a marketing ground for commercial interests, and an icon in
the American way of life. Baseball has the ability to be all of these things because of
the public’s fascination with the game. The game is a major ritual in our society. We
grow up with it, playing very young, and as we mature it teaches us about fairness and
values. When we grow up, we will pass it down to the next generation who in turn will
pass it to their children. Baseball found its way into our culture more than 125 years
ago (Wallop, p15) and will be played for 125 more.
Abbott and Costello. “Who’s on First.” (p. 1-5): 5. Online, Internet. 28 January 1997.
Lester, Barry. “Jackie Robinson Biography.” (p. 1-2): 2. On-line, Internet. 27 January
Sharrett, Christopher. “Baseball’s Fading Dreams.” USA Today May 1995: 81.
Spalding, A. G. America’s National Game. New York: American Sports Publishing
Company, 1911: p. 3-13.
Wallup, Douglas. Baseball: An Informal History. New York: Norton & Company, Inc.,
1969: p. 14 -15.
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