“Baseball is in serious trouble,” says history professor John Fairfield. Strikes and lockouts, overpaid players and greedy owners—they’ve all whittled into our fondness for the great American pastime. And the future of the game is in question, he says, unless changes are made.
Fairfield should know. Each summer he teaches Baseball and American Culture, an intense one-week course on the history of the game. Students explore the game’s intricate link with the social, economic and political history of the United States. And how baseball symbolizes and exemplifies all that is good—and much that is wrong—with America. Baseball is the venue where the public gathers to witness a showcase of its best values—cooperative teamwork, skilled craftsmanship, successful business ventures. But it is also where we see the fallout from too much money—rich owners and salary disputes.
“Baseball is not quite as beloved as it once was,” Fairfield says. “With the competition of other sports, and since the 1980s with the labor problems, baseball is in serious trouble. Free agency made it more competitive, with more teams winning and bringing a whole new set of fans to the game. It’s not less popular, but high salaries have changed the nature of the experience.”
He argues, however, that the game is worth preserving, if only for its permanent presence in the development of our culture. That may require wresting the teams from private ownership and placing them in the hands of nonprofit organizations or municipalities—returning the game, so to speak, to the public, where it began.
“We let this coterie of rich people run it, and it’s insane,” he says. “There’s a fundamental tension. On the one hand, it is a public thing with civic aspirations, the national pastime. But there is also this marketing commodity that is being exploited for profit.”
It was just that tension that led to the game’s darkest moment, the 1919 World Series scandal in which members of the Chicago White Sox—or Black Sox, as they later became known—felt they were underpaid and took money to throw games. That somber moment came after the game’s heyday as a sport and public institution, Fairfield says. The historic baseball parks were built during the country’s progressive period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the game offered an outlet from the new industrialization. While more people left the farms to work in enclosed, tightly run factories, baseball was a pastoral event, an outdoor experience, where skill and craft were still valued and men had an element of control.
During the five days of the two-credit course, Fairfield covers several major themes, including:
• How baseball serves as a myth of industrialized America, with people seeing it as a model of work—skilled craftsmanship in a competitive economy.
• The game’s most famous players, Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, who are among the most influential Americans because each dramatized major cultural shifts—blue-collar workers demanding a higher standard of living, and the beginning of the end of racial segregation.
• And, of course, the trouble with the game today.