John Fairfield, chair for the department of history, discusses the role of baseball in American life.
Why does baseball hold such a special place in American culture? Baseball holds a special place in American culture in part because of its longevity and stability. Even with the shifting of franchises and destruction of ballparks in the last 40 years, baseball still offers a remarkable sense of continuity. We have a remarkably full statistical and literary accounting of an intrinsically interesting human activity going back well over 100 years. The game also embodies some of our most treasured values, an intriguing combination of competition and cooperation, of individuality and democracy, of craft skill and innovation. Above all, it’s a wonderful, beautiful game.
What are some of the more interesting—and perhaps less obvious—aspects of baseball lore? What would most people be surprised to learn? I believe the least understood aspect of baseball is how it embodies many of our civic values and aspirations. The sport emerged in the 1840s and 1850s, just when our revolutionary heritage of civic virtue and concern for the public good was giving way to a professionalized and interest-based politics of machines and parties. Baseball players not only proclaimed the legitimate role of skilled craftsmen in public life, but they proudly wore the name of their city on their chests (on shirts modeled after those of the volunteer fire “ladies” of the period). Ever since—and notwithstanding the great civic crisis of the 1919 Black Sox scandal—civic pride and civic identity have been central to the game including, ironically, central to its market profitability.
Looking over baseball’s long history, are issues such as the recent BALCO scandal likely to have a long-term impact on the public’s embrace of the game? The game has survived great scandals in the past—the 1919 World Series and the lost World Series of 1994—so it is resilient. But like so many public things in our privatizing world, baseball is not indestructible. If we don’t care for it as a civic thing, a public thing, it may not last. What a sad day it will be when all Americans have are the things the market will provide and public things disappear.