“I [WILL] LOVE BASEBALL UNTIL THE DAY THAT I DIE, BUT MY TIME IN THE MARINES WAS MORE IMPORTANT … I HAVE FELT FROM DAY ONE THERE ARE ONLY ONE SET OF HEROES IN THIS COUNTRY, AND THEY’RE ALL DEAD. MAYBE THE MEDAL OF HONOR PEOPLE CAN OVERCOME THAT, BUT THE REST OF US WERE JUST DOING OUR JOB.”
–Jerry Coleman, one of two Major League Players to fight in two Wars, including Ted Williams. Only Coleman fought combat missions in both wars)
It is Memorial Day, and Major League Baseball is packing the sports schedule with no other real competition. Baseball has long been linked with American nationalism with mostly positive results.
I would like to briefly review the history of baseball and it’s link with American pride, some examples where this has been a negative partnership, and offer some insight where the future might lead when 27% of Major League players are foreign born.
First, let’s all remember the many times that baseball (and sports in general) has been a unifying force in our nation. From the formation of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League made famous in League of Their Own, to the many valiant efforts of baseball players fighting in World War II and others like Ted Williams and Jerry Coleman, to most recently how baseball and New York brought the country together after the September 11th, 2001 attacks personified by President George W Bush delivering a perfect strike to start Game 3 of the World Series that season – in New York.
Sports has that ability to bring a country together, and baseball has embraces that role throughout its history.
Field of Dreams of course argues that “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.”
This is…mostly true. The truth is that for all the good it has done, there are certainly examples where baseball and it’s jingoism has led to not so good outcomes.
Robert Elias wrote a book called The Empire Strikes Out in 2010 which explores how many times in history US troops used baseball as a way to enforce imperialism policies as US policies took troops into South American and Asian countries, introducing baseball as a way of assimilation.
The author argues convincingly relative to the game’s historic ties to militarism, colonialism, and imperialism. Elias’ accounts of the role of baseball in the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions and its social control uses by repressive governments in Korea, Taiwan, and China are noteworthy.
Perhaps more convincingly – many have pointed out how today Major League Baseball uses “cheap labor” of Latin American players and academies to help finance it’s operations. Just this year, the Atlanta Braves caught some flak for signing two of their young stars Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr to long term deals which in of themselves are a lot of money – but many argue both players could be worth a lot more in the future. Acuna is from Venezuela, Albies from Curacao. Quickly after the criticism, many defended the deals along the lines of “They came from nothing. They should be happy to have $1 Million.”. To not see the racism in this line of thinking is to not see the whole picture. We are off an off-season where (white) Bryce Harper and (US born) Manny Machado signed deals of $300M. They were not “just happy to have $1M”. Why should non English speakers or non US citizens at this point like Acuna Jr and Albies be?
Of course baseball has also seen this exploitation caught. Speaking of the Braves, former GM John Coppolella was banned for life for breaking international signing rules. Padres GM AJ Preller was suspended when he worked for the Rangers for similar infractions, then became Padres GM and later was suspended for withholding medical information in trades. A year later he was extended through 2022.
In baseball’s future – getting a handle on how they handle international free agents and minor league baseball players will be a major issue. This Save American’s PastTime Act, buried deep (page 1,967 of 2,232) in a spending bill, is a travesty that allows teams to pay minor leagues under minimum wage. This essentially creates a near feudal caste system where players have to adopt the attitude “Just help give us a chance to continue to develop and not have to be drawn in so many different directions trying to pay our bills during the times when we’re not actually playing.”
Baseball – like America – has seen tremendous growth in the game with it’s influx of international talent. Not even counting of course that baseball integrated along color lines with Jackie Robinson in 1947 – a full 17 years before the Civil Rights Act became law in America. Baseball can lead America on these issues. The baseball field can destroy prejudices – but a lead must be taken.
While the NFL saw players protesting alleged police brutality against African Americans turned into anti-America hate speech (not the same), baseball has stood silent. Occasionally the difference between how Latin American players play the game and suburban upper class white kids is stark – exemplified best perhaps by the Puerto Rico – Dominican World Baseball Classic game in 2017 and the Javy Baez no-look tag:
Baseball in 2019 came out with the slogan “Let the Kids Play” and still we have seen bean ball wars over silly, unwritten rules where players get excited when performing at the highest of levels.
Baseball can lead. Baseball can be a symbolic representation of America. Hope for multi-cultural unity like no other. While protectionist and nativist policies explode around the globe, last year MLB Rookie of the Year winners were a kid from Venezuela (Acuna Jr) and Japan (Shohei Ohtani) who left millions of dollars on the table to play in America. The American Dream can be wielded dangerously to oppress – but it can also still inspire.
This Memorial Day let’s remember those who have died fighting for this country – while hoping that baseball can lead America forward on its promise of all men being created equal and with certain unalienable rights – no matter which country you were born in.