Ron Briley: Review of "The Cambridge Companion to Baseball," edited by Leonard Cassuto and Stephen Partridge (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).






Ron Briley is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Both the casual fan and baseball scholar should find The Cambridge Companion to Baseball a delightful read and companion for their enjoyment of a popular sport whose claim to be the national pastime is, nevertheless, somewhat dubious for this modern age.  Editors Leonard Cassuto and Stephen Partridge have compiled fifteen essays, along with interchapters focusing upon important baseball personalities, prepared primarily by academics.  The essays are well-written and cover a wide range of issues from literature, film, and material culture to history, economics, race relations, and international development of the game, which is also a business.  The editors assert, “The story of baseball is, in an important way, the story of the interaction between the myth of the national pastime and the reality of the baseball business.  The tension between these two is what drives this book” (2). 

The essays need not be read in any particular order, and, indeed, part of the fun with a companion volume is selecting what catches one’s eye on a particular day or mood.  This review, however, will discuss the pieces in their order of appearance within the book.  The Cambridge Companion to Baseball provides readers with suggestions for further reading and a chronology of the sport’s evolution in the United States from the 1845 formation of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in New York to the steroids crisis of 2009-2010.  The Companion presents a view of the unique role which baseball has played in America’s past while taking some note of the challenges facing the sport in the twenty-first century.

In his essay on the rules of baseball, Steven Gietschier notes that the sport has evolved in the interest of maintaining a balance between offense and defense.  This equilibrium, Gietschier concludes, parallels the power relationship between labor and management—an important theme for the Companion.  On the other hand, Stephen Partridge and Timothy Morris examine the mythology of the sport in their survey of baseball literature from the juvenile Baseball Joe series in the 1920s to Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997).  Whether high or low literature, the authors maintain that baseball provides writers with an opportunity to comment upon the eternal themes of change and loss.

Baseball is also a game driven by statistical measurement, and Leonard Cassuto and David Grant suggest that in testimony to the greatness of Babe Ruth it should be observed that the home run records created by Ruth remain among the sport’s most sacrosanct.  This paradigm established by Ruth, however, is challenged by the use of steroids and questions of whether more contemporary home run marks provide valid comparisons with Ruth.  The shadow cast by steroids and performance enhancing drugs is a common theme in many of the Companion essays.

While Major League Baseball (MLB) from the 1880s to 1947 was the domain of white Americans, Sam Regalado documents that Japanese and Mexican-Americans in the West employed baseball on the local level to both preserve their own culture and advance the transition to life in the United States.  Leslie Heaphy also provides a fine survey of the Negro Leagues, noting that with the triumph of baseball integration came the collapse of a significant business in the African-American community.

From World War I through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, MLB has been closely linked with militarism.  According to Richard Crepeau, the baseball establishment has sought to wrap itself in the flag; protecting the business from government intervention such as conscription while promoting the image of baseball as the patriotic national pastime.  Crepeau detects more than a note of hypocrisy on the part of baseball leadership at the national level.

Similar accusations of hypocrisy are often leveled at baseball ownership for their efforts to enlist public financing for baseball stadiums that benefit privately owned franchises.  Concentrating primarily upon Walter O’Malley’s relocation of the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, David Finoli argues that a baseball team is able to provide a community with a sense of identity, but that in the final analysis, the relocation of a franchise is a business decision.  Thus, according to Finoli, New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses deserves primary blame for the failure of O’Malley to reach a deal with the city and keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn.

Baseball, along with American popular culture, has been shaped by the movies; however, as George Grella observes, the baseball film genre has produced few great films.   Grella suggests that the sheer size of the baseball field has made it difficult to capture baseball on the silver screen.  Nevertheless, Grella concludes Field of Dreams includes “the fantasy of a forever game played by a company of immortals on the magical terrain of rural America, possibly the last major cinematic representation of the truly mythological possibilities in the sport” (123).

The general historical approach of most essays in the Companion is not followed by Al Filreis in his examination of the baseball fan.  Rather than concentrating upon changing demographics in baseball spectatorship, Filreis follows a more literary path by considering the depiction of baseball by such poets as Donald Hall and Marianne Moore.  However, how to attract more young people, African Americans, and women to the game is crucial to baseball’s future and could use more consideration.  The more historical overview is revived in David Ventura’s piece on baseball and material culture.  After initially examining the evolution of baseball equipment and uniforms, Ventura concludes his essay by lamenting the manufactured nostalgia of contemporary retro-ballparks and the baseball memorabilia industry in which the card collecting of children has been replaced by professional investors.

But baseball is also a global game as is noted by the Companion contributions of Masaru Ikei and Arturo J. Marcano and David P. Fidler.  Ikei’s essay traces the growth of baseball in Japan as both a tool for internal modernization and American diplomacy.  The author also notes that Japanese expansionism was crucial in bringing the sport to Taiwan and Korea.  Latin America is also a major target of baseball expansionism with Venezuela and the Dominican Republic supplying the vast majority of MLB players outside of the United States.  Marcano and Fidler are critical of MLB’s exploitation of children in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic which are not subject to the baseball draft.  The authors suggest meaningful reforms, arguing for the transformation of “a system that has not adequately protected the best interest of Latin America’s children into one that reflects the responsibilities MLB must shoulder as the center of gravity for the globalization of baseball” (182).

The steroids issue is addressed by David and Daniel Luban in an essay on cheating in baseball.  While acknowledging that many fans perceive performance enhancing drugs as destructive of the competitive balance, the authors assert that MLB refused to police steroids use in the 1990s, hoping that the home run bonanza might increase attendance after the 1994-1995 strike.  Thus, baseball fans may have to eventually accept the steroids era with its inflated offensive statistics, just as today there is acknowledgement that we cannot really compare the pitching statistics of the dead ball era with the contemporary game.  In another essay often critical of baseball management, economist Andrew Zimbalist argues that some of the problems experienced by MLB in dealing with the reserve clause and free agency, franchise transfers, and steroids are a product of MLB’s economic structure.  MLB, as a monopoly, has historically suffered from a lack of competition and a dysfunctional governing structure.  Zimbalist, however, believes that free agency and jettisoning the myth of an omnipresent commissioner representing baseball's best interests provide the foundation for modernization of the game. 

The final essay of the Companion is by Curt Smith, who has written extensively on baseball broadcasting.  Smith notes the historical role played by radio and television broadcasters such as Vin Scully in developing the game’s popularity.  But Smith notes that beginning in the 1960s baseball failed to keep up with football which seemed to mirror the speed and violence of contemporary society.  Yet, the solutions proposed by Smith, such as better announcers, promotion, and quickening the pace of the game, seem inadequate to address some of the major challenges facing baseball.  Here, The Cambridge Campion to Baseball, for all its merits in examining the history and cultural myths of baseball, could be more forward looking.  The game needs to expand its appeal to women, young people, and African Americans.  There is a rich legacy of women’s involvement with the sport which needs to be drawn upon as baseball moves forward, but with the exception of a paragraph by Crepeau on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, women are conspicuously absent from the pages of the Companion.  Heaphy analyzes the history of the Negro Leagues, but the estrangement of the African-American community from baseball deserves attention as does the marketing of the game to a younger technologically-savvy audience.  The Cambridge Companion to Baseball is a welcome volume for those who care and want to learn more about the game.  The myths surrounding baseball as the national pastime are examined, but how to assure baseball its proper place in the modern world of the twenty-first century requires additional thought and contemplation.      

Both the casual fan and baseball scholar should find The Cambridge Companion to Baseball a delightful read and companion for their enjoyment of a popular sport whose claim to be the national pastime is, nevertheless, somewhat dubious for this modern age.  Editors Leonard Cassuto and Stephen Partridge have compiled fifteen essays, along with interchapters focusing upon important baseball personalities, prepared primarily by academics.  The essays are well written and cover a wide range of issues from literature, film, and material culture to history, economics, race relations, and international development of the game which is also a business.  The editors assert, “The story of baseball is, in an important way, the story of the interaction between the myth of the national pastime and the reality of the baseball business.  The tension between these two is what drives this book” (2). 

The essays need not be read in any particular order, and, indeed, part of the fun with a companion volume is selecting what catches one’s eye on a particular day or mood.  This review, however, will discuss the pieces in their order of appearance within the book.  The Cambridge Companion to Baseball provides readers with suggestions for further reading and a chronology of the sport’s evolution in the United States from the 1945 formation of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in New York to the steroids crisis of 2009-2010.  The Companion presents a view of the unique role which baseball has played in America’s past while taking some note of the challenges facing the sport in the twenty-first century.

In his essay on the rules of baseball, Steven Gietschier notes that the sport has evolved in the interest of maintaining a balance between offense and defense.  This equilibrium, Gietschier concludes, parallels the power relationship between labor and management—an important theme for the Companion.  On the other hand, Stephen Partridge and Timothy Morris examine the mythology of the sport in their survey of baseball literature from the juvenile Baseball Joe series in the 1920s to Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997).  Whether high or low literature, the authors maintain that baseball provides writers with an opportunity to comment upon the eternal themes of change and loss.

Baseball is also a game driven by statistical measurement, and Leonard Cassuto and David Grant suggest that in testimony to the greatness of Babe Ruth it should be observed that the home run records created by Ruth remain among the sport’s most sacrosanct.  This paradigm established by Ruth, however, is challenged by the use of steroids and questions of whether more contemporary home run marks provide valid comparisons with Ruth.  The shadow cast by steroids and performance enhancing drugs is a common theme in many of the Companion essays.

While Major League Baseball (MLB) from the 1880s to 1947 was the domain of white Americans, Sam Regalado documents that Japanese and Mexican-Americans in the West employed baseball on the local level to both preserve their own culture and advance the transition to life in the United States.  Leslie Heaphy also provides a fine survey of the Negro Leagues, noting that with the triumph of baseball integration came the collapse of a significant business in the African-American community.

From World War I through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, MLB has been closely linked with militarism.  According to Richard Crepeau, the baseball establishment has sought to wrap itself in the flag; protecting the business from government intervention such as conscription while promoting the image of baseball as the patriotic national pastime.  Crepeau detects more than a note of hypocrisy on the part of baseball leadership at the national level.

Similar accusations of hypocrisy are often leveled at baseball ownership for their efforts to enlist public financing for baseball stadiums that benefit privately owned franchises.  Concentrating primarily upon Walter O’Malley’s relocation of the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, David Finoli argues that a baseball team is able to provide a community with a sense of identity, but that in the final analysis, the relocation of a franchise is a business decision.  Thus, according to Finoli, New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses deserves primary blame for the failure of O’Malley to reach a deal with the city and keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn.

Baseball, along with American popular culture, has been shaped by the movies; however, as George Grella observes, the baseball film genre has produced few great films.   Grella suggests that the sheer size of the baseball field has made it difficult to capture baseball on the silver screen.  Nevertheless, Grella concludes Field of Dreams includes “the fantasy of a forever game played by a company of immortals on the magical terrain of rural America, possibly the last major cinematic representation of the truly mythological possibilities in the sport” (123).

The general historical approach of most essays in the Companion is not followed by Al Filreis in his examination of the baseball fan.  Rather than concentrating upon changing demographics in baseball spectatorship, Filreis follows a more literary path by considering the depiction of baseball by such poets as Donald Hall and Marianne Moore.  However, how to attract more young people, African Americans, and women to the game is crucial to baseball’s future and could use more consideration.  The more historical overview is revived in David Ventura’s piece on baseball and material culture.  After initially examining the evolution of baseball equipment and uniforms, Ventura concludes his essay by lamenting the manufactured nostalgia of contemporary retro-ballparks and the baseball memorabilia industry in which the card collecting of children has been replaced by professional investors.

But baseball is also a global game as is noted by the Companion contributions of Masaru Ikei and Arturo J. Marcano and David P. Fidler.  Ikei’s essay traces the growth of baseball in Japan as both a tool for internal modernization and American diplomacy.  The author also notes that Japanese expansionism was crucial in bringing the sport to Taiwan and Korea.  Latin America is also a major target of baseball expansionism with Venezuela and the Dominican Republic supplying the vast majority of MLB players outside of the United States.  Marcano and Fidler are critical of MLB’s exploitation of children in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic which are not subject to the baseball draft.  The authors suggest meaningful reforms, arguing for the transformation of “a system that has not adequately protected the best interest of Latin America’s children into one that reflects the responsibilities MLB must shoulder as the center of gravity for the globalization of baseball” (182).

The steroids issue is addressed by David and Daniel Luban in an essay on cheating in baseball.  While acknowledging that many fans perceive performance enhancing drugs as destructive of the competitive balance, the authors assert that MLB refused to police steroids use in the 1990s, hoping that the home run bonanza might increase attendance after the 1994-1995 strike.  Thus, baseball fans may have to eventually accept the steroids era with its inflated offensive statistics, just as today there is acknowledgement that we cannot really compare the pitching statistics of the dead ball era with the contemporary game.  In another essay often critical of baseball management, economist Andrew Zimbalist argues that some of the problems experienced by MLB in dealing with the reserve clause and free agency, franchise transfers, and steroids are a product of MLB’s economic structure.  MLB, as a monopoly, has historically suffered from a lack of competition and a dysfunctional governing structure.  Zimbalist, however, believes that free agency and jettisoning the myth of an omnipresent commissioner representing baseball's best interests provide the foundation for modernization of the game. 

The final essay of the Companion is by Curt Smith, who has written extensively on baseball broadcasting.  Smith notes the historical role played by radio and television broadcasters such as Vin Scully in developing the game’s popularity.  But Smith notes that beginning in the 1960s baseball failed to keep up with football which seemed to mirror the speed and violence of contemporary society.  Yet, the solutions proposed by Smith, such as better announcers, promotion, and quickening the pace of the game, seem inadequate to address some of the major challenges facing baseball.  Here, The Cambridge Campion to Baseball, for all its merits in examining the history and cultural myths of baseball, could be more forward looking.  The game needs to expand its appeal to women, young people, and African Americans.  There is a rich legacy of women’s involvement with the sport which needs to be drawn upon as baseball moves forward, but with the exception of a paragraph by Crepeau on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, women are conspicuously absent from the pages of the Companion.  Heaphy analyzes the history of the Negro Leagues, but the estrangement of the African-American community from baseball deserves attention as does the marketing of the game to a younger technologically-savvy audience.  The Cambridge Companion to Baseball is a welcome volume for those who care and want to learn more about the game.  The myths surrounding baseball as the national pastime are examined, but how to assure baseball its proper place in the modern world of the twenty-first century requires additional thought and contemplation.



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