Blogs > HNN > Murray Polner, Review of Ron Briley's "The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad" (McFarland, 2010)

Jun 18, 2010 1:39 pm

Murray Polner, Review of Ron Briley's "The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad" (McFarland, 2010)

Baseball may no longer be the national game but its admirers proudly and rightfully assert that after decades of discrimination it overcame widespread racism within its ranks when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a Brooklyn Dodger contract. The game, as it is affectionately referred to, represents a classless society, open to all comers and is part of the permanent American landscape, or so its many loyalists have always argued,. It is also an opiate warding off upsetting events outside the ball park. Proudly, if often superficially, patriotic, celebrating our nation’s far too many wars, even the unjustified ones, baseball leans on the language of nationalism, jingoism and militarism. On national holidays, for example, baseball now honors veterans of our recent wars, but as Michael L. Butterworth concludes in his piercing essay in this splendid anthology about baseball’s “Welcome Back Veterans” ritual, “it fails to ask how and why they ever had to leave in the first place.”

Ron Briley’s rich and absorbing collection of essays challenges the general tone of fawning coverage of baseball’s importance in American life. Adding a noteworthy qualification, Briley writes, “Some would have us believe that baseball, and sport in general, represents a meritocracy in which political power and discrimination fail to intrude.” In fact, as the essays conclude, it really reflects much in our culture and society at home and abroad and is replete with legends and myths.

The Politics of Baseball is an anomaly in the usual literature about the sport in that its essays pose hard questions and offer keen critiques about sexual orientation, salaries, the former Boston Brave Sam Jethroe (an especially poignant essay by Jeremi Duru outraged at the treatment this African American player received at the hands of baseball’s owners, adding proposals to avoid similar situations in the future), and how baseball has been used to support economic and political U.S. domination of Central America and Caribbean nations, described in Robert Elias’ impressive essay “Exporting the American Dream: The Hidden Side of Nicaraguan Baseball.”

Mention must first be made, however, of Ron Briley’s seminal paper “Baseball and Dissent: the Vietnam Experience” (Nine, Fall 2008), regarding baseball and patriotism. In his study, Briley points out that in all probability (my words) a tacit agreement existed between Major League Baseball, the government and Selective Service during the Vietnam War whereby players (together with many non-baseball sons of the rich and powerful) were granted slots in the home front National Guard and Reserves. As Rep. Lucien Nadzi (Dem-Michigan) once complained, “hanky panky” was involved to keep the players safe at home. It hasn’t changed. While baseball's owners and officials cheer on our two wars, and no doubt all future ones too, no big league player since 9/11 has yet to enlist. Nor to my knowledge have the owners’ kids and their media circle.

Michael. L. Butterworth, who teaches at Bowling Green State University, would no doubt agree with the paper’s sentiments. He opens his essay with an admiral’s popular, if trite, view of baseball: “There is nothing more emblematic of what the American way of life is than baseball.” And why not? The national anthem began to be played in every park before games during WWII. Irving Berlin’s pop tune “God Bless America” has become a second anthem during the seventh inning stretch in many ballparks, though when Carlos Delgado, then a Toronto Blue Jay, refused to stand when it was played because of his objection to the Iraq invasion and the U.S. Navy’s bombardments of Vieques in his Puerto Rican homeland, he was roundly booed by fans. In fact, Butterworth writes, “MLB ballparks have routinely been used as sites bolstering the cause for war,” whatever the cause, even the Tonkin Bay and WMD fabrications.

Butterworth concentrates on MLB’s “Welcome Back Veterans” program because, he says, it ignores why we are bogged down in the Middle East, multiple wars which have thus far buried more than 5400 U.S. Americans, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Middle Easterners. WBV, he writes, “offers services to veterans that should be provided by the U. S. government” (see the wealth of recent literature how recent national administrations have poorly treated returning Vietnam, Gulf, Iraq and Afghan vets). No one disputes the generous help WBV provides, but Butterworth rightly insists that the massive and sophisticated assistance wounded vets deserve must come from Washington, not from handouts by well-meaning fans and philanthropists.

More problematic, however, is Scott D. Peterson’s main subject, the Daily Worker sports editor and columnist Lester Rodney. Peterson’s “Red Press Nation: The Baseball Rhetoric of Lester Rodney” is a thoughtful look at one who championed racial desegregation on and off ball fields while most white sportswriters remained indifferent, bland and vacuous. “Rodney’s status as an outsider allowed him to unmask the myths created in the mainstream press and call for social change,” notes Peterson.

In 1937, (and thereafter), Rodney’s first year as sports editor and columnist, he did just that. He also occasionally went far afield, backing labor unions for players (taboo to owners and their flacks) and the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War plus a variety of worthwhile causes during the Great Depression. He also liked to rely on exaggerated metaphors. In the reserve clause era, Rodney portrayed holdout players as “ hav[ing] as much chance with the owners and their stooge Judge Landis as a German worker has with Hitler and Goebbels.” A bit overstated, given that workers in his Party’s revered Soviet Union faced the same restrictions as their fellow workers to the west.

In 1937, Peterson tells us, Rodney offered yet another gem: “Don’t be surprised if on opening day, the baseball players raise their arms in a fascist salute before the umpire calls Play Ball.” In retrospect, 1937 was an ill-timed year for an American Communist to write about baseball’s alleged proletarians. In Moscow, Alexei I. Rykov and Mikhail Bukharin, two Old Bolsheviks, were arrested and then executed in 1938, setting off the infamous Moscow show trials. Throughout his Worker career, Lester Rodney avoided that sort of story. True, he did at times write tough, outspoken columns that, as admirable as some may have been, nevertheless reflected the shifting policies of the Communist Party, whose patron saint and his sycophants in Moscow were busy murdering and exiling millions of people.

Fortunately, since the sixties, we have sportswriters without ideological blinders who write about sports and social justice, as have the scholars in Briley’s anthology.

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