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A Quick Innings

Vecsey, George. 2008. Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game, New York:  The Modern Library.

I am reading books on baseball yes I am.

Perhaps baseball is one of the most incongruous sports. Its slowness and efforts at maintaining tradition are matched by its will to innovation and dislocation. Clubs move around the States losing and disenfranchising fans; once genteel ballparks are transformed into kitsch cathedrals of noise and consumption. The greats of the game have their records doubted for drug abuse; while those accused feel the persistent presence of racist prejudice. There is as much to like about the game as there is to like: its cyclical rhythms, the ways it keeps ‘history alive’, the multiple narratives that are played out in any single game. Nostalgia collides with innovation: all-purpose stadia (used for American football) with their astro turf and acres of empty space have disappeared and been replaced with boutique ‘new old stadia’ incorporating idiosyncratic spaces and retro-references.

The story of baseball is that of its rise as the ‘American pastime’ and the simultaneous rejection of cricket and rounders. The game spread westward and clubs were established one by one, with the league setting a limit on 16 teams. But, the game was off limits to African Americans: institutionalised racism saw the foundation of the Negro leagues. Black Americans fought for the US in wars, but when they came home, they couldn’t play, forcing to play in Mexico and Cuba. Jackie Robinson’s arrival at the Brooklyn Dodgers and his accomplishment as a player paved the way for black athletes. Faced with persistent racist taunts he fulfilled his commitment of not being provoked into retaliating. A revealing phone call between Vecsey and Robinson some decades after his retirement shows, however, his awareness of the battles yet to be won. Robinson asked Vecsey down the line, “so, how many blacks in your office?”, to which Vecsey could only reply “none”.

Vecsey, a long-time sports columnist for The New York Times, provides a quick overview of the major issues and themes that have been played out in baseball throughout the 20th century. Baseball, inseparable, from the social conditions of where it emerged and is played, reflects the troubles and extravagances of the US. And there is much that is troubling. Racism, corruption, match-fixing, hyper-commercialisation, dishonesty. Vecsey concludes though, that baseball is like a drunk pedestrian crossing a busy highway who eventually makes it safe to the other side. He finds its essence not in the mega games played at Dodger Stadium, but in the playing of  an old version of the game, ‘town ball’, which is played on the 4th of July. It is ‘frolic’ rather than ‘sport’. This conclusion is rather unsatisfactory as the frolic of town ball is too far removed from the realities of the contemporary, corporatized version of Major League Baseball which is the focus of the book and the interest of his readers. This is only a minor misgiving; anti-climactic given the dramas he had outlined in the previous chapters.

This book, seamless in its writing and smooth in its reading, is a guide book, rather than being exhaustive. Vecsey gives the outlines of the Black Sox scandal, Robinson’s biography, the Negro leagues, the game’s radio culture, the ‘yuppification’ of the game and the dilemma of the dominant Yankees. Fortunately, the extensive bibliography gives pointers on where to head to next.

Reading Sideways