The One Constant Through All the Years:

Baseball and Its Myths

Americans have played baseball almost as long as they have been Americans. Lewis and Clark played catch during their trek to the Pacific, and men organized the first game just outside of Brooklyn as congress debated a fugitive slave law. The game quickly grabbed the nation, and game scores dotted newspapers beside news of Sherman's march through Georgia.

Yet even from baseball's very beginnings, Americans never saw it as just as game. Uniquely American, baseball would soon become the National Pastime. "Like everything else American it came with a rush," 1870s star baseball player John Montgomery Ward wrote. "The game is suited to the national temperment" (qtd. in Ward). The romanticization of baseball, however, was by no means confined to its players. It is the game of our national poets. Whitman wrote of it as did Frost. The game has enraptured presidents and paupers, robber-barons and radicals, and it has kept its resonance through many decades of change.

In the almost two hundred years baseball's existance, Americans have packed baseball with so many of their most profound and cherished beliefs that the game itself came to represent a sacred American belief. As the nation drifted away from its Jeffersonian ideals--abandoning the farm and crowding into cities, using and abusing capitalism to achieve material wealth at the cost of fair play, and suffering through defeat and poverty--the baseball field marked a small area where such dreams seemed possible once more (Edgar & Sklansky 13-14).

Developed chiefly during antebellum America's rapid industrialization and urbanization, baseball is a pastoral game. A primarly urban sport that succeeded precisely by removing the city-dweller from urban life. The lush greenness of the baseball field marked a return to nature, simplicity, and purity. Like Jefferson's yeomen farmer, who achieved the greatest exiliration tilling his soil, the ballplayer and fan returned to the peace and beauty of nature long vanquised in the nearby bustling city. As Whitman writes, "Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms.... The game of ball is glorious" (qtd. in Burns).

Baseball also offered an escape from the rapidly developing, cutthroat capitalistic world. If the paper bureacrat that so drew Jackson's ire continued to succeed in the city, on the baseball field hard work and talent alone determined worth. The game reenacted Jefferson's idea of a natural aristocracy, where rank and privilige got no chance at bat. In baseball, the greatest ballplayers would rise to the top. Indeed, baseball history is replete with those that support this myth: Babe Ruth, the barkeeper's son that became the greatest player in the game's history; Joe DiMaggio, son of an immigrant fisherman, who captured America's imagination; and Jackie Robinson, grandson of a slave and son of a sharecropper, who played tremendous baseball while changing the game and the nation. Using such examples, baseball teased America into belief in this grand meritocratic vision. Like the pastoral landscape, baseball gained so much mythical and metaphorical power, since it seemed to exhibit a way of life that America valued yet had abandoned.

Tied to its grand cultural myths, baseball simply provides a refuge and escape. As it offered mid-18th-century America an escape from the failures of its Jeffersonian dream, so it gave the average ball fan a refuge from the pressures of daily life. On the field stood none of America's and the American's rapidly accumulating problems. The game continued through bad times and good, through depression and through world war. A favorite implement of nostalgia, baseball harkens back to a simpler time, where life was more manageable, understandable, and fair. As baseball columnist Thomas Boswell puts in late twentieth century terms: "Born to an age where horror has become commonplace, where tragedy has, by its monotonous repetition, become a parody of sorrow, we need to fence off a few places where humans try to be fair, where skill has some hope of reward, where absurdity has a harder time than usual getting a ticket" (218).

Filled with the thwarted dreams and maudlin reminiscence of eight generations, baseball has become a vehical, perhaps the vehical, of American nostalgia. As fathers play catch with sons, they no doubt remember a simpler time--less material, less violent, less corrupted by drugs. In its 150 years of existance, baseball itself has come to stand as the symbol of a bygone age and an irrecoverable past. As America has taken turns to corruption and greed, only baseball has kept on the early, idealistic nation's road. Ingrained into the mind of every American is that baseball has remained the same for nearly a century and a half years. Baseball broadcaster Bob Costas speaks about this myth: "So many things in our country have changed drastically, as they must, over the years and over the decades, and although baseball has changed, its essense remains the same. It's one of the enduring institutions in our country, and I think we take some comfort in that" (qtd. in Burns). Baseball--forever historic, forever connected to the past--forms one of the few ties that bind Americans of the last century and a half.

Even in today's more cynical culture, baseball's mythology still holds powerful resonance. Despite dipping attendance figures at the World Series and increased frustration with the industry, Americans still cherish the myths of baseball. Never can this be seen more clearly than in Phil Alden Robinson's "Field of Dreams" released in 1989. Indeed, nowhere else in the nation are America's myths so neatly tied up and spit out as Hollywood. Ignoring the baseball of its day, Robinson, using the a book by W.P. Kinsella, carves upon an Iowa farm field all of baseball's most sacred myths. The pastoral game springs from a corn field. The myth of timelessness produces legends of the past, who make the seemingly short stroll from eternity to second base. The use of the banished Shoeless Joe Jackson and Black Sox asserts the preeminance of the game as refuge--apart from, even superior to the rules and regulations of daily life. Nowhere, however, does the rhetoric of baseball myth sound more triumphantly than Terrance Mann's (played by James Earl Jones) speech about baseball as "the one constant through all the years" (Robinson). As Jones tells the star, Ray Kinsella:

Hear Jones' speech from "Field of Dreams"

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 could be again (Robinson).

In the language of nostalgia, Jones' character alludes to America's abandonment of its dreams, boasting the need to not only remember the past but to, through baseball, claim it again.

Pastoral, historic, escapist, baseball has carried many ideas and myths through the years. Yet this combination of the ancient and pure Jefferson dream with a nostalgic view of the past make baseball's mythological sum more than any of its individual myths. Baseball becomes sacred. Not only uniquely American but possessing the key to the lost promise of America--promising, somewhere along the basepaths, to offer all the great ideas of the national existance, of a better time and a better country.

The myth of baseball, like all great myths, continues into today simply because the nation wanted to believe it. People need a tie to the past, to traditions, to some greater sense of meaning, and baseball offers this--for merely the price of a ticket and a hot dog. Baseball similarly functions as a myth in that the story remains even after the cultural impulses of the time in which the myth was created have disappeared. While few Americans still share Jefferson's fascination with the yeomen farmer, the pastoral beauty of baseball endures. Even though few fear the big cities--they are now simply a fact of life--the need to escape the bustle of daily life persists, and baseball remains as powerful as ever. It seems historic and unchanged precisely, because that is how people, yearning for a tie to the past, wish it to seem.

The myth of baseball's immaleability continues even despite its constant changes. During Flood's trial, New York Times' writer Leonard Koppett mocks the sacred idea of "'baseball as we know it'", asking "as who knows it? And when?" (qtd. in Flood 205-6). Koppett goes on to list the myriad of changes in baseball: astroturf, expansion accross the country, the advent of the draft, the lengthening of the season, etc. Despite all this, however, the myth endures because it carries so much cultural capital essential to the American people. Baseball remains until this day a symbol of a simpler, country past and the sacred aspirations of America.

In his 1971 book The Way It Is, Flood wrote that "to challenge the sanctity of organized baseball was to question one of the primary myths of the American culture." While showing a keen insight into the nation, Flood could not even begin to guess how much baseball would prove to mean to America.

Introduction Labor History Flood's Life Flood and the 60s Black Power Breaking the Deal The Courts Legacies

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Maintained by Pat Brady
Last Modified: December 21, 1997