A People’s History of Baseball

I kinda hate the phrase ‘revisionist history.’  It suggests illegitimacy.  Like, there’s an actual factual ‘real history’ that everyone knows and agrees to, and then there’s some sort of politically correct ‘revision’ of real history, which right-thinking folks probably shouldn’t pay much attention to.  Sorry, no.  There’s just history, our understanding of which constantly changes as new evidence is uncovered or as our interpretation of history causes us to reappraise evidence that’s always been there.  As James McPherson once put it, “revision is the life-blood of historical scholarship.’  Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is a brilliant example of first-rate history writing, telling the story of America from the perspective of workers, women, Native Americans, African-Americans, immigrants. It’s a wonderful book, but it would probably be somewhat unintelligible to someone who doesn’t already know quite a bit about American history.  It’s intended as a counterweight, a response to book shelves groaning under the load of history books about statesmen and politicians.

So building on Zinn, we now have Mitchell Nathanson’s A People’s History of Baseball.  Basically, what he’s arguing against is, well, this. James Earl Jones great speech in Field of Dreams.   Baseball is innocence and honor and goodness, baseball is America’s pastoral dream, baseball is father’s and sons playing catch.  Baseball is America.

What Nathanson points out is that baseball is a commercial entertainment enterprise, and always has been. The myth of baseball was carefully constructed and maintained for the benefit of owners, some pretty ruthless business people guarding their bottom line.  It was in their interest to preserve the myth of owners as benevolent public servants, patriotic American sportsman, acting in the best interest of a nation in need of the kind of healing only baseball could provide.  “For money they have, and peace they lack,” says James Earl Jones, in those marvelously rounded tones.  Owners, like Ray, the Kevin Costner character, will provide them that peace.  And the people will hand over their twenty bucks happily, in order to achieve it.

Now, I actually think it would be worth twenty bucks to see a magical baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield, watching Tris Speaker and Lefty Grove and Honus Wagner and Shoeless Joe Jackson play baseball.  I think that would be wicked awesome. I’ve happily forked over my twenty (and a lot more), to see Buster Posey and Tim Lincecum and Marco Scutaro play and they’re not even dead yet.  I like baseball.

But I also recognize that the American myth of baseball is pretty well nonsense.  Nathanson’s right about baseball’s owners, a group of elderly dinosaurs who through most of baseball history were as greedy as they were incompetent.  Most owners, protected by their preposterous anti-trust exemption (and further insulated by two of the most nonsensical Supreme Court decisions in history: Federal Baseball Club v. National League (1922), and Flood v. Kuhn (1972), could make a profit every year without actually being good at their jobs.  The Curt Flood decision is truly amazing, with 8 pages of rhapsodic mythologizing from Harry Blackmun, quoting Casey at the Bat and other extra-illegal irrelevancies.  But that’s the kind of fairy tale that people believed in, and it’s the reason the Kansas City Athletics, for example, could draw tiny crowds, trade all their best players to the Yankees every year, and still operate in the black.  They felt no responsibility to their fans, didn’t market the game at all, made no effort to construct a winning team, and yet such were the vagaries of baseball ownership that they still could be profitable. Owners built a clearly illegal reserve clause into player contracts, treated ’em like dirt, and convinced the public that professional ballplayers should be grateful for the opportunity to play and that any effort on their parts to fight for anything like fair pay was, basically, Bolshevism.

Nathanson does a nice job of exploding some favorite narratives.  One is the myth of Saint Branch Rickey.  Baseball maintained a de facto color bar for years, refusing to allow African American players to play major league baseball.  When the first commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, died, it became clear that the main institutional impediment to integration was gone.  According to the myth, Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ owner, had always been appalled by the treatment of African-Americans, and had wanted to integrate for years.  In ’46, he found ‘the right player’ to accomplish it–a genuinely great player, but also a guy with the courage to not fight back.  Jackie Robinson fit the bill, and became the first black major leaguer in 1947.

Well, maybe.  But Rickey was, in every other sense, a conservative.  He certainly had never shown the slightest interest in civil rights in any other arena in life prior to ’47.  Essentially, Nathanson suggests, Rickey figured out that if he signed the first black player, he would have first pick of all the black players trapped in the Negro leagues.  It was about talent acquisition, not morality.  He was seeking a competitive advantage.  And while Robinson was a brilliant player, and an incredibly courageous civil rights pioneer, in fact baseball’s approach to integration was piece-meal, uncertain, and very very slow.  Baseball integrated, but at ‘all deliberate speed.’  Within fifteen years of Robinson, baseball teams seldom had more than 2 black players; a superstar, and his road roommate.

Every chapter in Nathanson’s book deals with one particular topic; there’s a chapter on Robinson and integration, one on ownership, one on the labor movement and the Player’s Association, and so on. I especially enjoyed his chapter on sportswriters, and their willing participation in the mythologizing of baseball.  Nathanson points to Bill James as the pioneer of contemporary baseball writing; as the antidote to Grantland Rice et al.  I love Bill James, and think he’s a genuinely seminal figure.  In fact, the last quarter of Nathanson’s book is essentially a valentine to Bill James.  But Nathanson’s description of James’ work misses four points.

First, James was also an important figure in baseball’s labor movement.  He worked closely with player agents negotiating contracts, especially when it came to salary arbitration.  In one of the earliest collective bargaining agreements, players won the right to arbitration.  Players would submit a salary figure, the owners would present their proposed salary, and an impartial arbitrator would decide between them.  The rules meant that the arbitrator could only choose one of the two numbers before him; he couldn’t split the difference, say.  And players figured out pretty quickly that their arb had a much better chance of winning if it was supported by a Bill James statistical profile.

Second, James probably did less to explode the myth of baseball than other writers did, especially such players’ autobiographies as Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.  Nathanson completely ignores Bouton (and other books, like Jimmy Piersall’s Fear Strikes Out and Ted Williams’ My Turn at Bat).  I’m not sure baseball’s had a more influential book than Ball Four.

Third, (and this is a huge omission) Nathanson ignores James’ crusade to free the minor leagues.  Baseball isn’t just the story of the major leagues.  For every major league player, there are ten professional ballplayers who never make it to The Show.  Well, why should minor league teams be completely enslaved, completely subservient to their major league masters?  I live in Utah; Salt Lake has a good team.  They’re in the Anaheim Angels’ system.  I know, if it’s late August, and Salt Lake’s in a tough pennant race, the Angels are perfectly capable of ‘calling up’ Salt Lake’s best player, if only to bolster their bench.  Well, I like the Salt Lake team; I don’t give a hoot about Anaheim.  Major league baseball clearly engages in restraint of trade, and because of its anti-trust exemption, nobody calls ’em on it.  Except one writer: Bill James.

Fourth, Bill James is also a first-rate baseball historian.  And yet his Baseball Historical Abstract (absolutely the first book you should read if you’re interested in baseball history), is never mentioned by Nathanson.

So I like Nathanson’s book a lot.  It’s passionately written, and I learned a lot from it, and it caused me to re-think some issues relating to my baseball fandom.  It’s also a flawed book in many ways, less revolutionary than I think Nathanson imagines it to be.  I’d love to see someone else pick up on its ideas and expand them.  If you know a lot about baseball, it’d make a nice supplement to your baseball library. It’s a good book about baseball by a guy who likes Bill James a lot.  Well, me too.   I just sort of hoped it would be more than that.




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