THT book review: A People’s History of Baseball

In A People’s History of Baseball, SABR member and professor of legal writing Mitchell Nathanson borrowed his title from Howard Zinn. In return, Nathanson gave back a concise look into baseball’s history of mythmaking. Nathanson’s work is a look at—for the lack of a better way of saying it—the history of baseball history. Early on, he explains that his goal is to lift the veil on some of baseball’s most enduring myths.

He breaks down the coverage of the “Black Sox Scandal” and the beginnings of the Major League Baseball Players Association, but he doesn’t just review the events. Instead, he takes his reader into the social and philosophical mood of the country and explains that the most important men in baseball have always worked very hard to promote the game as the embodiment of what most of us feel are “American” values.

While a specific story like Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson‘s integration of baseball shows a different side of a familiar tale, it’s the overall theme of baseball’s history of weaving it’s own narrative that makes this book enjoyable. Those with a broad knowledge of our country’s social history will appreciate the links the author makes from that history to the game of baseball, and baseball fans in general should enjoy it, as well.

The book tells how the earliest owners, or club backers, were often “new money” magnates who wanted to join the rank of society’s elite. As baseball as a game is somewhat patterned after cricket, so too were the earliest team backers patterned after cricket’s club owners. Nathanson points out that the status that cricket’s most powerful men held was what baseball’s earliest owners sought to emulate.

To help elevate their place in society, baseball’s early leaders often sought to portray baseball as a “gentlemanly” sport, where membership was not open to just anyone. They hoped such exclusivity might propel them into a higher class in society. Of course, in patterning themselves after the elite, they took on some negative attributes as well. Nathanson argues that baseball’s stance on an issue like segregation in particular sprang forth from such aspirations to appear elite.

The author points out that the game trumpeting American values needed outsiders like the Daily Worker, a communist-backed newspaper in New York City, to pressure baseball into holding tryouts for black players. The narrative—once baseball was forced into action by outside pressure—quickly became one of Rickey bravely finding Robinson to break baseball’s color line.

The accepted story of baseball’s integration contends that Rickey needed the “right kind of man” to handle racism. Therefore, Rickey picked his spot to make the transition successful for Robinson and allow subsequent black players to get a fair chance. This “Great Experiment,” as it came to be known, in America’s most important game, paved the way for the rest of the country to follow.

Nathanson writes that this narrative downplays the reality that Rickey was desperate for talent for his ballclub and was willing to look where other owners would not in an effort to find players. It also helped Rickey that those players would be cheap and represent an untapped market due to the prejudices of baseball’s owners, whether Rickey was devoid of that prejudice himself or not.

Nathanson also argues that the man who became known as “the father of baseball,” Henry Chadwick, also hoped to elevate baseball’s status in society. Chadwick, who covered the game relentlessly when relatively few covered it at all, not only raised awareness in the game but also took every opportunity to promote it as a game played by gentlemen.

Fitting in with the larger theme of the book, Chadwick wrote of a game that mirrors the very spirit of our country. Other journalists followed in Chadwick’s footsteps, and baseball’s unique place in American culture was formed through years of lavish praise in print. A bond eventually formed between owners and writers. It was a bond, argues A People’s History of Baseball, that would confine the coverage of baseball to predetermined storylines for decades.

Since baseball’s owners sought promotion and early sportswriters sought access, Nathanson says the two groups fed off each other to establish baseball’s reputation as being a symbol for American values. The author uses the “Black Sox Scandal” to show that one of the biggest stories in the history of the sport may have never appeared in print, since many writers at the time chose not to pursue the story.

Nathanson notes that while others ignored the story, only one writer followed the clues. “Were it not for the tenacity of Hugh Fullerton…” he writes, gambling and game fixing in baseball would have continued to be swept under the rug. For, despite rumors around the game concerning stars like Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb, owners had refused to investigate the allegations in order to avoid the embarassment of what they would likely find. Nathanson tells how Fullerton, suspicious during the World Series between the White Sox and Reds in 1919, had his stories squashed by papers like the Chicago Herald-Examiner.

The owners, fearing their game may be tarnished, were afraid of the story getting out. Newspapers, fearing negative stories about something as sacred as the World Series, were afraid that sales would suffer. The story is a great example of the continuing theme of the book, where storylines that threatened to unseat baseball as the shining example of everything great about our country were kept hidden by the owners and often buried by reporters if found out.

Nathanson points out that baseball’s response to its gambling problem, in addition to being slow, also brought a consequence that only helped baseball further shield itself from negative press. That consequence came in the form of the commissionership of baseball. Once baseball was forced to confront the gambling issue, owners selected Kenesaw Mountain Landis as commissioner, a man who Nathanson says owners at the time considered “a longtime friend” and a “protector of the American way of life.”

Landis was quick to conclude that the “Black Sox Scandal” was a lone example of game fixing and, as an example to his seriousness, he doled out severe punishment to a few while acquitting further reports of impropriety quickly in an effort to limit the damage of the scandal.

The attitude surrounding gambling in baseball that Nathanson describes is reminiscent of how we’ve seen baseball handle performance-enhancing drugs in the sport. There were remarkable storylines after baseball’s last labor dispute. There was a rags-to-riches tale of a foreign player learning the game as an impoverished youth while playing with old milk cartons for gloves before chasing down the game’s most significant records. There was a player who was reminiscent of a folk hero like Paul Bunyan—a man who was big, heroic, and All-American.

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But when confronted by public relations disasters like the investigation of BALCO, some of those feel-good stories lost their glow. The result was the Mitchell Report, which included the findings of George J. Mitchell. Readers of A People’s History of Baseball realize that in many ways it is the same song and dance now, since it was reported that Mitchell had ties to baseball owners.

Grantland Rice and his contemporaries were beautiful writers. But, as Nathanson points out, the beauty of some writers’ prose has sometimes focused more on the good story and hidden the comparatively boring, or sometimes even ugly, reality of baseball. David Simon, the writer behind the acclaimed television series, The Wire, has often spoken on this subject. Simon believes that adding narrative to facts can make the story more real, even more truthful, in some ways. But he has also argued that you can’t make up facts to fit your story.

Nathanson shows that baseball writers didn’t have to “juke the stats,” as a Simon-created character might say. Interesting stories were always there, but sometimes the focus has been on what fit owners’ and writers’ preconceived notion of what baseball should be. Once those groups became heavily invested into that notion, Nathanson says it was too easy for owners to ignore topics like segregation and for reporters to essentially become shills.

A People’s History of Baseball concludes with a look at the transformation in baseball coverage, spurred initially by outsiders like Bill James and now grown into a revolutionary form of media.

James can, and does, often say things about a player that a beat reporter might not. And while he’s an early example of a good writer holding a more objective view from afar, there are legions of writers stepping in to continue that type of analysis, and many are doing it without a press pass.

And while traditional media looks down on “bloggers” and their ilk, the situation is no different than newspapermen looking down on radio or radio men looking down on television. The attitudes have been consistent over the past 100 years; only the media and calendar change. The author predicts it will happen again.

There is much to like about this book. However, one thing that may have made it even better would have been the addition of more detailed background on some of the most interesting topics. Perhaps the author feared bogging down the book if the 1919 World Series between the White Sox and Reds was rehashed. However, the broad storyline may have just added to the enjoyment.

A deeper look into the series in question, perhaps with examples of Hugh Fullerton’s series of articles questioning the integrity of the game and any contrast with other sportswriters of his day, may have brought even more life into the work. In the end, it’s hard to call that a complaint, at least not when taken essentially as a request for more to read from the author.

Succinct writing is often appreciated. However, succinct writing will not often be found by a historian examining baseball’s earliest narrative-shaping scribes. Perhaps Nathanson simply wanted to avoid writing anything that might resemble work from Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner since he feels that it’s that type of almost romantic sportswriting that actually helped baseball shape its own mythology.

References & Resources
A People’s History of Baseball is available from the University of Illinois Press or through bookstores. You can also order online at Amazon.

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“Landis was quick to conclude…lone example…”  The best known book about the 1919 World Series scandal is “Eight Men Out”.  Bill James, in all editions of the “Historical Baseball Abstract”, has an article entitled, “22 Men Out”, which covers about 1917-1927.  A few of these additional 14 were non-Sox connected to the series fix, but many of them were kept out of organized ball for things that had nothing to do with the that.  The last fixed game that got any of these banned was in 1924.