The Chronicle Review

Baseball and the Business of American Innocence

Rob Tringali, Sportschrome, Getty Images

April 03, 2011

Football may get the highest television ratings, but no one should doubt that baseball is America's most literary sport. The game has a natural affinity to narrative: Each contest unfolds like a measured story, and the gaps in the action leave room for embroidery of all kinds. And embroidery there has been, with the romance of baseball proclaimed—against evidence that baseball is a big business, and often a venal one.

How does popular culture maintain such contradictory views of the national pastime in suspension? Let's revisit that question, in the game and its literature, as the season opens once again.

In the bravura opening chapter of Underworld (1997), baseball provides the warp and woof upon which Don DeLillo weaves a pano­rama of American postwar culture, including Jackie Gleason, Schrafft's, and the specter of Soviet nuclear tests. That atomic intrusion into an urban pastoral setting reflects a shift in baseball literature that dates from 1970, when Jim Bouton's landmark Ball Four, a candid player's diary, almost single-handedly bankrupted the remarkably long-lived myth that baseball players live in a state of perpetual boyhood as they play a boy's game. Bouton lay bare the activities of the players (including sexual escapades and amphetamine abuse) and team management (whose hardball negotiations held down player salaries).

Many authors of baseball books since Bouton have not hesitated to strip their subjects pruriently naked—and baseball literature now chronicles not only the airbrushed good old days but also the reality beneath the sepia tint. Jane Leavy's recent The Last Boy (2010), for example, provides a more, ahem, balanced look at Mickey Mantle than we've yet seen. Michael Lewis's influential Moneyball (2003), an insider's look at the workings of baseball's personnel decisions, continues to inspire adjustments and rebuttals. The latest is Sheldon and Alan Hirsch's The Beauty of Short Hops (2011), which argues for the limits of statistics in evaluating baseball performance. We may certainly expect many new books about steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in the coming months and years.

Through it all, though, the romance of the game has mostly endured—one need only look to the unending flow of books that celebrate the game's past and present. According to one online source that catalogs recent entries, a new baseball book appears approximately every two-and-a-half days. There are still old-fashioned hagiographies written for children, like last year's Joe Mauer: From Hometown Hero to MVP; stories of teams, like The Mets Journal (by John Snyder, 2011); of seasons, like The Cardinals and the Yankees, 1926 (by Paul E. Doutrich, 2010); and even of ballparks (Take Me Out to the Ballpark Revised and Updated, by Josh Leventhal, 2011). A double handful of novels about baseball also appear each year. From romance to business and back again—the inconsistencies of our popular fascination with baseball continue, as my co-editor and I found in The Cambridge Companion to Baseball, our new survey of the game's history and place in American and global culture. That's what makes it so difficult to reform the abuses that also persist, some of which extend beyond U.S. borders, like the widespread exploitation of young prospects by predatory agents in the Dominican Republic.

The romance of baseball has lately been enabled by a deepened fascination with the numbers that quantify the sport's perform­ances and define its records. Fantasy Baseball both reflects and enables this increased focus on statistics. It's a popular armchair game for fans who form their own "teams" composed of real-life players, whose real-life performances are measured each day. Among the baseball books published each year are numerous guides for fantasy players that offer esoteric statistical analyses of hundreds of players.

The emphasis on the numbers calls even more attention to player records in a sport that already has a long history of honoring such marks. So it was news a year ago when retired slugger Mark McGwire called a news conference and admitted that he had used steroids during his glory years more than a decade earlier. McGwire begged forgiveness. "I shouldn't have done it," he said, "and for that I'm truly sorry."

McGwire's narrative of confession—preceded by his awkward and evasive Congressional testimony on the subject in 2005, when he refused to "talk about the past"—was accompanied by a leaden clang rather than a thrum of harps. Mc­Gwire's earlier silence under oath had exposed the truth of the matter years before his public admission.

The dissonance of Mc­Gwire's confession goes beyond his own place in history. It exemplifies the history of baseball in the United States, and even the place of the game in the world today.

Baseball is a sport that has proclaimed its own innocence at every turn. As the national pastime, it gained an early identity as a pastoral fantasy that has been exploited by commentators of all stripes. Even the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs proclaims baseball as "the game of innocence and growth." A Google search linking baseball and innocence yields more than a million hits.

Baseball locates its fount of innocence at the furthest possible remove from the crass world of moneymaking. Some of the greatest baseball stories, like Bernard Malamud's The Natural (1952), hint at actual magic on the baseball diamond, legerdemain that maintains deliberate distance from the counting of ticket receipts. Baseball's most famous scandal, the throwing of the 1919 World Series by members of the Chicago White Sox, who came to be known as the Black Sox, gained its dangerous potency from the way that it mingled moneymaking with play on the field. As essays on baseball literature and film in The Cambridge Companion discuss, the enduring icon of this version of lost innocence remains "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, a member of the Black Sox who was banned for life, but who has been immortalized in W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe (1982) and in the 1989 movie based on the novel, Field of Dreams. My own essay on Pete Rose, a tortured exile from baseball despite his heroics on the field, extends to our own time the threat of gambling to baseball's image of innocence.

All sports (with the exception of horse racing) try to steer clear of the taint of money, but baseball has succeeded better than most for a long time. There's a charm to baseball's Elysian fantasy, and it's captured in the figure of Babe Ruth, the game's most beloved figure. Ruth is remembered as a man-child of prodigious talent and appetite whose home run hitting for the New York Yankees captured the imagination of millions during times of both prosperity (the 1920s) and depression (the 1930s).

His boyish love of the game notwithstanding, Ruth held out repeatedly for more pay dur­ing his most productive years. His highest salary, in 1930 and 1931, was $80,000, the equivalent of about $1,250,000 today. When his performance fell off to numbers that were still superstar quality, the Yankees swiftly cut his pay. In 1934, his last year with the team, he made $35,000.

Ruth used the tabloids as the arena for his salary battles with ownership, and he played the media organ perhaps more skillfully than anyone else. By contrast, the Yankee owners successfully portrayed Joe DiMaggio as greedy when he held out past opening day in 1938. He capitulated to the team's salary demands and returned with a $25,000 salary to widespread boos. The Yankees' principal owner, Jacob Ruppert, announced, "I hope the young man has learned his lesson."

Especially in light of recent events in Wisconsin and elsewhere, it's worth dwelling on the lack of public support for baseball's workers. DiMaggio's case has been replayed many times since. The public has proved fickle when professional athletes hold out, often showing a tendency to overlook the owners' existence and to pressure the players to be satisfied with what they have. Even players have felt that way. Bob Locker, a relief pitcher during the 1960s and 1970s, recently said in an interview that "most players wanted to 'bend over backwards' for the ownership, since they were our employers, and we appreciated a chance to play a sport and earn a living. We had no idea how one-sided the situation really was." As late as 1967, the average baseball player's salary was less than $20,000, with paltry pension benefits.

The story of free agency is familiar by now: A union activist, Marvin Miller, succeeded in uniting the players, who eventually dragged owners to the table. The players won free agency (that is, the workers' right to sell their services to the employers of their choice) in a landmark 1975 arbitration ruling, and their sala­ries shot up. The story of baseball's management-labor relations since then has been one of contumely and fractious conflict—a saga with no heroes, starring a commissioner who works by shuttle diplomacy rather than convening owners to discuss a problem together or set an overall policy, and a suspicious union that blocks even sensible reforms, like those aimed at curbing banned drugs.

It's not just our nostalgia for the idealized innocence of the sport that makes us avert our eyes. Look more closely at the patterns of public support. Baseball has always been a big business. Owners were even granted an antitrust exemption in 1922, a few years after crushing a rival professional league. That exemption amazingly persists to this day, when a middle-of-the-pack team like the Cleveland Indians is valued by Forbes magazine at more than $400-million. But as Andrew Zimbalist points out in his chapter in the Cambridge Companion on baseball's economics, unlike in other successful businesses, baseball's owners have never wanted to look rich or even particularly successful.

In public conflicts between now-wealthy baseball players and incredibly wealthy baseball owners, public sympathy continues to whip back and forth like a reed in a crosswind. Consider the following figures: 90 percent of those polled in 1996 believed that professional athletes were paid too much; by contrast, only 49 percent did not believe in 1997 that "most successful people on Wall Street" deserved their paychecks.

Baseball acts as a prism that refracts conflicting American attitudes toward big business and labor. The journalist Matthew Josephson wrote in 1934 of how the "successful baron of industry" received "naively ecstatic" media coverage and "general public consent." In the late 19th century, the financier Henry Clews declared successful businessmen as "the modern nobility." But despite anger at Wall Street, his words have lost little currency since. A century later, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous had established itself as a long-running television hit. Andrew Carnegie's The Gospel of Wealth distracted attention from his own immense wealth by talking about the importance of philanthropy. Today, it has been joined by the so-called "prosperity gospel," which sees the Bible as the original success manual.

Looking at baseball shows us how Americans perceive inequality: They are as likely to identify upward as downward. And the failure to reform baseball (which matters in its own way) corresponds to a reluctance to reform other American institutions (which matters more). The tendency of baseball fans to reach for the dream and elide the reality corresponds to the credulity that Americans still maintain toward big business—with potentially dire consequences.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is the story of a man who isn't what he says he is: He's a bootlegger rather than a genteel millionaire. He loves a woman who isn't the paragon he thinks she is, but he loves her with a passion so powerful that it somehow transcends the lies and naïveté from which it springs. It turns out that Jay Gatsby, né James Gatz, by his own account a spectacularly self-made man, was "made" by a gangster named Meyer Wolfshiem. Fitzgerald wants us to under­stand the fathomless depths of Wolfshiem's mendacity, so he has him wear human teeth as cufflinks—and ties him to fixing the 1919 World Series.

Gatsby's tragedy thus becomes inseparable from the glorious dream that inspired it and the seamy reality that supported it—and, in a way, from baseball. The game's presence in the background is appropriate, for baseball blends ethereal dreams of innocence with earthbound truths from the world of experience.

And that seems about the right way to look at the game. Let's enjoy baseball, but not lie to ourselves about what it represents.

Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English at Fordham University and a sometime sportswriter. He is co-editor, with Stephen Partridge, of the recently published The Cambridge Companion to Baseball.