Hey 32nd president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, if you were to try to sell the game of baseball to someone in America, what would you say?
“Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost,” responds FDR (yes he actually said this, but he is actually talking about why he wanted baseball to continue during World War II). Well jeez, I’m sold.
Etched into the fabric of American culture and identity is the game of baseball. Branded “America’s Pastime” Major League Baseball (MLB) is the oldest of the big four men’s professional sports leagues in the United States, with 30 teams divided between the aptly named National League and American League.
American fans of baseball have all heard the story of how baseball was organically created by Civil War general Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York (the eventual location for the Baseball Hall Of Fame). An American military hero who fired the first shot in defense at Fort Sumter, Doubleday invented baseball through good ol’ American originality, imagination, and industry.
The origin story was confirmed in 1905 when a team of baseball hierarchs including two United States Senators commissioned an investigation into the origins of baseball. Chicago Cubs President, former player, and sporting goods magnate Albert Spalding (look at any basketball) and National League President Abraham Mills headed the commission.
After the “Father of Baseball” Henry Chadwick wrote in 1903 that baseball comes from a similar game in England called “rounders” (Chadwick also invented batting average, ERA, box scores, and the “K” abbreviation for strikeouts), Spalding and Mills were mobilized to find a way to legitimize baseball as American. According to baseball historian Harold Seymour in “How Baseball Began”, variations of games with “ball” or “base” in the name have appeared in the United States since the Revolutionary War and throughout all of recorded history globally.
When the Mills Commission was finished in 1907, the report stated that baseball originated in the United States in 1839 by General Abner Doubleday. The only evidence used as proof was a recollection by a one-time citizen of Cooperstown, Abner Graves.
However, there is no evidence that Doubleday was ever in Cooperstown and nowhere in his personal writings is there any mention of baseball. The Abner Doubleday baseball origin story is only a story- branded to fit an authentic American narrative. The Doubleday legend was simply a Spalding invention. It is a myth started by baseball hierarchs who didn’t want to see their game not seen as their own.
The MLB benefits from branding themselves American the same way other corporations do- nationality bias. Consumers in an American market want to buy American goods. The nationalist folk who love America will by extension also love baseball because it is American.
At a banquet in 1889, a decade and a half before the Commission, Abraham Mills said that “patriotism and research” made it clear that baseball was American in origin. According to Seymour, the audience enthusiastically responded by saying “No rounders!” With or without truth to the myth, baseball going forward was forever part of the American identity- and nationalism.
The MLB has been rewarded for its nationalistic branding by the United States government. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was passed to promote competition and prevent corporations from monopolizing entire markets. However, the Supreme Court ruled in Federal Baseball Club v. National League in 1922 that the Sherman Act didn’t apply to the MLB. Major League Baseball was given full control of the baseball market in the United States with permission from the law- an unprecedented legal status that the other professional sports leagues don’t have.
While the MLB gets their back scratched by U.S. law, the United States government uses the MLB for their own personal goals of imperialism and military domination. The Pentagon spends millions of dollars of taxpayer money on patriotic displays during professional sporting events. A professional baseball game doesn’t start without the national anthem being played. During The Star-Spangled Banner, a battle song written during the War of 1812, everyone in the stadium has to take their caps off and place their left hand on their heart in order to show obedience to the flag and the military and the country.
On Opening Day, military planes fly over the stadium in celebration of the sport’s return. Veterans spread a baseball field-sized American flag in the outfield. Every president from William Howard Taft to Barack Obama has thrown out the first pitch before a game. Most teams wear camouflage uniforms at least once a season in honor of the military (the San Diego Padres wear them for every Sunday home game). Camo hats are available for purchase in the team store.
In 2011, news of Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of the US military was reaching the phones of citizens at a Mets-Phillies game in Philadelphia. Fans watching on TV were already told the news on the broadcast. A crowd of 45,000 began chanting “USA” in celebration of the death of the founder of Al-Qaeda. The players on the field, unable to access their phones in the middle of a baseball game, must’ve been really confused about the sudden patriotism displayed by the fans. “It’s for me,” David Wright nicknamed “Captain America” whispers to Carlos Beltrán in the dugout.
Nobody told these fans to start the chant, they did it voluntarily and it spread throughout the stadium. This is the result of a century-long conditioning between the MLB and the United States government, creating citizens who come together in celebration of the death of a United States war criminal. This is what the Abner Doubleday myth, National Anthem, camo uniforms, military planes, and presidential first pitches are for- creating citizens who buy into and support the militaristic values of the government.
It is dangerous to tie a sport so intrinsically to a nationality, as the politics of the government ends up determining the politics of the sport. The military and nationalist behaviors and values of the government ends up determining the behaviors and values of the sport itself. Going to a baseball game isn’t just going to a baseball game. Not when the glorification and obedience to the military are subtly installed onto citizens during it.
Baseball fans who disagree with warfare and the pointless death of innocent people are forced to comply with the nationalistic rituals at the ballpark. A baseball game should be just a baseball game. Instead, they have been coopted to partially become American military propaganda, used as a tool by the government to condition citizens to be nationalistic and adopt the hyper-militaristic values of the country.
The game of baseball itself is not American, but a variation of games already existing globally. Baseball was falsely branded American, a narrative backed by powerful people in baseball to become permanently instilled into the hearts of Americans. As 33rd President Harry S. Truman once said, “May the sun never set on American baseball.”
Click here for more baseball content from Sports Are From Venus.