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  • Baseball and DissentThe Vietnam Experience
  • Ron Briley (bio)

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Sporting News, speaking for the baseball establishment, editorialized that the sport would do its part in the war effort, asserting that “in all the history of baseball there never was a conscientious objector or a slacker in the ranks.” During the early 1950s, Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick proclaimed that organized baseball would support the ideological Cold War as well as the shooting war in Korea. Frick insisted that the national pastime would indoctrinate youth on the virtues of democracy and “remain a proud part of our ideal way of life.”1 Such patriotic rhetoric made the case for baseball’s inclusion within the national consensus.

In a similar fashion, professional baseball embraced the flag after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Rallying to the refrain of “support the troops,” the baseball establishment endorsed American military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. Games often begin with salutes to the troops, and telecasts often include shots of soldiers in the war zone watching their favorite teams. Baseball is portrayed as providing an essential morale function for the troops. Well-compensated professional baseball players are reluctant to challenge this nationalistic hegemony.

First baseman Carlos Delgado, however, is a notable exception. During the 2004 season, sportswriters began to notice that Delgado, then playing for the Toronto Blue Jays, disappeared into the clubhouse when Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” was played. After 9/11, Berlin’s tune replaced “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in many parks, especially Yankee Stadium. Delgado took exception to this practice, arguing that the song was being used to justify American military intervention in Iraq rather than to honor the victims of 9/11. Terming the invasion of Iraq as the “stupidest war ever,” Delgado stuck to his principles, despite jeering and chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” when he played in Yankee Stadium.2 [End Page 54]

Delgado’s dissent, however, did not prevent him from signing a four-year, fifty-two million dollar contract with the Florida Marlins in 2005. While some in Florida complained about Delgado’s politics, his new teammates welcomed the acquisition, which they hoped would lead to another World Series appearance for the franchise.

The baseball establishment did not appear overly threatened by Delgado’s lone dissent. The 1960s and the Vietnam War, however, were another time and place. With dissent permeating the culture, the sport was less tolerant of those who questioned authority or military policy. Baseball officials embraced the Vietnam War, but there was a considerable gap between their rhetoric and actions. Before addressing baseball and dissent during the Vietnam era, it is necessary to briefly examine how the sport responded to World Wars I and II, as well as the conflict in Korea.

The United States entered World War I in the spring of 1917, but the conflict did not immediately impact the sport. Lacking the drama of a triggering event such as Pearl Harbor, ballplayers did not flock to the colors. It is often forgotten that there was considerable opposition to the war and conscription among working-class Americans. Baseball owners attempted to demonstrate their patriotism by raising funds to purchase athletic equipment for servicemen. But any expectation that the game might remain exempt from manpower needs was crushed in May 1918 when the government issued a “work or fight” order. The order established July 1 as the deadline by which young men in nonessential industries, such as baseball, would become eligible for the draft. To complete the season, baseball officials were able to get Secretary of War Newton Baker to extend the deadline until the first of September. Major League Baseball concluded its 1918 season on Labor Day, followed by the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs.

After the season, players either obtained jobs in factories producing war-related products or joined the military. Approximately 225 players entered the armed services. Although the war ended in November 1918, Eddie Grant of the New York Giants was killed in action, and Christy Mathewson was the victim of poison gas exposure on the Western Front...


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pp. 54-69
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