- A People’s History of Baseball by Mitchell Nathanson
More than just a sport or game in the United States, baseball is considered the “national pastime.” For more than one hundred and fifty years society has ascribed cultural, historical, indeed emblematic importance to baseball and how it reflects American values and beliefs such as equality, heroism, and capitalism. In his well-written and cogently argued book, A People’s History of Baseball, Mitchell Nathanson, a professor of legal writing, challenges these established narratives and provides “counter-stories” that raise questions about power, manipulation, and truth. A People’s History of Baseball is not a traditional, chronological history of the sport; rather, it is an attempt to deconstruct the prevailing romantic and patriotic narratives of baseball. In doing so, Nathanson provides the reader new perspectives of historically entrenched stories about baseball history.
A People’s History of Baseball is organized into six chapters with overarching historical themes and episodes: the rise of baseball and the founding of the National League; the autonomous and sovereign nation of Major League Baseball with its extralegal authority; Branch Rickey, race, and integration of baseball; the rise of the players, their union, and the transformation of the game; the denial of history and the concepts of collective versus [End Page 554] individualistic thinking; and finally the sportswriters and their role in preserving and propagating the accepted narrative of baseball. Probing social, political, economic, legal, and cultural history, Nathanson questions how and by whom the narrative of the history of baseball is and has been constructed and suggests that beyond the superficial surface of baseball’s history is a darker side of control, egoism, greed, suppression, and the egregious manipulation of fans and truth.
Central in baseball’s narrative is the belief in the transformational quality of baseball, the “baseball creed.” The origins of baseball in the mid nineteenth century, Nathanson argues, are embedded in social policy, economic standing, and especially the values of the Protestant-WASP establishment, and games were played to demonstrate a superior social status. After a period of turmoil and scandal which destabilized baseball, club owners initiated a coup d’état and founded the National League in 1876 as an “owner’s league” where all control over players (such as the all-important Reserve Clause of 1879) and league governance rested with them. It was an exclusive, elite club whose member-owners journalists praised as saviors of Victorian values. While society changed with immigration shifts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so too did the baseball creed. Baseball offered immigrants and children a chance to acculturate into mainstream American society, club owners were seen as promoting “American” values and contributing to an American identity, and as Nathanson writes, “baseball became more than just a game but symbolic of America as a whole” (p. 27). Baseball “magnates” championed the superiority of their game and themselves, institutions deferred to the overt patriotism of the game, and the federal judiciary and legislature reinforced baseball’s political, social, and legal power. When the reputation of baseball and its creed were once again questioned in the wake of the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, the result was the concentration of power in a newly established commissioner and friend of the owners, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who was given authority to take any action he felt necessary to protect baseball as an institution and ensure the moral integrity of the game. Baseball created its own system of justice separate from federal law, including its authority to ban and punish players.
Nathanson has researched thoroughly, writes persuasively, and does not shy away from challenging even the most revered narrative in baseball: Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, and the integration of Major League Baseball. Insightfully, Nathanson points out that despite the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) decision institutionalizing segregation, Major League Baseball and its Commissioner Landis publicly denied the existence of a color barrier in baseball and punished anyone who contradicted him. Far from being the result of Branch Rickey’s humanity, compassion, and belief...