- Expanding the Strike Zone: Baseball in the Age of Free Agency by Gilbert, Daniel A
Daniel A. Gilbert is a cultural historian teaching in the Labor Education Program in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois. He has developed this book from his dissertation, completed for the American Studies program at Yale. Overall it is a solid and innovative piece of work, five essays on baseball as a culture industry bound on either end by a fine introduction and an epilogue.
Gilbert’s argument springs from the common observation that “an overwhelming amount of baseball storytelling involves two complex and intertwined themes: work and place” (p. 2). He writes that baseball “mediates between work and play” (p. 2), and throughout its professional history, owners have used the sport’s “exceptional status as idealized play to enforce unique forms of exploitation” (p. 3). Likewise, baseball is also about place or territory, both on the field and “within the larger geography of cities, regions, and nations” (p. 4). [End Page 510]
Gilbert contends that “the final third of the twentieth century saw significant transformations in the structure of both work and territory in the baseball world” (p. 5). Professional baseball abandoned racial segregation and began to recruit on what had been the other side of the color line. Shortly thereafter, baseball officials negotiated agreements with professional baseball in Japan and sought new domestic markets by moving franchises across the continental United States. Subsequently, owners responded to gains made by the Major League Baseball Players Association “by creating more flexible modes of control over the recruitment and development of future generations of athletes” (p. 5).
In his first chapter, Gilbert surveys baseball’s integration and expansion, both of which he calls “transnational developments” that “created the conditions out of which the age of free agency would grow” (p. 11). He emphasizes the key position baseball in pre-Castro Cuba and Japan held in the sport’s development, and he reviews how, after integration, Organized Baseball sought to rationalize its relationships with leagues in Mexico, the Caribbean, and modern Japan, simultaneously expanding throughout the continental United States.
The bulk of the second chapter is a solid summary of baseball’s labor relations since 1946, events that are familiar to those who have read Burk, Helyar, Korr, Lowenfish, and Miller. Gilbert’s twist is his contention that as the players’ union sought an increasing share of expanding revenues, “players enacted what amounted to a new cultural politics of property rights” by asserting “authority over their own public images by multiple means, from tell-all memoirs to rebellious hair and uniform styles” (p. 43).
The third chapter focuses on pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, both as “a marketable commodity” and as a personification of the players’ attempt “to win a greater share of the industry’s profits” and as “evidence of the great untapped resources accessible through Latin American scouting” (p. 83). Gilbert concentrates his analysis on the prolonged players’ strike of 1981 and contrasts it with the less successful efforts of ANABE (the Asociación Nacional de Beisbolistas) to improve the lot of players in the Mexican League.
The final two essays continue in much the same fashion. Chapter 4 looks at the efforts of major league clubs to control the supply of Latin American players, especially Dominican players, by establishing academies that secure prospects at a young age. Chapter 5 examines the Seattle Mariners’ contribution to Pacific Rim baseball as exemplified by the career of Ichiro Suzuki.
Like other books born of dissertations, there are some infelicities here as Gilbert occasionally pushes the argument where it really does not want to go. It is easy to say that new “genres of baseball journalism appeared in the postwar decades,” but a bit of a stretch to assert that Roger Angell “established himself as one of the sport’s most influential critical voices” (p. 36) in the early 1960s when very few in baseball’s mainstream were reading...