- Shaping the Image of the Game: Early Professional Baseball and the Sporting Press by R. Terry Furst
It is hardly surprising to assert that media shape sport’s significance and uses. While media’s impact on sport is clear, teasing out the intersecting contexts that contribute to this process of meaning making is challenging. Focusing on nineteenth-century baseball in the United States, R. Terry Furst’s Shaping the Image of the Game has gamely taken on this task. His book explicates how the sporting press contributed to the construction of meanings that would eventually be viewed as essential to the game that would become the “national pastime.”
Furst’s study considers the “complex of factors” through which “the collective image of baseball was formed.” The press, Furst contends, played a crucial role in this complex by negotiating cultural norms, traditions, and the United States’ still-nascent national identity en route to contextualizing, judging, and promoting the sport. Focusing primarily on the American Northeast, Furst treats baseball reporting as “the data of history” to reconstruct how this collective image was fashioned. He combines his historical investigations with social scientific theorizations of often-oversimplified concepts like “the image” and “public” to make clear the broader cultural stakes of the sporting press’s representations of baseball. These media texts, his study shows, did not simply report on games but also built communities, traditions, and even realities.
Shaping the Image of the Game’s seven chapters compose three major parts. The first three chapters consider the sociohistorical contexts out of which baseball emerged by focusing on shifting attitudes toward leisure, physical culture, and amateurism during the nineteenth century. Notably—and contrary to myths surrounding baseball’s American heritage—Furst locates the game’s roots in English sporting culture, a heritage the U.S. sporting press has obscured. The following three chapters—the book’s strongest portion—explain the sporting press’s positive and negative reactions to baseball. The press, Furst explains, celebrated baseball’s relationship to health, masculinity, and nationalism. It also helped establish the sport as a suitable activity for adult participation—not merely a child’s game—and institute it as a distinctly American spectacle. On the other hand, the press criticized gambling, fraudulent play, and roving players-for-hire who competed for the highest bidders. Furst’s final chapter uses the contested compensation of players to illustrate baseball’s development into an endeavor that simultaneously serves as leisure and as work. [End Page 250]
It is worth noting that Furst is a professor of anthropology in a criminal justice department. This book was his dissertation, which he defended in 1986. Indeed, it reads like a dissertation—a good one but one that features multiple lengthy literature reviews and dozens of block quotations that distract from the scholarly contributions it aims to make. Unfortunately, Furst made only the most superficial changes to his dissertation before packaging it in book form. At one point, he even refers to the book as “this dissertation,” which indicates a lack of editorial care. This is not to say that his dissertation does not deserve book treatment; however, a more careful revision would have improved it tremendously.
The biggest problem with Shaping the Image of the Game is that Furst’s source material has not been updated since 1986. A glance at the bibliography reveals no engagement with sources that have been produced since the middle 1980s. Much work has been produced since the ‘80s—a collection that includes Warren Goldstein’s Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball and Ken Burns’s Baseball—that would no doubt aid and enrich Furst’s analyses. It is difficult, if not impossible, to make a significant scholarly contribution when one ignores the last thirty years of scholarship produced on a topic.
Despite its flaws, there is much to admire about Shaping the Image of the Game. Its historical research is impressive, and it offers an overview of how the contexts...