- Constructing a National Pastime
On September 23, 2017, Oakland As catcher Bruce Maxwell knelt with his cap over his heart, eyes on the flag, during the national anthem. With this bend of the knees, Maxwell became the first, and only, Major League Baseball player to join a growing list of football and basketball players who have used the stage offered by professional sport to draw attention to the effects of racism in the United States. Coverage of Maxwell's gesture centered on just how rare his political statement was in baseball, a sport known for being overwhelmingly white and conservative. Up until then, sportswriters and media had taken for granted that the cult of the clubhouse and assumptions about team unity would prevent any ballplayers from joining their peers from the gridiron. Jon Tayler of Sports Illustrated responded by invoking the narrative of baseball as a progressive force in U.S. society. He pointed to the legacy of Jackie Robinson and hoped that the gesture, long overdue in his opinion, might be the first of many.1 Tayler's article and the debates surrounding the demonstrations by professional athletes against structural racism reveal the tensions in the often-contradictory narratives constructed around professional sport. Yet, the narrative of baseball as a progressive force in the United States is intertwined with the enduring narrative of exclusion. New books by historian Debra Shattuck and sportswriter Jim Leeke reveal how leaders in professional baseball, sports media, and government shaped the meanings that Americans have associated with baseball. While Shattuck's analysis centers on how officials constructed this narrative to exclude women from not only the national pastime but national citizenship through the nineteenth century, Leeke's descriptive narrative exposes the financial interests and class tensions behind baseball owners' performance of patriotism during World War I. [End Page 465]
Read together, Shattuck's Bloomer Girls: Women Baseball Pioneers, and Leeke's From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball during the Great War reveal how baseball boosters constructed the sport as a "manly pastime" in the nineteenth-century and how they manipulated baseball's status as the national pastime to protect the business of professional baseball during World War I (Shattuck, p. 17). Shattuck defines her purpose as an attempt to uncover how "150 years of history and cultural tradition [and] the power of myth in shaping that history" led to "a deep-seated antipathy to girls and women playing baseball" (p. x). By contextualizing the narrative of girls and women playing baseball with scholarship on gender and nation and U.S. baseball history, however, she goes further to suggest the lasting effect of this antipathy on not just women in baseball but women in U.S. society. In the process of evaluating the effects of World War I on Organized Baseball and baseball's contributions to the war effort, Leeke reveals how baseball officials in 1917 relied on the narrative of ballplayers as embodiments of what President Wilson called the "'young and virile manhood of the profession of baseball'" to deepen the connections between baseball and the national interest (pp. 65–66). Their performance of patriotism and calls to defend liberty and democracy built on claims by nineteenth-century boosters, sportswriters, and newspaper editors to defend the national game and the national dignity against the social disorder threatened by women breaking from their role as "moral guardians of the bleachers" to take the field (Shattuck, p. 28).
When the perceived physical strain of baseball failed to keep women off the field, baseball boosters resorted to predictions of a failed social order. Shattuck reveals the connections that sportswriters and newspapers drew between women and girls playing baseball and the women's movement, including a warning in 1868 that the proliferation of girls' ball clubs indicated that "the fair sex are likely to secure their...