Baseball Books Reviewed: The Empire Strikes Out

The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U. S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad by Robert Elias (The New Press, 418 pg., $27.95). HB 2010.

Given the fulsome nature of the sub-title it hardly seems necessary to say what this book is about, but in the event there is any question let me quote two sentences from the front flap of the dust jacket: ”Is the face of American baseball throughout the world that of goodwill ambassador or ugly American? Has baseball crafted its own image or instead been at the mercy of broader forces shaping our society and the world?” The book title should tell you how he answers the questions. Those answers are based on a broad reading in the history of the United States and the history of baseball, reading reflected in the almost one hundred pages of footnotes. The result is a fascinating, if daunting narrative.

Before proceeding further I must say that to a large extent, though not completely, I agree with his take on the histories of both the United States and baseball, not because he convinced me, but because I already had arrived there on my own. That said I still found some of his conclusions overdrawn. That and the necessary complexity of the argument are what makes for the daunting narrative. One of the jacket blurbs proclaims that the book "should be required reading for anyone who considers themselves (sic) a baseball fan ...." Well maybe, but I can imagine, indeed I know, some ardent baseball fans who will toss the book aside without finishing it.

Elias begins the story long before baseball had become a game of note since to define baseball's role as promotor of and/or instrument of American nationalism one must understand the context in which that sentiment developed. It was a context shaped by wars: the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, wars against Indians, the Civil War and more wars against Indians: all of which were preludes to the first real adventure in American imperialism: the Spanish American War, (1898-1890). Elias argues that these and many subsequent martial actions were shaped by the idea of American exceptionalism. Coincidently, baseball had launched a world campaign of its own, notably but not exclusively manifested by Albert Spalding's world tour of 1889-1890. Spalding, who would be instrumental in the shaping and selling of the Abner Doubleday myth, also authored one of the most telling affirmations of exceptionalism with his statement that baseball "As no other form of sport ... is the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness; American Dash, Discipline, Determination; American Energy, Eagerness, Enthusiasm."

Although the globalization of baseball can be characterized in the words and efforts of Spalding, Elias reiterates an argument made by others that baseball has taken deepest roots in areas where Spalding's tour did not go, Japan and the Caribbean, that is non-English-speaking, non-white cultures in which the engine of the baseball gospel was driven by military, economic and political interests. The chapter titles best delineate his argument. I will not recite them all, but here are some examples: "Small Wars and the Old Army Game (1898-1909)," "From Home Front to Horsehide Diplomacy (1919-1940)," "Revolution and Quagmire (1953-1975)," and "Foreign Policy on Steroids (200-2009)."

Each of the chapters details how baseball contributed to the response to international events or was shaped by them. With World war II already raging in Europe as the 1941 baseball season began, The Sporting News, "The Bible of Baseball" piously noted "Europe's national pastime seems to be war; America's is baseball .... War broke loose in America this week--but instead of rifles, bayonets, cannon, machine guns and airplanes, it is a battle of bats and balls. That is the American way--the Baseball way. God has blessed America and baseball offers a place where rivalries can be settled without bloodshed or slaughter of innocents." Soon enough that bubble would burst, and the publisher of The Sporting News, J.G. Taylor Spink would declare "Think of these men who now play, but soon will fight, and remember that they will take baseball with them. in their hearts--that, if through the fortunes of war and the will of God, they fall; the spot where will lie will be forever America, and Baseball." Elias didn't make this stuff up.

On another note Baseball led the way in introducing the practice of singing the National Anthem before the start of athletic events, to which in the wake of 9/11 has been added "God Bless America" as an appropriate way of observing the seventh inning stretch. For all that, Elias recognizes that Baseball's pre-eminence as The American Game has been challenged by the growth of other sports and most particularly by football which has very consciously--at least in its professional form--tried to extend its appeal beyond North America. (Even as I write this Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, has declared the league's desire to have a franchise in London.)

Elias shares George Will's view that "Football combines the two worst elements of American society: its violence punctuated by committee meetings." Indeed Elias argues that the emergence of football occurred during the years of the Vietnam War when Americans were hardened to violence by the nightly bombardment on television news and the argument over the war spilled out into the streets. Footnote 57 to Chapter 11 (p. 276 referencing comments on pp. 262-3) provides a mini-bibliography affirming that view. Among the references the most eloquent is Donald Hall's statement that "Baseball is a country all to itself ... football is a psychodrama, brothers beating brothers, murderous, bitter, ending with the incest of brotherly love, and in the wounds Americans carry all over their bodies."

This argument is not a mere aside. Elias is severely critical of American foreign policy from the late 19th century on and critical as well of baseball's readiness at times to support less than high purposes and to employ less than noble means. But the criticism in both cases comes from affection. Though he does not employ this distinction he does not question American Patriotism, but American Nationalism. It is the lattter which produces the arrogance of American exceptionalism, the former which treasures the land, the people, the promises of freedom. The book concludes: "Of course there are limits to how a sport can shape a nation. Even so what kind of society does baseball really want to reflect? It might do better by letting football beat the war drums while baseball instead pushes the nation to live up to its ideals."

Reviewed by: William J. McGill (November 15, 2010)