How Baseball Echoes U.S. Immigration Patterns and Social History

Filed in American Culture by on October 10, 2014 0 Comments

Photo by Lance Berkman.

By John Rebstock.

Sports are an integral part of world culture, and it’s impossible to go anywhere without coming across a local game. Canadians are known for loving hockey, Southeast Asia and the West Indies for cricket, and most of the rest of the world for association football, but America’s National Pastime is baseball.

Baseball holds a unique place in the fabric of American life. The season extends for over half the year, from spring training in early March through the waning days of October, and is played almost every day in most of the major metropolises of the nation.

Baseball is also unique amongst American sports for being both a one-on-one and a team-oriented game. It is a metaphor of both the spirit of individualism and the value of team work that is central to the culture of the United States. The goal for the pitcher is simple: throw the ball past the batter three times, before they can hit it into play. The batter’s goal is also simple: hit the ball into the field of play.

This is the heart of the individual struggle of the game, but if the batter hits it into play, it becomes a team game in full; there are eight other players on the pitcher’s team, all trying to catch the ball and throw the batter out before he safely reaches a base. If the batter gets there, we start all over again with a new batter, as the previous batter attempts to round the bases and return home. At a deeper level, the strategy of the game can be as complex as that of a chess match with decisions of seemingly minor importance having a great impact on the outcome of the game.

The history of baseball reflects the immigration patterns and social history of the United States. Major league baseball in the early twentieth century was dominated by players of German and Irish heritage, such as Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. Through the middle of the century the Negro leagues housed teams in cities across the nation. The integration of major league baseball, beginning with Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby in the late 1940’s, and continuing through the 1950’s, foreshadowed the social changes of the next two decades. More recently, the influx of major league players from Latin America and East Asia is a direct reflection of current immigration and economic ties that contribute to our current social fabric.

American English is shaped by baseball in many subtle ways. Ever hear someone describe a great success as “hitting a home run,” or mention “striking out” when they try to do something and fail? Have you heard someone say they were “thrown a curveball” when something they weren’t expecting happens, or describes the first thing they do as “right off the bat?” “Can’t get to first base?” Odds are you’re having relationship trouble.

All these, and more, are references to baseball. Even baseball movies provide new phrases for our vernacular. “If you build it, they will come,” which is used to suggest that supplying something will generate demand, comes from the baseball movie Field of Dreams.

While there are films, and musicals, and televised events aplenty, the best way to experience baseball is to go out to a game, sit with the crowd, and take it all in for yourself. It doesn’t have to be a major league game, either: there are lower tier professional leagues, colleges, high schools, little leagues, and clubs all over the nation, all taking part in this great game every day.

Have you attended a baseball game during your time in the United States? Let us know in the comments below.