Baseball is steeped in the notion of myth and the existence of a narrative declaring the game to be a bastion of good and American wholesomeness. Such contrivances interfere with the study of history, making it difficult to find works associated with baseball that are able to push through such obstacles. With the publishing of A People’s History of Baseball by Mitchell Nathanson, the baseball history genre may finally have something that lays the American pastime open for all to see- warts and all; a true historical study.
Nathanson’s approach, as suggested by his title and his methodology, is exploring baseball with the type of brutally honest lens popularized by historian Howard Zinn. As it turns out, his title is not the only way he mirrors Zinn’s approach. Like Zinn, Nathanson makes it clear that he believes history should be about the truth and not used to reinforce popular beliefs or narrative. His discoveries also show how consistently actions within and by baseball have violated a variety of principles typically held dear by Americans. Surprisingly, such inconsistencies have either been ignored or supported by the masses, who refuse to see the game beyond its mythical imagery. Describing baseball as “an emblem of America itself,” both the good and the bad, Nathanson strives to show the game as more than a sport and highlights the significant role it has played in the national social fabric.
An overarching theme of the book is the way that baseball has marketed itself through the years. The game has done everything in its power to be seen as the embodiment of Americanism. Nathanson posits that this started in the earliest days of the professional game, as owners wanted a way to gain entry into the WASP elite. Early owners were typically not from “old money” and thus, needed a way to launder their reputations in order to be made more respectable and acceptable. Later, that same narrative served as a way to draw paying customers to buy all things baseball. Immigrants got in on taking advantage of baseball’s burgeoning national reputation by playing, attending, and talking about the game as a way to more quickly establish their identity as an American.
The history of baseball became so corrupted by its idealistic narrative that Nathanson has a broad canvas on which to work. He is particularly fascinated by how baseball has often operated above the law- both formally and judicially. He asserts that some players like the Black Sox and Pete Rose were banned from the game by actions that flew in the face of due process and even jury trial outcomes. Baseball commissioners from Landis to Selig are described as having “initiated and presided over a prosecution where he was the investigator, prosecutor, judge, and jury…” Despite these violations of players’ rights, Nathanson argues that such matters have barely caused the public to bat an eye despite being so incongruous with American values- the very things baseball supposedly represents.
Especially egregious to Nathanson are the decades Major League Baseball was able to flaunt anti-trust laws and inhibit the growth of player’s rights as employees; in direct opposition of what was happening with general American labor. Despite the big money generated by baseball, they were able to slip by for years with being explained away as a non-business entity. Courts and public opinion deemed them to be a representation of Americanism, and vehemently avoided identifying them as the business they actually were. This hypocrisy led to years of unfair control over players and their lives.
Other areas explored in A People’s History of Baseball include a re-telling of the game’s integration, exploring how some smaller market teams have often been rewarded for playing the perpetual underdog role, and the way the traditional baseball narrative has been encouraged and supported through various means; particularly manipulation by the media. Baseball traditionalists may feel that Nathanson’s positions are blasphemous, but historians will applaud his straightforward and academic approach.
None of the topics covered by Nathanson are fresh, but what makes his work so compelling is the historian’s approach he takes in his examination; something that is sorely lacking in the genre of baseball history. A People’s History of Baseball offers a rare opportunity to get a true sense of reality from America’s pastime, without the information being diluted or spun in a way to maintain the narrative that has been so pervasive. It is safe to say that many readers may never view baseball the same way again after reading this thorough and interesting book.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book being reviewed by the publisher, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.
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