Baseball is one of the oldest games in America. Whether you follow it or not, it is deeply ingrained in our culture and our history. In my Sports in America history class, I recently took a large chunk of class time to show The Tenth Inning from Ken Burns’s Baseball PBS series. Sports are such a huge part of our culture. They intertwine with our lives socially, economically, morally and sometimes politically. Sports competition is a metaphor for business, political candidacies, casual relationships and academics. They also mirror our society in its troubles, successes, pessimism and optimism.
We see globalization in politics and economics expanding in our professional sports. We see cheating in college sports as much as we see it in college academics. We see scandals of the familiar variety blown up in the media. We see uncommon philanthropy quietly pursued on the sidelines, in the off season. We see winning motivate hard work and greatness, as well as shortcuts and duplicity.
Watching Ken Burns’s wonderful work, a tapestry of contemporary music, sports photography, sports writers and history, one observes the escape from Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals to the juiced home run race of McGuire and Sosa. Almost no one wanted to talk about steroids then! Sports reporters recalled the cocaine scandal of the ’80s and shuttered. One also notes down in Houston a stadium still named after Enron. And, one recalls with chills and tears the season of 9/11 when everyone who had begun to detest the New York Yankees suddenly rallied behind them . . everyone outside of Arizona, that is.
It is serendipity that I happened to show this concurrently with the Barry Bonds perjury trial and Opening Day-week. In full disclosure, I am not a baseball fan, but I am a romantic for its entanglement in America’s past–I envy baseball fans. (While I live in Baltimore, I keep an eye on the hometown Pittsburgh Pirates, despite their indomitable success at losing, and shake my head at the incompetence and greed of Pirate’s ownership daring to operate in the same city as the Rooney family and Mario Lemieux.) Otherwise, I am fully on the outside looking in, not fully comprehending the rules and beauties of the sport, but nonetheless appreciating its entrenchment in our culture.
Part of baseball’s magic is that it is played in the summer. But, the other part comes from its roots, predating the Civil War, and being integrally caught up in American history.