Speak Softly, and Carry a Big Bat

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A hard-hitting history of horsehide diplomacy.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES OUT: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad
By Robert Elias C’72
New Press, 2010. $27.95.

By Ben Yagoda | Baseball is the national pastime. The very obviousness of that statement explains why Robert Elias has hit on a nifty subject for his latest book. The game is so wrapped up in American history, iconography, and lore that even medium-core baseball fans know next to nothing about its tangled dealings with and extensive impact on the rest of the world. And that is what Elias, who teaches law and politics at the University of San Francisco, lays out in The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad.

The title and subtitle suggest the book’s general view of this history, which is not an approving one. The early years are relatively benign, as Elias relates how, as early as the Revolutionary War, American soldiers spent their off-hours playing early versions of baseball. Even George Washington got into the act. In 1779, an observer wrote, “Today he throws and catches a ball for whole hours with his aides-de-camp.” 

In post-Civil War America, the sport somehow became caught up with the expansionist Manifest Destiny creed and, later, with US foreign interventions. Elias quotes Walt Whitman, no less, as envisioning baseball “accomplishing the rondure of the world spreading … the ‘American atmosphere’ to Australia, Asia, Africa and Europe.” The poet was presumably speaking figuratively, but, drawing on an impressive body of primary and secondary sources, Elias describes how the sport really did become an instrument of US expansionism in the decades before and after the turn of the 20th century. In 1888, sporting goods manufacturer and all-around baseball titan Albert Spalding and a group of major league players attempted to spread the sport’s gospel to Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, Ceylon, Italy, France, and England. It apparently was met with deaf ears in Egypt, which Spalding claimed didn’t surprise him: “In a country where they use a stick for a plow and hitch a donkey and a camel together to draw it … it is hardly reasonable to expect that the modern game of baseball will become one of its sports.”

The attitude discernible in that remark—smug, paternalistic, with a whiff of racism—was a regrettable constant in the years ahead, as baseball was an uncannily consistent accompaniment to US military incursions in Cuba, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. Not only did the American troops play ball in all these places, but, with varying degrees of success, spread baseball fever to the natives and in so doing co-opted them. (The capacious Latin American representation in today’s major leagues is a legacy of those years—a legacy with an exploitative dark side Elias thoroughly explores.) 

In a parallel rhetorical process, baseball metaphors and analogies crept into all kinds of discourse, the general idea being that the game represented all that was special and great about our country. During World War I, former Chicago Cubs owner Charles Murphy commented, “What a pity Germany does not play baseball! If [it did] its people would never engage in a war of conquest.” In addition, it was frequently asserted that the specific skills developed by baseball directly led to US military success. General Pershing claimed, “In grenade and bomb throwing, Americans became proficient in a few days drill. I attribute this to baseball.” And Yankees owner Tillinghast “Cap” Huston said, “Marksmanship was instinctive with our soldiers. The feats of Daniel Boone and ‘Buffalo Bill’ were not exceptional. But it was baseball that fine-tuned the soldier and his shooting eye.”

Baseball continued to be a weirdly prevalent instrument of ideology, on through World War II, the Cold War, Vietnam, and up to the Gulf Wars, and The Empire Strikes Out does an excellent job documenting this history. What the book could use is more explanation of how it happened. The closest Elias comes is the idea of “national pastime trade-off”—a phrase that he puts in quotation marks but seems to have coined, and which he defines as the longstanding agreement whereby baseball “must religiously toe the official government or military line in return for being able to maintain its claim as the national game.” This is intriguing but insufficient: We need to know when and how and by whom the agreement was made, and Elias does not tell us. Not that he is required to provide the minutes of a secret meeting between the commissioner and the secretary of state, or some other smoking gun. But a reader can legitimately expect an explanation of how the tradeoff came about and has been implemented.

The problem actually shows up on the very first page of the introduction, where Elias writes that baseball has “sought to equate itself with American masculinity and patriotism, and with US military endeavors in particular.” Baseball is a game, and thus can’t seek to equate itself with anything, or in fact take any action or have any motivation. In fact, Elias uses baseball as the subject of his sentences so frequently (starting with the book’s subtitle) as to reveal an epistemological flaw in his entire argument. He has a lot of blaming to do but too often hasn’t thought enough about whom to blame.

The blaming intensifies in the book’s final chapters. They are the weakest ones, in part because they cover familiar ground and in part because Elias frequently takes his eye off the ball and takes shots at US policies and actions that have nothing to do with baseball, for example devoting two paragraphs to a critique of Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Conversely, after taking every opportunity to bash every possible American offense, he discusses Cuban baseball at considerable length without ever mentioning the possibility that the Castro regime may not have had the most laudable human-rights record in the history of governance.

But that is the kind of thing that happens when a writer is passionate about his subject. If Robert Elias had been evenhandedly lukewarm about his, then The Empire Strikes Out would probably have lost much of the spark that animates its pages. As the sarcastic pencil notations in my copy attest, it’s a book you can argue with, but there’s no denying that it is a valuable and accomplished addition to the large and constantly growing library of baseball history.

Ben Yagoda G’91 is a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author, most recently, of Memoir: A History, which will be released in paperback in November.

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