By Rubinstein, William D.
History Today , Vol. 53, No. 9
BASEBALL HAS BEEN REPEATEDLY cited as crucial to understanding much of American society. 'Whoever would understand the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game', Jacques Barzun once wrote. For Mark Twain, more than a century ago, baseball, whose rules were codified in the 1840s, 'is the very symbol, the outward and visible experience of the drive and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century', and this remained true for most of the twentieth century as well. What is less familiar is the role of baseball in the achievement of black equality in America; how the integration of Major League baseball in 1945-47 set the stage for the legal and political landmarks of the Civil Rights movement which was to follow.
'Major League' baseball began in 1871 with the formation of the first 'major league', the National Association. The two Major Leagues that exist today, the National League and the American League, were founded, respectively, in 1876 and 1901. There were always very few Major League teams: between 1901 and 1960 there were only sixteen, all in the north-east of the United States. New York for most of this period had three teams and Chicago had two, but many large cities had none. Most had Minor League teams, which were initially independent but gradually came to be taken over by the Majors as 'farm teams'. There is, however, no promotion or relegation as in British football. Together, the Major and Minor Leagues are known as 'Organised Baseball'. Each team was owned by one man or family and the owner could do whatever he wished with the team, including move it to another city. Players were bound to work for one team by the 'reserve clause' in all contracts until the 1970s, and could be paid as much or as little as the owner wished: a player's only recourse was not to sign his contract.
By the early twentieth century, baseball had become America's national sport. Until the rise of professional gridiron football in the 1950s it had no rival. Every boy and most girls learned to play as a matter of course. Baseball's Major League star players were as well known as the president of the United States; team loyalties, even for fans who lived hundreds of miles away, were profound. Baseball is the most statistical of sports, even more so than cricket. Hitting, pitching and fielding responsibility can be assigned rigorously to every player, producing an unrivalled statistical data bank throughout the game's entire history. What has been termed a 'sacred numerology' of record numbers, such as Babe Ruth's sixty home runs in 1927, are engraved in the consciousness of every fan from early youth. Compared to football, the baseball season is long: 162 games (formerly 154) are played by each team every season, as the game can be played every day.
One of baseball's most important roles has been to integrate the disparate elements of American society into the mainstream culture. Baseball is seen by many social historians as having a powerful effect on moulding the newer and marginal groups of the population into a unified nation, and assimilating American values and a common identity. The game was an significant element in reuniting the United States after the Civil War. By the 1890s newspapers in the southern states were reporting on Major League baseball with the same enthusiasm as those in the northern cities, despite the fact that all the major leagues were located in the North or in border states. Many star players of the 1880s and 1890s, such as 'King' Kelly, Ed Delahanty, and John McGraw, were second-generation Irish-Americans, products of the first wave of non-Protestant immigrants to the United States flora the mid-nineteenth century.
As further waves of immigrants came to America, their sons adapted to the new society in part through the national sport. Baseball and its variants became ubiquitous pastimes for youths across America, whether in big city shuns or in small towns and farmsteads. …