Freedom and Fate, Baseball and Race
Materially, psychologically, and culturally, part of the nation's heritage is Negro American, and whatever it becomes will be shaped in part by the Negro's presence.
-- Ralph Ellison, "What America Would Be Like Without Blacks"1
'I thought it was "If a body catch a body,"' I said. 'Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around -- nobody big, I mean -- except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff -- I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all.'
-- J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye2
What is remarkable about baseball is not simply the persistence of its popularity (it is the team sport with the longest history in the United States and whose records and statistics are most broadly known) but the persistence of its claim to significance as a reflection of our national values and as an architect of the national character. Baseball, it has been said from a certain cultural habit and with a certain cultural cogency, symbolizes our democratic values as a series of balances -- a tautly dramatized individualism made possible within the context of teamwork; fair play guided by the principle of taking every possible advantage of your opponent in a game that does not require that the officials extract penalties; a rigidly structured, ordered game that requires improvisation and con-
Gerald Early is the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and Director of African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.