Beers, burgers, and baseball: this triad of alliteration perfectly encapsulates what today’s individual might consider “modern-day America.” Baseball, in particular, has gone so far as to win the title “America’s favorite pastime.” While only 900 men get to play in the professional American league, the sport provides a physical outlet for numerous Americans–baseball and softball had a combined total of 25 million participants in 2017–as well as a booming business scheme that caters to sports fans of any interest level.
Baseball’s reach goes beyond stadiums or neighborhood fields. Like many sports, its culture is pervasive in our everyday lives and relationships, even if we’re trying to avoid it (sorry, quiet siders). Fan gear consumes everyday wardrobes; bros discuss the recent game during their workouts; families toss a ball in the backyard and hope no one gets a black eye. The culture of sports is more than just following teams and knowing statistics. It’s a way to establish social relationships.
Building social relationships, especially in communities with social tensions, is an agenda that traces back to some of the early origins of sport.
In 1617, King James I of England issued one of the first major texts regulating community sports. Deemed the “Book of Sports” (alternatively titled “Declaration of Sports”), the text lists appropriate recreational activities for Sundays and religious holidays. Dancing, archery, leaping, and vaulting all passed the test, while bear and bull-baiting and bowling were “unlawful games.” Harsh as the strict regulations may seem (who doesn’t like bowling?), James had a method to his madness. The “Book of Sports” was actually a device to resolve social conflict between two religious groups: the Roman Catholics and the Puritans.
The Puritans believed sports were frivolous and impure activities; they were infuriated when James ordered the English clergy to read the “Book of Sports” from the pulpit. Their reaction was so harsh that James ended up withdrawing the order.
While the “Book of Sports” was an exercise of royal power, it also had the potential to encourage people of two different, warring communities to come together. Who doesn’t think leaping and vaulting with strangers can change the world?
Sport has the ability to connect people from different backgrounds. When you’re on a team, you’re aiming toward a common goal; it’s essential that you work with the other members in a cohesive way. Sport culture therefore emphasizes the values of community and teamwork. What could have happened if the “Book of Sports” was put into practice? Could there have been harmony between the Puritans and Roman Catholics?
It’s a question of the extent to which sports can not only build social relationships, but also overcome preexisting social barriers.
Can the white football player overcome his prejudice against people of color if he plays on a team with a black running back? Can a man who considers women “weak” have a change in heart when playing co-ed Frisbee? What about the homophobic tennis player whose doubles partner is openly gay?
It’d be a little wishful to think sports are the panacea for bigotry, but we shouldn’t overlook the power sport culture has in defying the barriers of social norms. Sports provide a place for people of different backgrounds to come together and work together as a team.
Yet playing on a team is just the beginning. Sports culture on a whole–including watching and supporting different teams and players–breaks down conventional social and cultural barriers.
We can look to athletes of minority groups that are underrepresented in popular culture who then take the biggest sports titles; their places on the national stage, on the podium, provide important representation. They inspire younger generations to get involved and to believe that they’re meant to be strong, too.
We can look to John Thorn, who’s not a professional athlete but rather the Official Baseball Historian for the MLB since 2011. Thorn claims baseball was integral to embracing his American identity. Thorn emigrated from Poland with his parents to New York when he was just two years old. Growing up, he picked the Brooklyn Dodgers as his favorite team.
“I think any-self respecting Jew would have to select the Dodgers. They were the outsiders…I think what the Dodgers showed me was that anybody could be an American,” Thorn said in an interview with Stephen Dubner.
Thorn believes his support of baseball not only secured his own cultural identity, but also has been integral in forging past cultural barriers.
“If you are going to Americanize Brazil, then you brought baseball with you. When Barack Obama and Raul Castro became closer and tried to end 50 years of hostilities, baseball was the mechanism,” Thorn said.
Perhaps baseball can’t be responsible for fixing our cultural conflicts with foreign countries (although it might be worth a try), but there’s no denying the power the sport has in bringing people together. This year’s MLB players come from 21 different countries and territories; 29 percent were born outside of the United States.
America’s favorite pastime isn’t just a pastime anymore. Baseball has become a way to foster social and cultural relationships, pushing the barriers of conventional sports representation. That, my fellow sports lovers, is a political home run.
Zoë Kaplan can be reached overseas at firstname.lastname@example.org.