Monday, April 3, 2017

American Baseball Imperialism 2017

American Baseball Imperialism

As we get ready to watch MLB's 2017 All Star Game, it is interesting to reflect on the impact of baseball around the world and its surprising connection to America’s military might. American forces have fought in eighty-five out of the 194 countries in the world (excluding the USA itself), or 44 percent of the total.  Over the course of this amazing history, filled as it is with heroic liberations and a few tragic blunders, we Americans have had one undeniable achievement—we have exported the game of baseball around much of the world.

Roman Arena
Arles, France
The Romans built gladiatorial arenas throughout their empire. The British introduced the sports of rugby and cricket to the one-quarter of the globe their empire occupied. The global deployment of baseball-loving Americans serving in the US military has spread our national pastime far and wide. And that spread of American Baseball Imperialism got off to a very early start.
Abner Doubleday, US Army veteran
Abner Doubleday, the legendary “inventor” of baseball, served in the First Regiment of Artillery in the US Army during the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848. Could this West Point graduate and future Union general in the American Civil War have played some pickup games while in Mexico?

American soldiers have taken baseball with them on campaign to some of the remotest corners of the earth. During the Russian Civil War (1918–19), the Polar Bear brigade, made up largely of Michiganders, was deployed by President Wilson to Arkhangelsk (also known as Archangel) in northern Russia, where they also played baseball.

Battleship Texas
La Porte, TX
The battleship Texas served in both world wars, and provided shore bombardment on D-Day at Normandy and again at Iwo Jima in 1945. A visitor to the ship, moored near Houston, will find a poignant reminder of the cost of American Baseball Imperialism. In a display case there is a baseball, an old glove, and a photo from a game played on April 15, 1936, on a Pacific island between the crew members of the Texas and the ill-fated Arizona, which was sunk by the Japanese on December 7, 1941.
DiMaggio's Kit
Cooperstown, NY
By the time World War II broke out, baseball was firmly ingrained in the national consciousness. Many famous players, such as Stan Musial and Hank Greenberg, volunteered to serve their country in the armed services. Ted Williams, affectionately known in baseball circles as Teddy Ballgame, trained pilots as a marine aviator in World War II. Despite having their Italian parents classified as enemy aliens, both DiMaggio brothers served honorably in the war. Joe, aka the Yankee Clipper, joined the US Army Air Force in 1943. His Red Sox brother Dom served in the US Navy.

In Operation Torch, the 1942 invasion of North Africa, American troops would use the challenge and countersign of: “Brooklyn?” “Dodgers.” Later, sentries would bark the password challenge: "Three?", to be answered with the countersign: "Strikes!"

Some of the more fortunate American prisoners of war in German camps even had the opportunity to play baseball while in captivity. Who can forget Steve McQueen throwing his baseball against the wall while stuck in the cooler in the film The Great Escape?

Currahee Military Museum
Tocoa, GA
After the victory against Nazism was finally won, Americans would celebrate by playing baseball in occupied Europe. In the final moments of Spielberg's miniseries Band of Brothers, the paratroopers of Easy Company relax by playing a game of baseball in Zell am See, Austria. Major Dick Winters of the 101st Airborne had ordered the construction of a baseball diamond in this alpine paradise.

Americans even used baseball to exorcise the demons of Nazism in the very belly of the beast—building a baseball stadium in the Hitler Youth Stadium at Nuremberg. The site of so many Nazi rallies was transformed into Soldier's Field; and the European Theatre of Operations (ETO) World Series, featuring many major leaguers in uniform, was held there in September 1945.

Over and over again, countries that have been occupied by American forces have turned into baseball-playing countries. In 1898, soon after Admiral Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay, President McKinley authorized the occupation of the Philippines by American forces. During the guerilla war that followed, Americans were said to be civilizing the Filipinos “with a Krag”—a .30-caliber Krag-Jorgensen rifle with a five-shot magazine. But civilizing with a baseball bat during the subsequent counterinsurgency may have been more effective in winning Filipino hearts and minds. At the close of World War II, American invaders would return with General MacArthur to the Philippines when it was liberated from Japanese control. The American occupation would serve to spread awareness of the game throughout the Philippine archipelago. In 1956, Bobby Balcena of the Cincinnati Redlegs became the first Filipino to play in the majors. Today, the Filipinos have a league of their own featuring teams such as the Manila Sharks.

Baseball was first introduced to Japan in 1872 by Horace Wilson, an American educator in Tokyo. So it was, in a sense, Japanese baseball imperialism that first brought the game to Taiwan, since Japan occupied that island from 1895–1945. The American occupation of Japan that followed World War II helped to vastly spread the popularity of the game. In recent years, the arrival of Ichiro Suzuki initiated a flood of Japanese talent into major league baseball.

Fidel: A Leftie?
Baseball first came to Cuba in the 1860s with the arrival of American sailors making port calls and with Cuban college students returning from studies in America. Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders played some ball in Cuba after the Spanish American War in 1898. The young Fidel Castro was a gifted athlete who sought a career in baseball. In 1949, the lanky Cuban was offered a contract by the New York Giants, which he declined. How might Cuban-American relations have differed if Castro had opted to join the show?

Obama and Castro
Havana March 22, 2016
Tampa Bay Rays beat Cuban National Team 3 to 1
In the spring of 2016, President Obama visited Havana to watch the Tampa Bay Rays play the Cuban national team, alongside Raul Castro. Several MLB teams have discussed the possibility of playing spring games in Havana.
Band of Brothers
Occupied Austria 
Jackie Robinson famously broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947. In 2012, Donald Lutz, an outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds, broke another barrier, becoming the first German-developed player to play in the major leagues. Lutz has an American GI dad and a German mom. The diamond that Major Dick Winters of Easy Company built in Austria in 1945 is paying off baseball dividends in the twenty-first century.

How many years will we need to wait before we see an Iraqi outfielder or an Afghan pitcher in the show? Allah knows that the Mariners could use some help!


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