Tuesday, July 16, 2013

American Baseball Imperialism

Mariners vs. Cubs, Safeco, 2013

One of the joys of spending summers in Seattle is the opportunity to go to Safeco field to see the Mariners play against a Major league baseball team.  Having recently attended a couple of games at Safeco I am drawn to the topic of what I term "American Baseball Imperialism".

Just as the sports of Rugby and Cricket trailed in the wake of the British Empire across about one quarter of the globe, Americans have transplanted their national pastime through the deployment of American military power through much of the world.

In the final moments of Spielberg's miniseries Band of Brothers the warriors of Easy company relax by playing a game of baseball in Zell am See, Austria (see video below).  Major Dick Winters, of the 101st Airborne, ordered the construction of a baseball diamond in this alpine paradise (Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest, Stephen Ambrose, 1992 www.amzn.com/074322454X).

Abner Doubleday may not have actually invented the game of baseball, but he did do a great deal to promote the early game.  He also served in the First Regiment of Artillery in the U.S. Army in the invasion of Mexico during the Mexican-American war.  Could he have introduced Mexicans to the sport as well?

American soldiers took baseball with them on campaign.  In the spring of 1919 the Polar Bear brigade was deployed in Archangel attempting to support the white Russians.  Godfrey Anderson was a member of the Polar Bears' medical corps who wrote, "We had got some baseball equipment, however,  and did a little practicing in the evenings.  A game was arranged with the engineers across the river at Beresnik and we crossed over to where they had set up a diamond and played the game, but came out somewhat the worse for our efforts."  (Source: A Michigan Polar Bear Confronts the Bolsheviks, Godfrey Anderson, 2010, www.amzn.com/0802865208).  One can only imagine how puzzled any Russian spectators might have been!

In the 1942 invasion of North Africa  the "American challenge and countersign carried up the hill in stage whispers: 'Brooklyn?'. 'Dodgers.'  'Brooklyn?' 'Dodgers.'"  Later sentries would bark the password challenge "Three?" and would be answered with the countersign: "Strikes!"  (An Army at Dawn: the War in North Africa, Rick Atkinson www.amzn.com/0805087249).  Who can forget Steve McQueen throwing his baseball against the wall while in the "cooler" in The Great Escape?

USS Texas, Houston
On board the USS Texas (a battleship that served in both world wars) one can 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 between the crew members of the USS Texas and the USS Arizona.

During World War II Americans were reluctant to give up baseball merely because the nation was at war.  FDR said, "I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going."  Many famous players such as Stan Musial,  Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg served their country off the field (http://www.baseballinwartime.com/baseball_in_wwii/baseball_in_wwii.htm).  Ted Williams, the "Splendid Splinter" trained pilots as a Marine aviator in World War II.

The quality of major league play deteriorated rapidly during the war years due to player enlistments.  Frank Graham described baseball between 1943-45 as "the tall men against the fat men at the company picnic."  Source: The Victory Season, Robert Weintraub, 2013 www.amzn.com/0316205915).

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 in Nuremberg.  It was renamed "Soldier's Field" and the European Theatre of Operations (ETO) World Series was held there in September 1945.   Source: The Victory Season, Robert Weintraub, 2013 www.amzn.com/0316205915).

Over and over again, countries that have been occupied by American forces have turned into baseball playing countries.  The Philippines was occupied in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American war and Filipinos now have a league of their own featuring teams such as the Manila Sharks http://www.baseballphilippines.com.

Baseball was first introduced to Japan in 1872 by Horace Wilson, an American educator in Tokyo.  The American occupation of Japan which followed World War II helped to vastly spread the popularity of the game.

Ichiro Suzuki is the poster boy for American Baseball Imperialism.  In 2001 Ichiro joined the Seattle Mariners to become the first Japanese position player to play in the major leagues.  In 2007 in San Francisco he was the first player in history to hit an inside the park home run at an All Star game.   He played 11 years with the Mariners and is now, at age 39, a key to the New York Yankees team.

It was actually Japanese Baseball Imperialism that first brought baseball to Taiwan in the nineteenth century.  Taiwan was a Japanese colony and major naval base.  After the Japanese surrender in 1945 a major American military presence came to the island.  The USAF maintained a major airbase at Ching Chuan Kang during the Cold War from 1953 to 1973.  It was in those years that Taiwanese boys began their long domination of little league baseball.

Baseball first came to Cuba in the 1860s with the arrival of American sailors making port calls and Cuban college students returning from studies in America.   In 1898 Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders brought their passion for baseball to Cuba where it flourished.  In 1899, the All Cubans, consisting of Cuban League professional players, became the first Latin American baseball team to tour the United States.
Fidel...A Leftie?
Fidel Castro was a gifted athlete who, as a young man, sought a career in baseball.  Historian Michael Burleigh writes, "Six foot three and powerfully built , at school Castro excelled at sports, particularly baseball.  In 1949 he was offered a contract by the New York Giants.  He turned them down."  Small Wars, Faraway Places, Michael Burleligh, 2013, www.amzn.com/0670025453).  It is fascinating to conjecture how would the Cold War have played out if Castro had joined the show?  The only certainty is that Cuba would have far more major league players much like the Dominican Republic does today.

Jackie Robinson famously broke the color barrier in baseball.  This year Donald Lutz, an outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds, will break another barrier, becoming the first German-developed player to play in the major leagues http://msn.foxsports.com/mlb/story/donald-lutz-first-german-developed-player-in-major-leagues-cincinnati-reds-reserve-outfielder-050513.  His father was an American GI and his mother is German.  Thus the diamond that Dick Winters' built in Austria in 1945 is paying off baseball dividends in the 21st 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!

Commander Kelly says, "No matter where you are or who you root for, enjoy today's All Star game and Play Ball!"

You can now order Commander Kelly's first book, America Invades, here...www.americainvades.com or on Amazon...www.amzn.com/1940598427


Kristen Moffett said...

Loved this,Chris! Youre such a great writer-thanks for sharing!!

Anonymous said...

Side note- While the superstars of the Major League Baseball teams decided to enlist or were drafted during World War II, women fought to keep baseball a central part of American life. This is more significant than one may believe because not only did it help to keep the sport baseball "America's pastime", but it also provided workers to keep jobs in ballparks, as well as provide an uplifting entertainment to keep up American morale during wartime. I must confess my information is mostly from the fictional 1992 movie A League of Their Own, however, the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) contributes to the history of baseball in America and therefore it's imperialism.

Unknown said...

Your best post yet. Never knew that about Fidel and your mention of Ichiro was great to read as King Felix pitches so well at the ASG!

Unknown said...

Thanks Chris! This is just another great episode in time that covers so many memories of so many great people and places…Your so right Baseball is contagious anywhere the American soldier serves. I served in Delta Company 1st of the 501st Infantry 101st Airborne in Vietnam and I can honestly say you depicted Easy Company just like the Band of Brothers they were.

Commander Kelly said...

Of course women baseball and softball players can be baseball imperialists too! The AAGBPL was helpful to keeping up morale on the home front during the war. The "League of their own" gals were the baseball equivalent of "Rosie the Riveter". WWII stimulated a great deal of change with regard to traditional gender roles. Women built and flew military aircraft. Women were largely responsible for the Bletchley park decrypts that helped to shorten the war. Women served in the SOE and OSS. You might enjoy my earlier blog on Violette Szabo. Thanks for reading.

rrhicks said...

Someday an Afghan infielder will lead the Majors in sacrifice hits . . . very nice article, thanks, by the way, there's a 19 year old Japaneses player in the wings for the majors who is an all-star pitcher AND outfielder . . .

Commander Kelly said...

Too funny! An Afghan infielder will lead the league in sac flys while an Iraqi will dominate in terms of hit by pitch -- taking one for the team! It could happen.