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by Robert Elias
July 20, 2003

            Thank you. I’m honored to be here. I’d like to thank Terry Cannon and the Baseball Reliquary Board for inviting me to speak. I was thinking about the artifacts collected by the Baseball Reliquary. I was reminded of the pitcher Don Sutton’s response to accusations that he used a foreign substance on the ball. Sutton said, “Actually, that’s not true. Vaseline is manufactured right here in the U.S.” Certainly, one of Sutton’s Vaseline jars belongs in the Reliquary collection.
            It’s commonly assumed that the Baseball Reliquary was founded by Terry Cannon. That’s also not true. It’s just one of those myths passed down through the years like at that other museum, in Cooperville or Coppertown, wherever it is. . . Cannon was a decorated Civil War General and the Reliquary thought he’d sound better than the real founder, who actually laid out the original plans for the Reliquary at an abandoned brewery in Milwaukee: his name, of course, is Bud Selig. Unfortunately, Bud couldn’t be with us today. . .
            Let me begin with a few words about today’s Shrine of the Eternals inductees. For me, the choices are serendipitous. I’ve recently begun some writing on Pete Gray, the one-armed outfielder who played for the St. Louis Browns in the 1940s. While Gray’s story of overcoming his physical difference is remarkable, even more impressive and inspiring is the story of Jim Abbott. My older son, Andre, accumulated a number of baseball autographs growing up. One of his most cherished is the one from Jim Abbott.
            I also have a young daughter, Madeleine, and I’ve wanted to make sure that she, as a girl, was never discouraged from playing baseball. Thus, for the last couple of years, I’ve had a postcard taped up on her bedroom wall of a woman pitching in a game. That woman, who serves as a model for my daughter, is Ila Borders. By the way, I have another young child, Jack, and I make him watch the Detroit Tigers and New York Mets. To paraphrase Toots Shor, “I want him to know life. It’s a history lesson. This way my son will understand the Depression.” As you can probably tell, I have too many kids. . .
            In any case, I’ve also been doing research on Curt Flood and his impact on professional sports. But you can’t talk about Flood without also talking about the man that Hank Aaron claimed is as important to baseball history as Jackie Robinson. Of course, that man is Marvin Miller, who I admire immensely. I feel fortunate to be able to meet our inductees. Their experiences also relate directly to my theme. In their cases, on issues of gender, class, and physical difference, they illustrate both the potential and the limits of the American dream. 

Robert Elias

Robert Elias, delivering Keynote Address at the 2003 Shrine of the Eternals Induction Day
(photo courtesy of Larry Goren)

           As Terry mentioned, I’ve written a book, Baseball and the American Dream, and teach a course on that subject at the University of San Francisco. Neither the book nor the course focuses on baseball statistics or records. Instead, I’m more concerned with baseball as a reflection of American history and culture.
           In her book, Foul Ball, Allison Gordon wrote, “I once stood outside Fenway Park in Boston, . . . and watched a vigorous man of middle years helping, with infinite care, a frail and elderly gentleman through the milling crowds to the entry gate. Through the tears that came unexpectedly to my eyes, I saw the old man strong and important forty years before, holding the hand of a confused and excited five-year old, showing him the way. Baseball’s best moments don’t always happen on the field.”
            Yes, baseball’s best moments don’t always happen on the field. Historian Peter Bjarkman has written that baseball “. . . is a game which surely does not mean half of the things we take it to mean. But then again, it probably means so much more.” Arguably, baseball reflects some of the nation’s noblest aspirations. To understand this, we should consider baseball’s relationship to our quintessential national quest: the pursuit of the American dream.

 A Dream Deferred?
            We all know the basic ingredients of the American dream. However we precisely define it, the dream makes the country special: it nourishes the American people, it seduces foreigners to our shores, and it spreads the American way far beyond our own borders. Support for the American dream has been widespread. But some of the praise is revealing. For example, one advocate claimed that: “This American system of ours. . . call it Americanism, call it capitalism, call it what you like, gives to each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it.” Unfortunately, those are the words of the famous American gangster, Al Capone. What does that tell us?
            We might also wonder how much the American dream has been a reality, and for whom? To what extent have its promises been fulfilled? People worry about this, and for good reason. Many don’t experience the U.S. as a land of opportunity. Even if the dream were more widely experienced, some worry about the values it asks us to live by — materialism, hyper-competition, excessive individualism, and so forth. In the end, the American dream may not be so much the inevitable reality but rather the dream and also its contradiction. Which one will prevail? 

Baseball as Cultural Mirror
            What does this have to do with baseball? To more specifically examine the ingredients and performance of the American dream, we could choose from many mirrors of our nation. Sports is one possible mirror. But one American sport surpasses all others in reflecting U.S. society: baseball. Roger Angell has suggested that, “Baseball seems to have been invented solely for the purpose of explaining all other things in life.” Well, perhaps not everything. But quite a lot.
            About baseball, Walt Whitman said: “Well — it’s our game; that’s the chief fact in connection with it: America’s game. . . it belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly as our Constitution’s laws; is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.” Bart Giamatti claimed that baseball “is the last pure place where Americans can dream.” George Grella says that, “. . . baseball, not football, will always be our National Pastime. . . [It] speaks as few other human activities can to our country’s sense of itself. . . and should be compared not only with other sports, but with. . . our painting, music, dance and literature. . . baseball embodies the central preoccupations of the cultural fantasy we think of as the American Dream. . .”
            But what, precisely, is the relationship? Does baseball illustrate the American dream, and provide us lessons for how to achieve it? Is baseball itself a route to the American dream? Does the game challenge the American dream and its driving values? Is baseball a narcotic for distracting us from the realities of the American dream? Or does baseball serve as a refuge from its endless strife and accumulation?
            Maybe baseball is no single one of these things. The game has represented different experiences for different groups at different times and places. Baseball has a long tradition dating from the earliest years of the American republic. It has uniquely mirrored the trends in the culture at large. Arguably, Americans should care about baseball because it has been, and remains, a measure of the health of our society. 

A Field of Dreams?
            With what ingredients of the American dream have baseball been associated? Francis Miller claimed that, “Baseball is democracy in action: in it all men are ‘free and equal,’ regardless of race, nationality or creed. Every man is given the rightful opportunity to rise to the top on his own merits. . . It is the fullest expression of freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom of assembly in our national life.”
            David Voigt claims that, “. . . baseball kept alive Horatio Alger’s myth that a hungry, rural-raised, poor boy could win middle-class respectability through persistence, courage and hard work.” Baseball has been “. .. a vehicle of assimilation for immigrants into American society. . . [and has] kept the myth of the American melting pot alive. . .” Immigrant leaders have advised their peoples to learn the national game if they wanted to become true Americans. Buster Olney has observed that, “More than a half-century after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, America celebrates his legacy. . . When Orlando Hernandez, from Cuba, signed with the Yankees, catcher Joe Girardi noted the variety on New York’s pitching staff: Kansas City Irishman David Cone, Andy Pettite of French descent, Panamanian Ramiro Mendoza, Hideki Irabu of Japan. And finally, David Wells, who’s probably from Jupiter.”
            For those on the sidelines, baseball has helped assimilate fans and develop individual identities. The fans’ affiliations with their teams have often exceeded their attachment to their church, trade, political party — all but family and country, and even those have sometimes emerged all wrapped up in baseball.
            Baseball has been used to demonstrate the benefits of play, team spirit, and sportsmanship. The game has been prescribed as a preventative against things such as crime, violence, delinquency, and even the stresses of modern life. Baseball has been widely represented in our language and literature. It exudes beauty and grace, and has been described as “poetry in motion” and “a work of art.” The game has been linked to patriotism and nationalism, and to American prestige at home and abroad. For these and other reasons, baseball has been a symbol of Americanism.

 Second Thoughts on the Baseball Dream
            Of course, baseball’s long association with the American dream might also mask some uncomfortable realities. For example, the historian, Harold Seymour, worried about those, “who regimented [baseball]. . . with their own ideology, to impose values that would make the growth of capitalism easier by creating an opiate to distract citizens from imperfect working, learning and living conditions.”
            David Voigt argues that, “In baseball and the broader society the opportunities for some groups have been few rather than many, and for some races, virtually all access has been choked off for long periods. As some of the barriers to the American dream have fallen in more contemporary times, we nevertheless often find, inside and outside baseball, that progress still falls well short of our American ideals.” While the stories of African-American, Asian-American, and Latino-American baseball players are often inspiring, their paths to success sometimes seem more in spite of the American dream than because of it.
            Some worry about the lingering obstacles to women’s participation in baseball. Susan Berkson has written that, “Ken Burns [in his Baseball book and documentary] calls baseball a metaphor for democracy. But he’s wrong. Instead, it’s a metaphor for sexism. The great theme is that it’s a boys game; women have been shut out again and again.” Although women have historically been more involved in baseball than we commonly assume, the biases against them largely remain and also extend to other baseball roles. The former umpire, Pam Postema, who was driven out of baseball, summed it up in the colorful title of her book: You’ve Got To Have Balls to Make It In This League. We have to wonder whether baseball can be a part of the American dream for women.
            Economic inequalities also prevail in baseball on several levels, between minor leaguers and major leaguers, players and owners, big market owners and small market owners, and so forth. As John Thorn has suggested, “The lie of baseball is that it’s a level playing field. . . That all the inequities in American life check their hat at the door. That they don’t go into the stadium. That once you’re there, there’s a sort of bleacher democracy, that the banker can sit in the bleachers and converse with the working man next to him. This is a falsehood. You have class and race issues that mirror the struggle of American life, playing themselves out on the ballfields.”
            Gai Berlage worries about the corporate values that high-powered professional sports, such as baseball, routinely ingrain into children. Others warn us about baseball’s increasing control by media corporations with little real interest in the game. According to Peter Carino, the building of new stadiums such as Camden Yards “demonstrates. . . what a grand ballpark can mean to a city and the game, [but] it also illustrates the more unsavory elements marking the culture this dream represents: the machinations of power brokers, the sweetheart subsidies from politicians to the private sector, and the class structures that belie the nation’s claim to democracy.” Tom Goldstein claims that baseball is being run “by network executives, marketing consultants, and PR ‘wizards’. . . Baseball is America’s newly found ‘cheap’ natural resource. Our communities have become strip mines, and the fans are the precious commodity to be plundered.”
            Steve Lehman worries that the growing economic disparities in Major League Baseball are rationalized by false appeals to the American dream. For example, when he managed the wealthy Los Angeles Dodgers, Davey Johnson claimed that: “Parity is not the American way. The American way is to dominate somebody else.” Lehman disputes such descriptions of “the American way.” “They’re more like the natural tendencies of monarchies or fascist states than democratic ones,” Lehman says, “and more like football than baseball.” Perhaps, then, we have more than one American dream. Which one do we want to live by? Must we choose between a football American dream and a baseball American dream, as Lehman implies, where football is the sport for the nation we are and have become while baseball is the sport for the nation we were and could be?

The Lure of Nostalgia
            As we search for the genuine “American way,” it’s tempting to think that if only we could return to the “good old days,” our problems would be solved. As one of our oldest and most unchanging institutions, baseball oozes nostalgia. It takes us back to a simpler time when things seemed less fleeting and confusing. As songwriter Paul Simon asked: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation casts its lonely eyes to thee.”
            In our alienated culture, we long for community. We rally around things that can unite us and make us feel good about ourselves and our society. The danger, however, comes when nostalgia is used to sanitize the past and divert us from present realities. Is baseball once again the “national pastime,” or is it merely the “national past tense,” nostalgically describing an idealized, bygone era?
            Ron Briley claims that, “in [Mickey] Mantle’s final days, many of his admirers recalled lost youth and yearned for [the good old days]: an America free from crime, decaying morals, culture wars, economic insecurity, and social conflict.” But this, Briley says, was “mere wishful thinking for Americans uncomfortable with changing perceptions of race, gender and class.” It was a longing for “the way we never were.”
            Each year, thousands of Americans make a pilgrimage to Cooperstown, New York and Dyersville, Iowa (where the Field of Dreams was filmed). In his study of those sites, Charles Springwood found that a nostalgia for a lost America motivated far more visitors than a quest for baseball history. “Visitors [to Cooperstown and Dyersville],” he says, “experience. . . a kind of personal purification where they make contact with the simple life, the work ethic, childhood, fatherhood, marriage, the importance of family and home, the meaning of the father-son bond.” The “Field of Dreams” lives on beyond the film that created it. In a world where life has increasingly become a movie, the field is real to visitors as long as it remains true to the film. Both Cooperstown and Dyersville keep alive a part of the American dream.
            But for whose interests? William Fischer worries about the recent proliferation of baseball films and literature. “It seemed,” he says, “as if baseball. . . was now being improperly used as a symbol of moral purity, as a romantic bedrock in [our] modern days of evil. In the book The Natural, for example, Roy Hobbs strikes out and is left in ignominious defeat, a human being swallowed by his human weaknesses. And yet [in the movie, this] was transformed into a ‘feel-good’ story about a ‘can-do’ America.” Fischer says that American politics since the 1980s has pushed the themes of “Bringing America Back” and “Family Values,” while watching the middle classes shrink and corporate values flourish. . . [A] society emerged that is less human, and more alienating and artificial. . .” To compensate for this decline, Fischer argues, we were given the nostalgic symbol of baseball.

 Baseball’s Deep Resonance
           But perhaps baseball can instead play a more concrete and positive social role. We shouldn’t sentimentally over-exaggerate baseball’s influence. Even so, many people find themselves confused about their society and world. They view life as chaotic, lacking any meaningful shape. If in the twentieth century, baseball provided a semblance of community in large, increasingly alienated urban centers, then in the twenty-first century perhaps the game can help us make sense of an increasingly complicated and fast-paced age. It may serve as a metaphorical ointment for those wounded by our contemporary society.
            We want baseball to be good, we want it to be pure, we want to be able to keep loving it. For some of us, it’s our refuge, our salvation. Some people feel as intensely about baseball as they feel about their nation: they’re baseball patriots. Baseball remains deeply ingrained in the American character. According to Joseph Sobran, “Our deepest norms of order can still be seen in operation on the diamond when they’ve been adulterated everywhere else. Baseball is our Utopia. . .”
            In baseball’s evolution, we see key American issues being played out: politics and nationalism; labor-management conflicts; class and economic inequalities; religion and spirituality; expansion and foreign affairs; race, ethnic, and gender relations; and much more. It reflects a host of age-old American tensions: between workers and owners, scandal and reform, urban and rural, the individual and the community, and so forth. In many ways, baseball is a barometer for the society.
            It’s no coincidence, as Frank Deford has suggested, that the last two words of the national anthem are “play ball.” Baseball still strongly reverberates in America. If it also has its shortcomings, then fixing them can enrich and even rescue the nation. Bill Lee once said: “Baseball is the belly-button of our society. Straighten out baseball, and you straighten out the rest of the world.”
            For example, baseball has been racist, yet — through Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey — it also led the way for greater integration not only of American sports but also of American society. Likewise, baseball has been sexist, yet it was the first sport to allow women to play professionally, and to allow girls to play in the little leagues. Baseball has been classist, and yet — through Curt Flood and Marvin Miller — it also pioneered the end to wage slavery not only in baseball but in all professional sports, and it might yet serve as a model for America’s broader labor movement. Consider Flood’s explanation for challenging the reserve clause: “I guess you really have to understand who that person, who that Curt Flood was. I’m a child of the sixties. . . a man of the sixties. During that. . . time this country was coming apart at the seams. We were in Southeast Asia. . . Good men were dying for America and the Constitution. In the southern part of the U.S. we were marching for civil rights and Dr. King had been assassinated, and we lost the Kennedys. To think that merely because I was a professional baseball player, I could ignore what was going on outside the walls of Busch Stadium [was] truly hypocrisy and now I found that all of those rights that these great Americans were dying for, I didn’t have in my own profession.” This suggests a sport that’s deeply intertwined with its times. Baseball has played a transformative role in the past; it can do so again in the future.

 Restoring Baseball’s American Dream
            How can we unleash baseball’s potential for progress? For example, if Jackie Robinson opened baseball to people of color, and if Curt Flood brought some control of the game to the players, how and who can return the game, now, to the fans? In our spectator culture, where most of us watch our games and society passively on the sidelines, how can fans and citizens be brought into the center of the action?
            Peter Gammons argues that, “Baseball can assume its place as the sport of the American dream, but it will not happen by looking back. If indeed baseball is on the brink of a renaissance, then what it needs is a creative vision.” But that “creative vision” will not likely emerge from baseball’s ruling establishment. A new direction for baseball can come, however, from baseball players and their union, and from baseball fans and their communities. Baseball could provide initiatives to help reform not only the national pastime but also American society. It could lead the way on worker’s rights and in revitalizing the labor movement. It could promote genuine racial equality and improve race relations. It could push for serious enforcement of anti-trust laws and provide new models of public ownership for teams and other corporations. It could concern itself with its consumers — the fans — as humans and not merely as commodities. It could promote breakthroughs in women’s access to the game and to sports and American institutions, generally. As Kevin Brooks suggests, “For those who have experienced the field of dreams, they should not retreat to their paradise, making it an idol, but rather forsake paradise and live among the people, sharing the good news.” The players have a particular responsibility along these lines.
            Grassroots organizations can also play an important role. For example, Ralph Nader’s Sports Reform Project and his group, FANS (Fight to Advance the Nation’s Sports), have put out a Fan’s Bill of Rights. I also recommend Don Weiskopf’s Baseball Play America, SABR (the Society for American Baseball Research), and FAIRBALL, a group begun by the Elysian Fields Quarterly.
            Most of all, however, the Baseball Reliquary has been working to bring the game back to the fans and to restore the baseball American dream. It’s helping us to construct a people’s history of not only baseball but also America, to put up against the official story. As an organization run by baseball fans, it’s providing us with a deeper understanding of baseball and its impact on American history and culture.
            The Reliquary’s induction criteria stand in bold contrast to the mere compilation of baseball statistics and records. They reward the distinctiveness of one’s play, uniqueness of one’s character, and the person’s imprint on the baseball landscape. They reflect excellence in character or principle, and contributions to developing baseball as an arena for the human imagination. We need only consider the names of the previous inductees to conjure up their unique qualities — people such as Bill Veeck, Jim Bouton, Curt Flood, Pam Postema, Bill Lee, Moe Berg, Dock Ellis, Minnie Minoso, Satchel Paige, and so forth. Not to mention today’s inductees.
            In conclusion: At its best, perhaps baseball is better than American society. As Reggie Jackson once said: “The country is as American as baseball.” Baseball can help make the American dream more worth attaining, and more accessible to more people. There are disturbing signs that America is a culture in crisis. The increasing attempts to impose the American way abroad seem correlated with a growing questioning by Americans of their own society at home. Perhaps America should be looking up to the best in baseball. As journalist Bill Vaughan once wrote: “What it adds up to is that it’s not baseball’s responsibility to fit itself into our frantic society. It’s, rather, society’s responsibility to make itself worthy of baseball. That’s why I can never understand why anybody leaves the game early to beat the traffic. The purpose of baseball is to keep you from caring if you beat the traffic.”
            How can baseball help fulfill the American promise? John Thorn put it this way: “Fundamentally, baseball is what America is not, but has longed or imagined itself to be. It is the missing piece of the puzzle, the part that makes us whole. . . a fit for a fractured society. While America is about breaking apart, baseball is about connecting. America, independent and separate, is a lonely nation in which culture, class, ideology, and creed fail to unite us; but baseball is the tie that binds. . . Yet more than anything else, baseball is about hope and renewal. . . This great game opens a portal onto our past, both real and imagined. . . it holds up a mirror, showing us as we are. And sometimes baseball even serves as a beacon, revealing a path through the wilderness.” For those of us pursuing a new and better American dream, and a renewal of baseball as America’s national pastime, it’s a path we should all be gladly taking. Thank you.

Bill of Rights for FANS (Fight to Advance the Nation’s Sports)
            1. Fans should influence rules changes.
            2. Fans have a right to know about the operation and practice of organized sports.
            3. Fans have the right to purchase reasonably priced tickets and to be treated with courtesy and respect.
            4. Tickets should be available to everyone and not just the elites.
            5. Fans have the right to see their interests represented before Congress.
            6. Fans should have games broadcast the way they want them shown.
            7. Fans have the right to have their interests effectively expressed in the resolution of sports disputes.
            8. The interest of fans in the integrity of a team should also be effectively expressed.
            9. Fans, as average citizens, have a right not to see those in sports treated as if they are above the law.
            10. Sports entities that rely on public funds have an obligation to serve the public and disclose relevant information.

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