Aristocracy in America: Baseball as America’s Unlikely Pastime

The debate about the significance and impact of baseball on America’s cultural heritage is helped, in part, by an investigation of America’s aristocratic institutions and its anti-aristocratic moods. It goes without saying that the average American temperament, from the colonial era to the present, is one distrustful of continental aristocracy. Despite this, aristocracy is not completely removed from the American consciousness, and those places where aristocracy exists can sometimes surprise. Baseball is one such unlikely place.

Contrasting aristocracy from democracy, the French historian Tocqueville writes: “Aristocracy had made of all citizens a long chain that went from the peasant up to the king; democracy breaks the chain and sets each link apart.”1 This chain is not only a link between classes of society but also a link with one’s ancestral past. Democracy, writes Tocqueville, “make[s] each man forget his ancestors.”2 And how much more true is that today than in the age Tocqueville was writing? Sooner will current day university students look upon men from America’s founding with cynicism than with some familial connection where the past is present. Thomas Jefferson? Owned slaves. George Washington? Should have created the abolitionist movement 65 years earlier. Alexander Hamilton? Did not pen the Affordable Healthcare Act. So soon do we criticize the past with modern day expectations that we have come to view our ancestral past, not as place from where we can learn, but with disdain; and in the place of our ancestors we have progress, technocrats, and the newest social justice fad. We can no sooner learn from Martin Luther King Jr. or James Madison about civil rights and personal gun ownership than we can from the latest filing from the ACLU or talk show appearances from Ted Cruz. Yet, in spite of the smog of progress worship, baseball somehow lies safely beneath. In fact, in baseball there is a familial love of its past.

More than in any other sport, baseball loves numbers. In baseball, statistical benchmarks (e.g. Barry Bonds’ 762 career home runs) are revered with a sacred respect. The numbers that players made 100 years ago matter as much to the numbers made now. Part of the reason why numbers are held in such high esteem is that the game has changed very little in the way it was played 100 years ago. In this way Ichiro Suzuki’s record-setting 258th hit in a single season mattered to baseball fans who have a respect for an 84-year held record (the record stood for 84 years before Ichiro’s achievement). In baseball, “numbers mean immortality” writes Ronald Story. “Baseball players will live in a way that football or lacrosse players cannot; a player’s numbers compiled from the evidence of the box score, guarantee it.”3 While American progress continues to neglect and ignore the leaders of its political past, baseball players — albeit helped by the box score — are immortalized. Vin Scully, the iconic announcer for the Los Angeles Dodgers and widely considered as a legend in baseball game announcing, once stated: “It’s a wonderful feeling to be a bridge to the past and to unite generations. The sport of baseball does that, and I am just a part of it.” Without maintaining a link to an ancestral past, lovers of a sport will not revere its historical performers. In baseball, like few other places in American society, this link remains.

America’s love of the sport endemic to its homeland has rightfully given baseball its epithet ‘America’s pastime.’ Jacque Barzun once wrote that “[w]hoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball”4 America’s cultural heritage necessitates some mention of its favorite sport. While baseball has become as synonymous to American identity as apple pie and Coca-Cola, the cult of ‘progress’ — and all that flows from progress worship — better characterizes American culture; which is funny, since baseball is among the least ‘progressive’ sports in modern American fandom. The idea that within an American identity is found something as old as the Civil War and one that has remained as adverse to change and progress as your grandmother is to learning Facebook is perplexing. In his work, Men At Work, George Will writes that “baseball has ‘the pace of America’s pastoral past.’”5 This sounds lovely, but is it true? Consider the phrase “pastoral past:” does it invoke a fraternal feeling to a past America? Or does this phrase feel a bit unsettling like something that does not belong? Now, consider this phrase: New York City school children play cricket to reflect America’s immigrant past. What feels strange about these sentences? Is it untrue that baseball and immigration have a place in American history? Of course not. What is strange about these sentences are their assumptions: it is as strange to say that the pace of America is set by some “pastoral past,” as it is to say that America's immigrant past is reflected by school children playing cricket in New York City. Americans are distrustful of the past, yet Americans love their pastime.

America has seen the nature of its democratic government drastically change through its history. Publius warned its readers of the rule of the mob, later Tocqueville warned that American democracy would sever itself from its ancestral past. Despite this, the age of industrial revolution — an age that saw the breaking of families for the factories — produced an unlikely offspring. Baseball, as we know it today, was born out of this turbulent time. And while its success was in large part encouraged by the industrial revolution and the “Age of Play,”6 it became an institution that remained in contact and in love with its past. The game led countless men to the ball park with their newly founded income despite those years of unprecedented industrial progress and two world wars. And returning from those wars, men came back to baseball, “which carried the seeds of security and control . . . [was] their salvation and their love. And they never forgot it. In partial payment, they made it the American game.7

1 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, The University of Chicago Press (Chicago: 2002), 483.
2 Id.
3 Ronald Story, “The Country of the Young: The Meaning of Baseball in Early American Culture,” found in Baseball History From Outside The Lines, edited by John E. Dreifort, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln: 2001), 28.
4 Jacque Barzun, God’s Country and Mine (1954)
5 George Will, Men At Work, p. 2.
6 Robert L. Duffus, “The Age of Play”
7 Ronald Story, “The Country of the Young,” supra, at 33.

Parker Fox