The sport not heard around the world

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A minor-league pitcher with Wichita is the biggest name in the South African team at this month’s world baseball classic. Italy’s star was a 37-year-old American with a Sicilian grandfather. And even Canada, home until recently to two major-league teams, can’t fill its line-up with major-leaguers, though it still managed to defeat the US on Wednesday.

The bizarre fact about this month’s “classic”, a sort of world cup staged across two continents, is that only about 10 countries play baseball seriously. That’s not much for the national pastime of the greatest power of the past 100 years. Baseball’s failure to conquer the world suggests the limits of American empire.

The game’s diffusion – such as it is – is a story well told in two recent books, Robert B. Edgerton’s Comparative Anthology of Baseball Around the World, and Stefan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist’s National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer.*

It turns out that the US single-handedly only made two countries safe for baseball: Cuba and Japan. Even the Japanese almost fell for soccer or cricket instead, but baseball triumphed there in the 1880s when, according to National Pastime, “Americans came to outnumber all other expatriate communities”.

But that was about the extent of the American conquest. You would assume it at least spread baseball to its back yard of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the Yucatán region of Mexico. In fact, according to Edgerton, Cubans – many of them slave owners – did most of the work.

The other great baseball colonialists were the Japanese. “Although baseball owed its birth in Asia to American sailors, educators, and missionaries, it was the Japanese who spread it across Asia,” writes Edgerton. Japan’s occupying soldiers and prisoner-of-war camps brought the game to Korea and Taiwan with such success that South Korea now suffers from baseball hooliganism, while the Taiwanese bet more than $2bn a year on baseball by telephone alone in the 1990s.

The Japanese also took the game to Thailand, Mongolia and even Belgium. In Brazil baseball is dominated by “Nippo-Brazilian” descendants of Japanese immigrants, while Moscow’s only baseball stadium was “funded by a wealthy Japanese fan”, writes Edgerton.

Americans did little proselytising for baseball, partly because they started late. Szymanski and Zimbalist note: “The US had only an incipient political empire from the spoils of the so-called Spanish-American War of 1898 and only scant foreign investment until after world war one.” By the time the US girdled the globe, British colonialists had got there first. That meant that in most countries football had first-mover advantage. Nelson Mandela, to cite one example out of millions, played football at his British-inspired boarding school and university.

And football, once rooted, turns out to be almost impossible to shift. A rare American baseball tour of Europe in 1924 was abandoned in Paris, when it was found that Europeans could no longer be distracted from football. It’s significant that none of the competitive nations at the world baseball classic had to contend with much of a football tradition, nor indeed with much of a British tradition.

Yet the American empire, even at its zenith, didn’t help baseball much. Anti-Americanism abroad explains only a very small part of the failure. Yes, the Iranian mullahs, Stalin’s USSR and wartime Japan all briefly cracked down on baseball. Stalin in 1938 executed some of the players “corrupted” by the game’s “bourgeois influence”.

But baseball in these countries soon recovered. Even Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea joined the International Baseball Association in 1990. If the game didn’t spread much, it was chiefly because Americans seldom bothered spreading it. John Gray, a London School of Economics professor writing in the New York Review of Books recently, suggests why. “America lacks most of the attributes that make an imperial power,” explains Gray. The US does not govern any countries and, even when it sends troops abroad, it tends to regard the relationship as transitory: get the job done, come home. There are few American elites living their lives in foreign countries, learning the local language, building alliances with local rulers, and disseminating their games the way the British used to do.

As Szymanski and Zimbalist write: “Until recently, Americans have never seemed to be much interested in the spread of their games.” They currently seem less interested in the world baseball classic than are the Cubans and Japanese. People grumble that it is spoiling spring training for the major-league sides.

The one time the US did produce a full-blown colonialist, Douglas MacArthur, he instinctively spread baseball. The supreme Allied commander in post-war Japan “cleaned out and repaired Japanese baseball stadiums, built new ones, and channelled money to potential baseball magnates”, writes Edgerton. But all those other American soldiers, businessmen, film stars, Peace Corps volunteers and immigrants visiting the “old country” did little for the game. Viewed broadly, their failure casts doubt on the notion that American culture has conquered the world.

Only now is the US contemplating
a baseball empire. It may be too late: even in the US itself more children
play soccer than baseball. Even field hockey is played in more countries
than baseball.

This is the world’s loss. There is a glimpse of what might have been in an account, cited by Edgerton, of Inuit playing baseball in the Arctic in 1894. They had learnt the game from a stranded American whaling fleet, and they played it dressed entirely in fur with a frozen ball. However, according to one observer, their games seldom went beyond the first inning because play usually ended in “a general melée and hair pulling”. Had the tribe been around for this month’s classic, you suspect they might have beaten China or Australia.

*Published by the Edwin Mellen Press and the Brookings Institution Press respectively

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