Baseball & American Society: How a Game Reflects the American Experience. By Charles DeMotte. Cognella, 199 pages, 2014.
SUNY Cortland professor Charles DeMotte set a daunting task for himself: present an overview of American history, juxtapose it with the development and evolution of baseball from the late 18th century to the present, and wrap up the project in under 200 pages. That’s asking a lot—too much actually, though Baseball & American Society has value for the proper audiences.
DeMotte seeks to fuse a chronological approach with an assortment of themes and tropes such as freedom, liberty, American exceptionalism, individualism, and communitarianism. Throughout the book he employs a layman’s understanding of “myth” to highlight the gap between ideals and practices. In chapter one, for instance, he raises the question of whether mythical understandings of the founding of the American republic parallel the (now soundly discredited) Cooperstown tall tale of baseball’s origins. Later he ponders whether Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech is, somehow, linked to baseball and the effort to unify Americans during a time of economic collapse and world conflict. Both thoughts intrigue, but are rather prodigious leaps of logic perhaps better suited for conferences or journal articles than in a breezy text. In chapter fourteen, DeMotte seeks to connect baseball to the first Gulf war, the Clinton years, the Balkans conflict, the computer revolution, the culture wars, the election of 2000, 9/11, the emergence of the national security state, the housing bubble crisis, and the Obama presidency—in 12 pages. It has the feel of grasping at straws.
DeMotte is more convincing when he sticks to better-established topics: the connection between the professionalization of baseball and the rise of industrial society, the parallels between Progressivism and major league baseball reforms in the wake of calumny such as the 1919 Black Sox scandal, and the use of the game as an arm of American cultural might during the age of imperialism. His strongest chapter connects baseball to the 1920s age of ballyhoo, the period that reified the American obsession with celebrity and immortalized names such as Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. Also admirable is DeMotte’s effort at linking baseball’s infamous color line—broken by Jackie Robinson in 1947—to the nation’s ongoing search for racial and ethnic justice. The latter will seem overly simplistic and incomplete to scholars and activists, but this brings me to what I see as the major audience for this book: high school students.
DeMotte’s book is too short on detail to work as a U.S. history survey text, as it would be for anyone teaching a sports or cultural history course on the college level. It certainly will not satisfy diehard sports fans seeking new insights or juicy locker room tales. The book’s short length and unorthodox approach could, however, work nicely as a supplemental text for a high school class—just as it would be a valuable study guide for someone seeking to jog their memory for an advanced placement U.S. history exam. In short, DeMotte neither strikes out nor homers in Baseball & American Society. Call it a ground rule double.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst