Baseball and the American Character: Exploring the Influence of the National Pastime on the Origins of the Contemporary American Identity

Kenneth Robert White

Abstract


This paper will examine how American political thought has been affected by the early history and mythology of baseball, rich with images of both individualism and communitarianism that were cultivated into an American cultural ideal by sporting goods magnate Albert Goodwill Spalding. The origins of this vision will be traced to Upstate New York and the creation of “The Doubleday Myth,” which effectively (and falsely) established Cooperstown, New York as the baseball capital of the world, and claimed the game of baseball for the American people outright, regardless of class, ethnicity, or political orientation. This paper will scrutinize the political maneuvering behind the birth of this myth and argue that Spalding essentially took the old “Alger Myth” and updated it to fit a modern vision of Americanism. Capitalizing in part on a wave of patriotic sentiment at the turn of the 20th century, Spalding's narrative surrounding the game was able to capture the cultural nuances and realities of the nation, and establish baseball as the centerpiece of a uniquely "American" way of life characterized by the distinctive promises of hope, renewal, and infinite opportunity. Today, however, this vision may no longer be compatible with the contemporary world. This presentation will seek to explain how and why the Doubleday Myth still endures, and whether its foundation has contributed to its longevity. In addition, this paper will directly address two key findings of this research effort. First, the boom of technological advances in the nineteenth century legislative reforms of the Progressive Era were instrumental to the development of baseball as an urban public spectacle, and its eventual establishment as an American cultural universal. Second, the direct connection between American exceptionalism and baseball—carefully cultivated by the efforts of Albert Goodwill Spalding—allowed the game to develop a “constitutional soul” in the twentieth century, intertwining traditional American values with the rules and presentation of the game. As a result, politicians have looked to the game as a source of rhetorical universality, employing baseball as a tool of “dogmatic formalism” in which history is restated in more idealistic, patriotic, nationalist terms. This presentation will also reflect more broadly on the effects of the Alger and Doubleday myths on the development of American civic identities in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


Keywords


Baseball; American Identity; Albert Spalding

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