Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Opening day 2012 — worldwide

By Claude Fischer


In the first game of the 1911 World Series, all of the 18 starters were born in the USA. Just about every one of them carried a last name suggesting that his male ancestors came from the British Isles  – except perhaps Merkle and Herzog of the N.Y. Giants. (One could be misled. The Giants’ John Meyers was a California Cahuilla Indian.)

Mathewson, NY Mets In contrast, 7 of the 18 starters in the first game of the 2011 World Series were foreign-born; four, including the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols, came from the Dominican Republic. Moreover, the native-born starters of 2011 included a few with such non-Anglo names as Berkman, Kinsler, and Punto.

This is my annual America-is-baseball and baseball-is-America blog post (which can also be seen as the ritual welcoming of spring). It’s about the globalization of the all-American pastime, which has increasingly become many foreigners’ pastime, as well. Globalization – which has sent jobs from here to overseas and workers from abroad to here – has reached baseball.

Becoming American

Part of the story is the immigrant story: coming to the United States as a child or being born to recent immigrants; growing up focused on becoming fully American; and finding baseball one of the keys to the country. For most of we immigrants that meant baseball as a child’s play and as an adult’s fandom. Much of classic American literature depicting the lives of immigrants or children of immigrants, writings by Malamud and Roth for example, are infused with a baseball obsession.

For a select few children of newcomers, becoming an adult American actually meant getting paid to play a child’s game – a bizarre sort of career in the view of Old World parents such as Hank Greenberg’s and Yogi Berra’s. Hall of Fame triumphs by such men became chapters in the story of American assimilation.

Coming to America

Albert Pujols

But the great shift in lineups was not the result of immigrants coming to American baseball, but instead of American baseball going to the world. In the early twentieth century, the American military carried the game to Latin America and the Caribbean. Baseball arrived very early in Japan – introduced by American professors around 1870, according to one source – and quickly became popular as a school sport. The Japanese are credited with then spreading baseball into other parts of Asia. In 1934, Babe Ruth and other stars made an important marketing tour of Japan and in recent years Major League Baseball has tried to market the sport and even cultivate players in places like China and Africa .

Not all efforts to internationalize the sport succeed. A few years ago, American ex-pats in Israel started the Israeli Baseball League, but it failed after the first year. An American player’s memoir of that season appears as Pitching in the Promised Land . (I still have my Petach Tikvah Pioneers tee-shirt.)

Nonetheless, we are now starting to see major league players from many corners of the world, players who were not only born overseas but who were also raised and trained there – from Surinam, Korea, Taiwan, Netherlands, for example. Baseball America ’s Ben Badler reports that about 2 out of 5 players in American organized baseball are foreign-born. When the October Classic is played these days the claim that it is the World Series sounds much less chauvinistic than it used to.

The globalization discussion in the U.S. is so often focused on what the world is doing to us – taking low-wage jobs, sending low-wage workers, selling low-cost knock-off products, hooking us on high-cost oil, etc. – that we tend to neglect the profoundly manifold influences, particularly cultural ones, that America increasingly has on the rest of the world. The export of baseball and import of baseball players is just one, colorful instance.

Play Ball!

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history .