American Baseball and the World Series

We’re all sports all the time on Centre Trail this week! The Houston Astros won a dramatic game two of the World Series last night, and it looks like we have a real series here to determine the baseball champions of the world. Wait, why do we have two American teams play every year for a world championship?

Back in my neck of the woods, the furthest western reaches of the European continent (Ireland), those few of us who like American sports often respond to accusations of American arrogance by pointing out the moniker “World Series” is not some grandiose claim to global supremacy but a legacy of the decision to name the series after the New York World newspaper. However… this isn’t true.

The term “World’s Series”, later modified slightly to remove the possessive case, first came into use in 1884 to describe postseason games between the National League and American Association champions. The first World Series between the National League and the American League in 1903, right at the outset of the “Deadball Era”, gives us the modern series and name. From the start, it very much was a claim, if not a particularly intentionally grandiose one, to naming the best baseball team on the planet.

In fairness, baseball has a fascinating history in the United States as an unapologetic capitalist sport, and the naming of the series was as much hype as anything else. In truth, it is fair to expect that the winner of the World Series would beat champions of the sport in Cuba, Japan, Korea and other parts of the world most years. Additionally, those who find it a little rude or perhaps even gauche tend to be people with specific ideas about the United States rather than slighted baseball fans.

The naming of the American baseball championship is also rather out of character in its ostensible connection to global context. In recent years, Major League Baseball has sought to capitalize on the global reach of the sport: the season often opens with a regular season game between American teams in Japan, and there are plenty of players on American teams from foreign countries. The enduring identity of baseball however lies in its status as the “American Pastime”, for some Americans at least the most American of sports.

That particular shorthand has issues too! David Block’s excellent Baseball Before We Knew It and John Thorn’s Baseball in the Garden of Eden pick apart somewhat the origins of the sport of baseball in the United States. It turns out baseball likes to weave its own history. Baseball has also spread across the world, perhaps not with the pervasiveness of soccer but with millions of people outside the United States involved in the game. George Gmelch’s Baseball Without Borders is a great introduction to baseball’s global reach, and Robert Fitts’ Banzai Babe Ruth is a great read on the famous American All-Star Tour to Japan in 1934.

The 1934 tour was no exception.Thomas W. Zeiler’s Ambassadors in Pinstripes offers a great read on the famous Spalding World Baseball Tour of 1888 and James E. Elfers’ The Tour to End All Tours covers the 1913-1914 Major League Baseball World Tour. My own book, coming out in the next year, details trips by American teams to East Asia in the 1910s and 1920s, and return trips from Japanese university sides from 1904 until the 1930s as Japanese-American relations began to take a sever turn for the worse.

Those trips were in many ways an extension outward of a fascinating American baseball tradition: barnstorming, whereby professional players would play in exhibition games to entertain crowds and make some extra money, often performing as jester-like figures as much as athletes. Indeed, this was just one way in which the American baseball experience goes beyond the top tiers of the professional game. Just ask any minor league baseball fan, or better yet read Lucas Mann’s Class A, a book about the author’s year spent with the Clinton Lumberkings that serves as a wider rumination on the grass roots of the sport.

Last but certainly not least, race plays an important role in our understanding of baseball as the American Pastime. There are some excellent books on the Negro Leagues, from the first competitions between teams of black players and white players in 1867 to Jackie Robinson’s debut for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1947 and the integration of all Major League teams in the 1960s. I recommend Robert Peterson’s Only the Ball was White and Joe Posnanski’s The Soul of Baseball, a wonderful book anchored by the irrepressible and deeply impressive Buck O’Neil.

There are many, many more! Baseball history has a great array of work across the spectrum in terms of accessibility and topic. There are plenty more where these come from, if you find yourself in the mood this October.

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