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Exhibition Baseball Americana

The Promise of Baseball

Phil Bath, photographer. Sandy Koufax, April 12, 1966. Reproduction. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (053.00.00)

“There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is ‘You never know.’” —Joaquín Andújar, Houston Astros pitcher

The United States and baseball, having grown up together, share a fundamental belief: anyone who works hard enough can achieve the American dream and play shortstop. And, for a nation of immigrants, learning to play or becoming a fan created a sense of belonging in the new land. As an industrial powerhouse, the United States mass-produced baseballs, invented mass sports media, and amassed a collection of grandstands. Organized baseball offered players more than healthful recreation: it could also be a path to a better life. “A ballplayer’s got to be kept hungry to become a big-leaguer. That’s why no boy from a rich family ever made the big leagues,” said the son of a Sicilian fisherman, Joe DiMaggio. With the advent of free agency in the 1970s, successful players could start their own rich families. Not only did baseball generate healthy incomes, and eventually fortunes, but it has been used to forge profitable foreign relations and promote cultural diplomacy around the globe.

Banking on Baseball
The Business of Baseball
Away Games: Baseball Goes Abroad
Changes in the Lineup

Banking on Baseball

Baseball has long offered financial rewards and a path out of poverty, but despite that, most major league players had to supplement their incomes with off-season employment or savvy investments. Minor leaguers endured interminable bus rides for little pay, and semi-pro team members who were more semi than pro received little more than meal money and a crowded motel room on the road. Bob Dylan began saying that the times they were a-changing long before they did in baseball, but when pitching ace Catfish Hunter became the first modern free agent in 1974 and could accept a bid from any team, Dylan was singing a different tune—a new one about Catfish Hunter. After Hunter leveraged his two-year, $200,000 offer from the Oakland A’s into a stunning five-year, $3.5 million dollar contract with the New York Yankees, it was a whole new ball game.

The Company Team

Lewis Hine, photographer. The Ball Team, 1908. Reproduction. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (057.01.00)

The Business of Baseball

When professional players “whined” about their salaries prior to forming their own Players League in 1890, sportswriter O. P. Caylor targeted popular Ed Delahanty for criticism: “How hard was it to stand in left field on his two by nine foot piece of turf from 4 p.m. till supper time with only twenty-two hours to rest up? Talk of serfdom in Russia.” But pitcher, lawyer, and league founder John Montgomery Ward argued that “Players have been bought, sold and exchanged as though they were sheep instead of American citizens.” The business of baseball has regularly been in the news, almost as much as the game results, with the longest lasting and most consequential issue centered on the reserve clause and its legacy—free agency. At issue was liberty: in this most American of games, a century would pass before players could exercise the right to sell their services to the highest bidder.

Mr. Ruth Goes to Washington

National Photo Company. Babe Ruth (1895–1948), second from left, at the White House, December 7, 1921. Reproduction. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (060.00.00)

Away Games: Baseball Goes Abroad

Like the game itself, baseball as diplomacy and goodwill has been hit or miss. In a glitzy, six-month global barnstorming blitz that encompassed Pacific islands, the pyramids, and Paris, Albert  G. Spalding’s major league “All-American Tourists” momentarily intrigued its foreign hosts in 1889 but had no lasting effect. Meanwhile, Christian missionaries, railroad engineers, and university professors were among those most responsible for introducing baseball to Asia, launching a flurry of cross-cultural enterprises capped off with Babe Ruth headlining a tremendously successful 1934 tour of Japan. In the Western Hemisphere, Cuban ball players studying in the U.S. during the 1860s took baseball home to their native land, which in turn exported the sport to other Latin American countries. A surge of Latin American players in the 1960s characterized the changing demographics of the major leagues. A “complete flop” when it appeared at the Olympic Games in 1936, baseball eventually became an official Olympic sport from 1992–2008. Like softball, it will return to the Games in 2020.

Liga Mexicana de Béisbol

Acme Photograph. Lest ’Pop’ Bottles Bounce off Their Heads! Mexico City, 1946. Reproduction. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (063.00.00)

Changes in the Lineup

“Baseball is often talked about as the American game, but there is something wildly immigrant about it too,” wrote Irish American author Colum McCann. “No other game can so solidly confirm the fact that you are in the United States, yet bring you home to your original country at the same time.” In the early twentieth century, about ten to fifteen percent of big leaguers were born outside the United States, primarily in Canada and Europe. Today, a quarter of all major league players are foreign born, with the Dominican Republic and Venezuela the biggest sources of talent. “So as the Mayflower descendants and offspring of Irish immigrants fill Fenway Park to cheer on [José] Iglesias, [Koji] Uehara and [David] Ortiz,” said Jewish American author Ira Stoll, “we can look forward to a day when the children and grandchildren of Iglesias, Uehara, and Ortiz fill the same ballpark to cheer on immigrant players from some other land.”

Minnie Miñoso, “The Cuban Comet”

Minnie Miñoso, (1925–2015) Outfielder for the Cleveland Indians, Throws out the First Ball to Start the 1958 Cubanitos (“Little League”) Season in His Native Village of Perico, Cuba, 1958. Gelatin silver print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (051.00.00)

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