Nearly 100 years ago, baseball impresario Albert G. Spalding published his sprawling, 500-plus-page book, America’s National Game. This 1911 tome, replete with illustrations by political cartoonist Homer Davenport, is one part history, one part autobiographical recollection, and many parts unabashed celebration of Spalding’s own contributions to the development of the game. Spalding (1850-1915) was a former pitcher for the Chicago White Stockings who subsequently became the team’s president as well as a magnate of the sporting goods industry. His book traces the long history of baseball, starting with early games of ball played in ancient Greece and Rome, through the invention of baseball’s modern rules by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, NY in 1839, through the creation of the National league in the 1870s. Throughout America’s National Game, Spalding stresses the factors that make baseball a distinctively American sport. To wit:
“I claim that Base Ball owes its prestige as our National Game to the fact that as no other form of sport it is the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness; American Dash, Discipline, Determination; American Energy, Eagerness, Enthusiasm; American Pluck, Persistency, Performance; American Spirit, Sagacity, Success; American Vim, Vigor, Virility. Base Ball is the American Game par excellence because its playing demands Brain and Brawn, and American manhood supplies these ingredients in quantity sufficient to spread over the entire continent.”
Spalding’s love of adjectives and alliteration aside, another overt agenda of America’s National Game is to promote the idea that baseball can facilitate the spread of U.S. empire and cultural influence. Early on in the book, Spalding declares, “baseball follows the flag.” As evidence of its Americanizing—and allegedly civilizing—potential, Spalding proudly cites the establishment of the sport on recently acquired American colonies such as Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines. “Wherever a ship flying the Stars and Stripes finds anchorage today,” writes Spalding, conveniently erasing the violence of imperialism, “somewhere on nearby shore the American National Game is in progress.” Spalding himself organized a baseball world tour in 1888-89, sending two teams to Europe, Egypt, and Australia in the hopes of spreading not just the game but American ideals as well. Apparently, American cultural insensitivity was also on display, as Spalding recounts how in Egypt, U.S. ball players used one of the Great Pyramids for a backstop and photographed themselves atop the Sphinx, much to the chagrin of locals.
Spalding’s unapologetically imperialist book reminds us of the long and sometimes forgotten history of baseball’s relationship to war and globalization. Another chapter in this long history is currently being written in Iraq. Spalding’s century-old claims about baseball’s universal appeal are being newly tested, albeit haltingly, by the upstart Iraqi national baseball team. The team was founded by several young Iraqi Americans who had played in the United States and drummed up curiosity about the sport during their 2005 visit to Baghdad. Since then, the sport has taken an initial but tenuous hold in Iraq. In fact, a year ago, the team had only one softball bat, one baseball cap, three balls, no official rulebook, and nine used gloves. They had no cleats so they wore running shoes. They received threats from Sunni insurgents who accused them of playing “an occupation game.” Fortunes changed for the team following the publication of a McClatchy news article about their struggles—a story subsequently picked up by the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC—when U.S. corporate donors offered to ship the much-needed equipment. Since then, the co-ed team has raised its profile and started to play in international competitions. In May of this year, the Iraqi ball club paid a ten-day visit to the United States courtesy of the U.S. State Department. The brief tour included outings to Nationals Park in D.C. and a baseball camp sponsored by Cal Ripken, Jr. According to a McClatchy report, U.S. State Department officials expressed hope that the trip would inspire the players to speak positively about both baseball and the United States when they returned to Iraq.
Albert Spalding once compared baseball to war, arguing that the sport could transform foreign cultures just as effectively as an invading military force. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, baseball may not be transforming Iraqi culture—and whether it even should is certainly subject to debate—but nonetheless, the game seems to have gotten to first base.