April 22, 2011


The Ultimate Baseball Book: a review of The Cambridge Companion to Baseball edited by Leonard Cassuto and Stephen Partridge (Joseph Finder, 4/21/11, Daily Beast)

The eight-page chronology of the game that starts the book is worth the price of admission, almost. The 15 articles and seven short “interchapters” that follow present the Plimptonian hypothesis. But they also serve as a reminder that in a surprising number of ways, the history of baseball over the past century and a half has been the history of the United States. Articles like Leslie Heaphy’s piece on “Baseball and the color line” encapsulate the nation’s complex history of race relations, and Matthew Frye Jacobson’s essay on Curt Flood’s fight for free agency tells a story that still has the power to shock, 40 years later. Chapters on the growth of baseball in East Asia, Japan, and Latin America not only explore the nature of cultural hybridization (and you might even say imperialism), but offer insights into baseball as a microcosm for the global economy, for better or worse. We’re a net importer of baseball to Japan, for instance: Major League Baseball derives income from licensing and touring in Japan, and baseball tourism has become big business for Japanese travel to the U.S. By contrast, baseball has had a major impact on the economies of Latin American nations like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, which export their best players to the U.S., along with certain questionable practices like steroid use (common in minor-league ball in those countries).

Alone among American sports, arguably, baseball is both art and commerce, with a folkloric tradition approaching religion. No sport has come close to generating the volume or diversity of artifacts—relics, almost—that baseball has, as David F. Venturo points out. Baseball fans are compulsive collectors, whether of broken bats or game-used balls, and thus baseball creates its own sub-economy within the larger economy. Venturo’s essay on the iconic Honus Wagner T-206 baseball card—“the palimpsest on which people write their baseball fantasies”—is fascinating and might even be funny, if anything that goes for $2.8 million at auction can be said to be funny.

The book’s most sobering and valuable article may be the full-length chapter on “Cheating in Baseball.” Cassuto and Partridge have structured this book so artfully that by the time we reach David Luban and Daniel Luban’s essay, their assertion that “cheating belongs to the fabric of the game” makes perfect sense. The preceding articles lay out all the economic and social reasons for cheating, and then the Lubans slip us another one: “the odd seductiveness of cheating in the eyes of fans has to do with our national love-hate relationship with formal rules and authority.”

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Posted by at April 22, 2011 5:22 AM

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