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Michael Hammond

Hairs vs. Squares

Baseball, social change, and tradition.

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With the cooler temperatures of autumn come falling leaves and the advent of playoff baseball. Springtime hopes of fans pass through the summer grind of 162 games that produce the best teams to vie for the World Series. The Chicago Cubs finished the season with the best record in baseball. That fact alone points to an identity crisis for fans who are used to waiting 'til next year. The Texas Rangers, Washington Nationals, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers round out the division champions. Wild card winners include the New York Mets, San Francisco Giants, Baltimore Orioles, and Toronto Blue Jays. These teams represent the largest metro areas in North America.

And the playoffs cannot come too soon. A contentious summer brought a divisive presidential election and ongoing concerns about racial justice and police shootings. Protests and violence escalated over the summer in Dallas, Charlotte, and other cities. Professional athletes used their big stage to protest against social inequality and a lack of justice for all Americans. There are parallels here to 1968 and the early 1970s. In the midst of social upheaval, the most traditional of American pastimes might seem an empty escape from reality. However, baseball has long enjoyed a complicated relationship with the national culture. Baseball offers the familiar rhythm and pace of tradition while absorbing social change.

On March 31, 1968, in a televised address to the nation, President Lyndon Johnson famously stated he would neither seek nor accept the Democratic nomination for president. Four days later, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and America appeared to be unraveling. The start of the major league baseball season was delayed due to riots around the country. When teams opened the season a few days later, Johnson could not appear in public to deliver the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Senators game, and sent Vice President Hubert Humphrey instead.

Humphrey, about to launch his own presidential campaign, hoped to start the baseball season on an upbeat note after a period of national mourning and urban riots in most cities, including Washington. But before the vice president tossed the first pitch, the crowd began booing him. Their catcalls had nothing to do with the Vietnam War, MLK, or politics. They were angered when Humphrey walked to the visitors dugout to greet his home state Minnesota Twins, the same team that had been the original Washington Senators before they relocated to the Twin Cities in 1961.

Baseball is like that. The game once celebrated as America's pastime was built on a legacy of intentional escape from the burdens of everyday life. Rivalries and tradition are more important to fans than the political or social issues of the day. The game's enduring appeal is found in its strong connection to the past. Today's game looks almost identical to its earliest days, and the ballparks, rules, and uniforms reflect a different era. Even as the game and the business around it adapt to the demands of more recent years, fans cling to elements of the game that—to them—are unchanged from the beginning of the game itself.

This appeal to tradition, however, is a burden for baseball. Tradition opposes modernization and social change, but the game must find a way to respond to the entertainment demands of modern society. Casual observers may complain that the game is boring or too long, but jettisoning tradition means losing dedicated fans. Baseball is at its best when tradition comes up against the movements of society. The game can provide relief from politics or social conflict. But it also grants an opportunity to recognize social change precisely because baseball tradition is so highly valued and slow to change.

Baseball has traversed the foul lines and shaped the United States in important ways. The best-known instance is the 1947 rookie year of Jackie Robinson, as he was the first African American major leaguer in over sixty years. Robinson's debut helped to launch the modern Civil Rights movement, just as President Harry Truman signed executive order 9908 commissioning a study on rights and race in America. Truman's charge to the President's Committee on Civil Rights in 1946 led to a year-long study that created the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department, desegregated the armed forces, and moved the Democratic Party toward a civil rights platform. Truman was responding in part to lynchings and attacks on veterans who had returned from World War II only to face discrimination and violence at home. The work of the committee in 1947 coincided with Robinson's rookie season. His achievement was important not only in its symbolism, and not merely because he famously turned the other cheek when provoked by hostile crowds, death threats, and fellow players. Robinson succeeded in breaking the color line because he was one of the best ballplayers anyone had seen. With each game, he slowly refuted a presumption of white dominance by displaying his character and excellence as a player.

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