Michael Hammond

Hairs vs. Squares

Baseball, social change, and tradition.

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Baseball's tradition problem comes in protecting the valuable tradition of the game, while simultaneously responding to changes in technology and society. This is why baseball is often presented with romanticized, even religious imagery. Romanticized paeans to the game, found in the verse of Bart Giamatti or the play-by-play of Vin Scully, carry the weight of a vicar's homily. The ballpark is the "green cathedral" and the playing field is the "emerald chessboard." Abandoned ballparks, such as Detroit's Tiger Stadium, are viewed as hallowed ground. This often results in decades of internecine battles to preserve the space for its holy purpose of ball playing. When the stadium is demolished, fans continue to make pilgrimage to see any remnant of the old facility. Relics of the old game—historic balls and other equipment—regularly fetch millions at auction. A line of popular baseball cards even features shreds of actual game worn uniforms, offering fans the chance to own a holy relic of the game.

Like religion, baseball has its doctrinal guardians who protect the integrity and purity of the game. While innovators may contrive new and popular ways to celebrate the sacredness of the game, these methods remain subservient to the traditions and foundational ideals of the game that were handed down at its creation. There are even parallel debates over the question of origins, with purists protecting the Doubleday myth while modernists appeal to historical criticism to find a more moderated evolution of the early game into modern baseball.

Baseball's dilemma is that the romanticized view of the game is a fantasy. Nostalgia for a simpler past also gives baseball its appeal across class and political boundaries. Fans from a variety of viewpoints can share in the joy of celebrating their shared team allegiance. But the same ballpark that is a respite from work and family pressures also displays class distinctions between the luxury boxes and the bleachers. In order to perpetuate the myth that baseball is insulated from the world around it, each player has to suspend the burdens of life and maintain an outsized affection for playing the game. This is the challenge of the game for the fans, and also the men who play and participate in it. Baseball has been at its best when tradition was strong enough to bend toward a changing world while maintaining the great and unique character of the game.

Michael Hammond is Academic Dean of the Arts, Humanities, and Biblical Studies at Taylor University. He is also editor of the "Religion in American History" blog.

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