Review: A People’s History of Baseball, by Mitchell Nathanson

Through his book A People’s History of Baseball, Mitchell Nathanson offers up a fresh perspective on the history of our beloved national pastime.  In the same way that Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States explores and tells the histories of the underrepresented populations of America, Nathanson’s book delves into the untold stories behind the scenes of baseball.  While popular baseball histories tell of patriotism, virtue, and heroism, Nathanson probes deeper to uncover a world of player oppression, power struggles, racism, and questionable politics.

Nathanson debunks myths about the perfection and nobility of baseball, as portrayed by the owners and the media.  He points out, “[J]ournalists often assume the passive role of stenographers, copying down what is said rather than actively probing their own angles, digging behind the scenes, searching for the story that perhaps is not the one presented to them but the one that lies behind it. …. [C]lub owners … gravitated toward this vehicle in their continual quest to get their preferred message across to the American public.”  Through this book, Nathanson attempts to rectify this lack of journalistic muckraking.

He breaks apart the idea of baseball’s beginnings as a “gentleman’s game,” and forces readers to take a harder look at the perception of baseball as a game of patriotism, pride, and morality.  Through exposing myths, Nathanson does not merely provide an alternative history of baseball, he offers readers a sort of history of baseball’s history of myths.

When looking at the Black Sox Scandal, for example, the author does not merely perpetuate the common argument over whether the players really did throw the World Series.  Rather, he explores the mindset of baseball and of the nation as a whole, reveals the motives of the forces involved in the decision to ban the players, and considers the position of the players themselves.

Nathanson also delves into the “Great Experiment” of bringing on Jackie Robinson as Major League Baseball’s first black player.  Breaking the color barrier, he argues, would have worked with just about any player at the time, because America had experienced enough social pressure leading up to this point that the event became inevitable.  Furthermore, the expectation of Robinson to maintain an impeccable moral character created a double standard that only served to indirectly continue black oppression.

He describes the revolutionary publications of Bill James in the 1980s, who introduced a new way of looking at baseball statistics to the American public.  Contrary to popular belief, baseball presented a wide array of complexities that went beyond merely throwing, catching, and hitting.  Nathanson reveals how Bill James’s work only marked the beginning of a whole new outlook on statistical baseball, as embodied today through social media and fantasy baseball.

In many ways, one could almost title this book A Player’s History of Baseball, as Nathanson devotes much of the text to the defense of baseball players against their owners and the media.  In his quest to expose the hypocrisy and self-service of baseball’s owners, Nathanson wound up placing baseball players on a pedestal, making it appear as though the players could do no wrong, and they were merely victims of an unfair managing body.

While Nathanson does touch on a number of subjects throughout baseball history, the scope of the book also proved limiting.  Though it seems that the brevity of coverage certainly provided for an unencumbered reading experience, in a book of breakthrough revelations, a more in-depth collection of descriptions and explanations would have brought more life to the histories contained within its pages.

Nevertheless, Nathanson presents historians and baseball fans alike with an engaging book that challenges readers to look at baseball with a fresh perspective, and he does so in an easily accessible and readable format.  He pulls no punches in his analysis, which provides a refreshingly objective approach in the midst of the uber-patriotism that continues to surround the game.

This day in baseball: Blindsided bird

What’s it like to get hit by a 95-MPH fastball?  It’s bad news for a ballplayer, but even worse news if you’re a bird.  On March 24, 2001, in an exhibition game against the San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson threw a fastball that hit a dove flying in front of home plate.  The bird died instantly, appearing to explode into a firework of feathers, never knowing what hit it.

“Tomorrow!”, by Milton Bracker

Published in the New York Times in 1962, this poem by Milton Bracker resonates far and wide right about now.  Happy Opening Day, everyone!  May this season bring many memorable moments.


Hoorah, hooray!
Be glad, be gay-
The best of reasons
Is Opening Day.

And cheering the players
And counting the gate
And running the bases
And touching the plate.

And tossing the ball out
And yelling Play Ball!
(Who cares about fall-out-
At least, until fall?)

Let nothing sour
This sweetest hour;
The baseball season’s
Back in flower!

Quote of the day

There are three things in my life which I really love: God, my family, and baseball. The only problem – once baseball season starts, I change the order around a bit.

~Al Gallagher

Baseball Almanac