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.

5 thoughts on “Review: A People’s History of Baseball, by Mitchell Nathanson

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed the review, Precious, and I’ll definitely have to seek out this publication. It’s always refreshing to encounter a different perspective, especially one that undresses the national pastime and questions the validity of mantras like ‘baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet’. As you pointed out, the lack of journalistic nut-cracking only perpetuated the hero persona, and perhaps unjustly magnified and glamorized stars like Ruth and Mantle. In reality, baseball is nothing more than a microcosm of society in general. If there’s racial tension and power struggles in mainstream America, it’s almost a certainty the same maladies will exist in baseball. But, somehow, through the decades, we’ve elevated baseball to mythical heights, where the legends stand taller and the metal never rusts. And really, in a world where so much has gone wrong, can we truly find fault with this approach? As for me, I’m standing firmly with Bonnie Tyler…”I’m holding out for a hero!”

    Keep up the great work, I love your posts! 🙂

    1. Thanks for coming by, Bill! I agree, baseball is very much a microcosm of American society, and the game influences American thought just as much as it reflects it. I think that our glorification of baseball is also a reflection of how Americans wish to perceive their society too: where the American dream is a house, a dog, and a white picket fence, and where families go to Sunday ballgames together.

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