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Baseball Class, Week 4: Forging Community...?

Today's class was interesting for several reasons completely unrelated to the topics we discussed: 

1. Apparently the undergraduates are in the middle of midterms and are, by the time the 7 pm class rolls around, exhausted. 

2. The students were unaware that there was a reading assignment (?!) this week and had not procured the text yet, so hardly anyone did the reading. 

3. This text has been deemed "too easy" for me by the professor, so it has been tacitly requested that I stay quiet and let the other students hash out the issues of race and class as it appears in baseball, especially in the case study of a small inner-city neighborhood in Phildelphia. 

Oh quick aside -- one of the students was talking to the professor during the break and claimed that Los Angeles is a terrible sports town because, when he was there over the summer, Angelenos didn't come out en force to celebrate the Lakers championship win. He compared this to the aftermath in San Francisco when the Giants beat the Rangers. I called out across the classroom that the good people of LA rioted on behalf of the Lakers, but I'm not sure anyone believed me. 

Anyway, after discussing the best Superbowl Commercials, we started talking about the deep connection between urban life and baseball. First, the professor asked us where baseball originated, in terms of class. While baseball apparently originated out of the urban middle class (more white color workers, skilled artisans and technicians), the game itself is most closely associated to the rural working class. Namely, Americans. 

At the time of Reconstruction and just prior to the First World War, people began to long for the "good ole days". As American industrialized and workers became commodities, people looked back to that age of "rugged individualism", an age marked with temperance and respect for authority. These are the values that began to be espoused by baseball, and I would argue that this is part of the reason that baseball is considered American's past-time, as wholesome and culturally entrenched as apple pie. 

Aside from inculcating "good" values, baseball also became a great way to entertain and unify the masses. We spent a great amount of time dealing with the introduction of the "bleacher". The American League was apparently the first league to do this (prior to the merging of the AL and the NL, by the way), and the way in which it worked was two-fold: it raised attendance of factory workers (read: immigrants) and it kept the factory workers (read: immigrants) away from the more...civilized (read: American) patrons. In effect, it was a method by which the owners of the teams could exploit the Other and still keep them separate. The National League, for what it's worth, refused to do this...until the two teams merged about 10 years after the AL's introduction of the bleacher. 

So, we come to the insider/outsider binary, which is a fancy technical way that academics can stdy and designate when communities create space by claiming  "us vs them". In Sherri Grasmuck's sociological study, Protecting Home, she looks at the way in which Little League baseball helped transcend issues of both class and race in an inner-city neighborhood in Philadelphia, PA. While the work is somewhat flawed (there are lots of assumptions I could challenge that she makes in her book), the first three chapters offer up an interesting look at what this baseball league has done for the community. 

The second and third chapters focus mainly on the adults of Fairmont, and how the social dynamics of the community are lived out through this baseball league that has the presumable primary focus of being about children playing baseball. For fun. Fairmont, formerly an enclave of lower working class white Catholics, had been inundated with yuppies (her term) starting in the 1980s and, as a result, started to see their values, morals, and baseball league begin to crumble away. What follows is a struggle to define the community in face of professional "new-comers" who are not only gentrifying the neighborhood but having less children, thereby reducing the population of children that can participate in the Fairmont Sports Association. As a result, the FSA has to reach out not only to these new-comers, but to people of color. 

Even then, those that were outside of the community had to be either sponsored by a community member or ask around to find out when tryouts were or when parents could sign up their child. The community did not advertise the baseball league; registration, tryouts, even practice schedules were often given by word of mouth. The "old-timers" were fiercely protective of their league and wanted to protect it from the elitist attitudes and mores of the new young professionals who didn't understand how important baseball was to Fairmont. These insiders considered baseball to be all that "they" had. 

Hilariously enough, while the parents had all sorts of social issues, when the kids got to play, they just played. It didn't matter who made what, and what color skin you had. The boys were united by a common goal: beat the other team. 

What we have here is an instance where baseball in particular (and sports in general, I would argue, though Grasmuck does not) acts as an arena in which goals can be achieved by transcending boundaries proscribed by both race and class. The team becomes a community in and of itself, where one's membership is defined by virtue of being on the team. Period. Grasmuck shares a story about the travel team that went to play in an extremely affluent suburb. The suburban team was all white, whereas the Fairmont squad was not. What is surprising is that, from a town that was marked by extreme racism in the 1950s, the entire neighborhood turned up. Even people without kids playing on the team. And even more, they cheered for everyone on the team, black players included. 

What I found compelling about this is that, like I stated above, sports becomes a means for people to transcend normal identity boundaries. Sports help people create space to become something slightly different, whether it's on the micro level ("I play on the Padres" or "I play on the Dodgers") to the macro ("I play for Fairmont"). During those moments, it oftentimes doesn't matter where you're from or what you make, because those things don't matter. Winning matters. Winning matters to the point that people are (for the most part) willing to put aside differences of race and class to work together towards a common goal. 

And in an increasingly polarized world, I think that's pretty awesome. 

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