Summer anthropologies #2: Leslie White goes to a baseball game (Part 1)

Summer anthropologies #2: Leslie White goes to a baseball game (Part 1)

View from the upper deck of Oracle Park, 2023. Photo: Ryan Anderson.

A couple months ago, just after the 2023 baseball season started, I was sitting in the upper deck behind home plate at Oracle Park in San Francisco, California. It is a great view. I was there to watch the Giants play against the Los Angeles Dodgers with about 30,000 or so other people. This was the first MLB game I’d been to in about three decades. It was nice being back after so long. Things that I’d forgotten about all came back–the sounds, the feel of a packed stadium, the smell of hot dogs, popcorn, and not-so-cheap beer. Baseball was my first love, so it was fun to be back.

But of course since I’m an anthropologist, I couldn’t just sit there and enjoy the game. I mean, I did watch the game, but sometimes my mind would drift from what was going on at the plate and I’d look at the big crowd and think about the spectacle and scale of the whole thing. It’s just one more option when you’re at a baseball game: check the infield shift, watch how the pitcher places the 0-2 pitch, and think about the deeper meaning of sports in human history. The usual stuff. Seriously though: baseball stadiums, and all that happens inside them, are a form of public spectacle that can be traced back (at least) to the Colosseums of Rome. It’s all kind of amazing depending on how you look at it. 

Millions of people and billions of dollars are entangled in this thing we call baseball. For some people, baseball is all about money–a lot of it. For others, it’s about the love of the game, family memories, following favorite players, or the important role a certain team plays in community history and identity. There’s a tension between these positions that has shaped the histories of how this sport has developed since the 19th century. It’s a tension that also speaks to larger questions of politics, money, and power that have deep roots in human history. 

The politics of spectacle and violence in the Roman Colosseum is just one strain of a lineage that contemporary baseball derives from. These seem like things that anthropologists would and should study, right? But, as George Gmelch has explained, baseball hasn’t been a big focus in anthropology. Why not?

Well, it clearly relates to anthropology’s long standing tendency to look everywhere else but within. Things have changed, especially since the latter part of the 20th century, but I think this tendency still tends to shape much of the field. Some anthros study baseball, but it hasn’t been a major focus for the discipline. That has changed with the growth of the anthropology of sport in recent years.

Baseball seems like an obvious–and massive—contemporary cultural practice that merits some anthropological analysis. Leslie White recognized this back in the mid 1960s with his call to expand the scope of the field. He mentioned baseball specifically:

It is customary to speak of major league baseball as a sport as if this were an adequate and sufficient characterization of this institution. But is it? It can hardly be called a sport for the men who go out to the ball parks five or six days a week and do hard work for hard cash. Baseball is a fairly big business with relatively high salaries; franchises are bought and sold. Attendance at major league ball park exceeded 21 million in 1962, and countless millions watch games on television or listen to them on radio. During the summer millions upon millions of Americans talk baseball daily. They are intimately acquainted with the player’s achievements: batting averages, pitchers’ records and so on. Virtually everywhere one goes in the United States during the summer one can listen to, and participate in, well informed discussions of the two major leagues and their respective teams. And on some radio stations every news report, morning, and night, includes a full account of the games to be played, or the results of games played, that day. And all this is a part of the news of outstanding world and national events. What is the significance of this? [page 633]

White offers his theory: baseball is a kind of cult or institution that serves to promote national solidarity. If you look at all the patriotism that’s attached to baseball–opening the game with the national anthem and all–he was clearly onto something there. He argues that while other institutions such as religion are ‘divisive rather than integrative’:

…baseball tends to unite everyone in a common fraternity of devotees-or fans. No matter who you are, what you are, or where you are, if you are a fan you ‘belong.’

I think White was onto something but he didn’t take things far enough. And he was off the mark a bit as well. More about that in Part 2.

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