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

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

Postcard with interior view of the Colosseum by Francis Frith, circa 1870.

In part one of this installment, I mentioned Leslie White’s call to expand the purview of anthropology and take a closer look at things like baseball. I agree. White’s preliminary theory was that baseball, as a cultural institution, promoted national solidarity and unity: “No matter who you are, what you are, or where you are, if you are a fan you ‘belong.’”

Nope. If you look at the history of baseball at that time, and before, White’s argument about the unifying and integrative power of baseball…just doesn’t hold up. Baseball integrated with Jackie Robinson in 1947, yes, but just like battles for civil rights in the 1960s, issues with race and racism didn’t just magically disappear. Robinson–and those who came after him–dealt with years of discrimination, threats, and abuse. The 1960s were full of all kinds of turmoil, including ongoing racism and bigotry. Hank Aaron didn’t get to stay in the same hotels as his team when he was chasing Babe Ruth’s record in the 1960s. Curt Flood was effectively run out of baseball for challenging the power structure and arguing, in court, that MLB contracts of the time were effectively slavery. Reggie Jackson shared his experiences with ongoing racism in a new documentary. Clearly, baseball continued to have issues in the unity and solidarity departments.

Like many cultural institutions, baseball is contradictory. Yes, it can bring people together…but it reflects the bigotries, divisions, and tensions of society. Of course it does. So how else can we think about what baseball is and what it means? Here I think it’s useful, again, to look back on what was happening in those Roman colosseums. 

In Rome, according to scholars such as Katherine Welch (2007), the violent spectacles in the colosseum were about projecting state power and conditioning Roman citizens to violence, pain, and death. While the often gruesome spectacles that took place in the Colosseum are often assumed to be the result of social and political degradation in Imperial Rome, Welch reminds us that these practices actually developed and flourished in the Roman Republic period. So what was happening in the Colosseum wasn’t just some aberrant behavior; it was a reflection of deeper values and ideologies that had been constructed in Roman society. The spectacles, such as gladiatorial battles, were a way for the Roman State–and later the Emperors–to demonstrate their power via displays of dramatic violence that amazed audiences. 

Baseball games have elements that point to state power, such as the tradition of singing the National Anthem before games and other ‘patriotic’ sorts of displays. But I don’t think state power is the main ideological undercurrent in baseball. So what is going on here? What kinds of ideologies, or values, does baseball instill or promote in its audiences? 

In order to think through these questions it helps to sketch out the general structure of the world of major league baseball. There are 30 teams, each staffed with players, managers, coaches, and other support staff. The owners are a cadre of wealthy businessmen and billionaires who have a long history of running the game in a highly autocratic manner (see Dave Zirin’s Bad Sports and John Helyar’s Lords of the Realm on this point). Importantly, major league baseball operates under an antitrust exemption that allows it to conduct business in ways that have mostly been outlawed since the 19th century. The commissioner, who was in theory supposed to play a sort of mediating role to uphold the norms/ideals of the league, often ends up mostly serving the interests of the owners (the current MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is a good example of this). The players, for their part, are a rare set of athletes who have been able to make playing a child’s game their full-time careers. They are, of course, paid well for doing this, in part because of just how rare they are, and because so many people are willing to pay money to watch them. And that brings us to the fans themselves. All of the money in sports ultimately comes from revenue generated ticket sales, merchandise, licensing, media broadcasting rights, etc. Ultimately, it all comes down to the money that fans (and communities, when it comes to stadium subsidies) are willing to shell out to watch games and buy stuff associated with them. 

So if spectacles in the Colosseum were about projecting state power and conditioning audiences to violence, what’s going on with baseball? I think baseball is more about the celebration and display of market or perhaps corporate power. Think about it. The larger goal, each season, is for one billionaire owner (out of 30) to pull together a team of players that can beat all the rest. It’s sort of this 162 game big man competition, each year, between different corporate franchises. In order to draw in fans, they try to field a team of high-talent, well-paid players who can do amazing things on the field. Owners also try to bring in crowds with all kinds of events, such as fireworks and drone shows. Like the ancient Roman state, the games that take place in stadiums are places where the wealth, power, and savvy of owners is put on display. The whole process is decidedly autocratic and undemocratic, however, since the only ‘choice’ fans truly have is whether they go to games and buy tickets, beers, and bad hot dogs etc. or not. Fans don’t have a say in what happens with teams and players. Such decisions are up to managers, general managers, and ultimately owners.

Ok, but if that’s the case, and baseball really is this autocratic institution that feeds upon fans’ money in what is ultimately just a big annual demonstration of corporate power…why would anyone ever go to a baseball game? Because–and this should not come as a shock coming from an anthropologist–things might be just a bit more complicated.

More about that in part three.


Welch, K.E., 2007. The Roman amphitheatre: from its origins to the Colosseum. Cambridge University Press.