Baseball has been considered America’s national pastime since the late 1850s, not only because of its nationwide popularity among a diverse fan base, but also because the sport claims to reflect the nation itself. As G. Edward White argued in Creating the National Pastime (1996), baseball is a democratic game, and although it was initially segregated racially, baseball has always been ethnically mixed, echoing the social diversity of the country as a whole.
But nostalgic cinematic representations of the early days of baseball often tend to celebrate the “melting pot” of ethnic assimilation rather than multiculturalism. As I recently argued in the Journal of Popular Film and Television, the ethnic heritages of Irish shortstop Eddie O’Brien (Gene Kelly), Irish second baseman Dennis Ryan (Frank Sinatra), and Jewish first baseman Nat Goldberg (Jules Munshin) in Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) are emphasized only to highlight how they are being shed in favor of supposedly non-ethnic white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, embodied by love interests K. C. Higgins (Esther Williams) and Shirley Delwyn (Betty Garrett). Although Eddie sports a shamrock-green top hat and carries a shillelagh for the musical number “The Hat My Father Wore Upon St. Patrick’s Day,” his initial references to traditional Irish dance are gradually replaced by jazz-inflected modern American dance. By the closing coda, he can confidently declare a list of items that qualify as being “strictly USA,” items almost completely devoid of identifiable ethnicity.
We can also consider the song that the Rockford Peaches sing in A League of Their Own (1992): “We are the members of the All-American League. We come from cities near and far. We’ve got Canadians, Irishmen, and Swedes. We’re all for one. We’re one for all. We’re All-Americans.” Or is it “We’re all Americans”? Where does the boundary between nationality end and ethnicity begin?
The 2011 Racial and Gender Report Card for Major League Baseball gave the sport an “A” rating for race. But place of birth is still commonly listed as an important statistic. This leaves me wondering: Does contemporary media coverage of baseball reflect the supposedly complete democratization of America’s national pastime? Does anxiety about ethnicity (and, implicitly, nationality) only still matter in nostalgic fictionalized representations of the sport?