Melting Pot or Multiculturalism? Mediating Ethnicity in Baseball

Curator's Note

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?


 A very intriguing post with respect to the potential Melting Pot of Major League Baseball. 

Regarding your comment re: place of birth, there has certainly been a renewed interest in the different nationalities of our baseball players, perhaps no better represented than the MLB-sponsored World Baseball Classic, where major leaguers are placed on national teams (i.e Dominican Republic, Cuba, US, etc.) to face each other. This move as I understand it is part of a desire to include baseball in the Olympic Games and to expand the sports international marketing appeal. It was voted out of the 2012 in part because the sport was viewed as being 'too American' with little international appeal - despite the fact that the US one only one gold baseball medal in the past five modern Olympic Games and baseball being a dominant player the sports scene in countries such as Japan and many Latin American nations. 

Indeed, I might argue that inclusion of place of birth might be one mechanism by which MLB might be openly recognizing and promoting its international heritage - for no other reason than to expand the sport to international markets and a re-birth in the Olympic Games. From a marketing and production standpoint, MLB is better off a mixing bowl than a xenophobic melting pot. 

That, and the current star player in MLB is Dominican-born Albert Pujols, who openly celebrates his heritage and bond with fellow Dominican players. 

I agree with some of Nicholas's comments here - MLB seems to be actively promoting a heterogenous internationalism and not a melting pot in recent decades.  They offer a lot of content and branding in Spanish, play season opening games abroad (Mexico, Japan, Puerto Rico), and players are often discussed in terms of their heritage.  Furthermore, the game itself has gained popularity in Latin America and Asia.  When players like Chien-Ming Wang (Taiwan) or Ichiro Suzuko (Japan) play, their national media cover them as if the game were an individual sport - and MLB loves the added attention!  Furthermore, MLB parks now have "heritage nights," where groups from Latino, Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, and other nationalities and ethnicities present jumbo-tron content between innings and group ticket-holders wave flags of their homeland.

While I admit, I have not seen Take Me Out to the Ballgame, the lines quoted from A League of Their Own are a bit out of context, and (I think) best understood in the context of the movie being about World War II.  Reading "Americanness" as part of a "banning together" homefront effort to support the war better explains the slippage between nationality/ethnicity and diversity/sameness in that particular quote.

Definitely some interesting discussion to be had here!  It might be insightful to look at player interviews and experiences in the clubhouse to get yet another angle.

I concede that ethnicity and nationality are not the focus of the song in A League of Their Own, but that’s precisely why those lines intrigue me. I think various ethnic heritages are implied by the teammates’ last names (Mordabito, Murphy, Calhoun, etc.), but I cannot recall another point in the film where heritage is explicitly discussed. The Canadian character repeatedly shouts and/or raises her hands to identify herself when they sing “we’ve got Canadians,” but the “Irishmen and Swedes” do not. Are we supposed to assume from her last name that Doris Murphy (Rosie O’Donnell) is one of the “Irishmen”/Italian-Americans? Or, based on how she only ever describes herself as a girl from New York, are we simply supposed to see her as American? I suspect the latter, and I agree that the need for national unity during World War II is the most likely explanation why.

But I also find it intriguing that in 1949, during the cautious shift in racial and ethnic tolerance that followed World War II -- when baseball was beginning to be racially integrated and the All-American Girls Baseball League was still in operation -- Take Me Out to the Ball Game advocates the melting pot rather than multiculturalism. Perhaps we can justify it by noting that the film is depicting baseball at the turn of the century rather than postwar baseball or that the self-reflexive nature of the closing scene makes it clear that the entire film, including the ethnic caricatures, has simply been a performance.

Approaching MLB from a historical perspective, I suppose I worry that what appears on the surface to be support for diversity and celebration of heritage can easily be spun into emphasis on difference that is used to “other” rather than to unify. I certainly hope that isn’t what’s happening, and I do think the trend toward internationalism is a positive step. I’m curious to see how this discussion of race/ethinicity/nationality develops over the coming week.

I really do like how you've taken the historical perspective here, as it is rather interesting that a decidedly-American sport is indeed gaining a foothold internationally. Might this be some evidence of cultural imperialism and the "Westernization" or sport, or is there evidence to suggest that MLB is not only including more international players but also integrating the international community's unique 'spin' on the game into MLB's own operations and identity? Do we have examples of either of these (potentially competing) notions?  

Following these comments, I'm wondering if we need to differentiate fan awareness of international distinctions from business use of same - especially in rounding out a historical progression.

I would agree with Nick's initial point that the business of baseball seems to be displaying a desire to grow through diversifying nationalities, rather than unifying them under a single banner.

However, fan response (at least in the arena's with which I am familiar) seems reluctant to follow.  The World Baseball Classic is often criticized for its impact on the 'real' baseball season - seemingly displaying a desire for the game to remain America centric.  The same anti-diversity thought process seems to underlie the persistent desire to claim that the Japanese league plays at a 'AAAA' talent level (NOT major league) every time a single player crosses the ocean and does not become an ultra-star - conveniently ignoring successes and stressing failures.  Indeed, in the case of Japanese players transitioning to Major League Baseball, it is interesting how frequently the switch is referred to as 'coming to America,' as though the MLB and America are synonymous (conveniently ignoring the Blue Jays).

It's obvious but worth mentioning that the current "diversity" in baseball, whether national or raced, has more to do with money than anything else. Big contracts for Matsui (Yankees, now A's) or Suzuki (Mariners), made with much fanfare, helped to build an "Asian market" for the MLB television rights/sales. And the ongoing exploitation of poor young men from the DR, Venezuela, Cuba, and Puerto Rico is sadly legendary. While the movies Elizabeth cites look back on an unintegrated past with a mix of nostalgia and regressive or progressive inclinations, they don't quite get at the corporate machinations that shape the image of baseball. As much as the MLB sometimes works (and pays PR firms) to reshape that image, the profits machinery grinds on. Bud Selig's recent refusal even to acknowledge a problem of holding the All-Star Game in AZ is only one prominent example. 

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