Imperialism, Voice of America, war propaganda… baseball? Would you have guessed that the game of baseball has been an unlikely tool used by the U.S. government in the shaping of its foreign policies? That was the proposition put forth by Mark Dyreson in a recent talk that was part of Research Unplugged’s spring season.
Dyreson, professor of kinesiology and history, enlightened the audience in the Penn State Downtown Theatre about how America used baseball to first differentiate itself from its former British colonizers, and later to export its own culture while placing a distinctly American stamp on the globe.
Said Dyreson, baseball was created as a direct rejection of British cultural influence, specifically the game of cricket. Just as Mark Twain called for—and delivered—a uniquely American style of literature, Americans also craved a sport all their own.
Pointing to the sport’s popularity in Japan and Latin America (places where baseball’s fan-bases have surpassed even that of the U.S.) Dyreson called baseball “a legitimate cultural vehicle.” The sport’s global expansion is less coincidence than a well-orchestrated campaign conducted by the U.S. government, he emphasized.
The famed world tours of Albert Spalding’s “All-America” team (1888–1889 and 1913–1914) and the modern World Baseball Classic represent the effort to globalize baseball, said Dyreson. “What’s the largest-ever attendance for a baseball game?” he asked the crowd. The answer? An place in Berlin during the 1936 Olympics when an estimated crowd of 125,000 turned out for an exhibition game between two U.S. teams (the two squads had been invited to the Olympics to promote baseball as a “demonstration” sport) in Berlin during the 1936 Olympics.
Merchants, missionaries, and U.S. Marines have all played a role in bringing baseball to far-away parts of the world said Dyreson. As the U.S. began forming a global empire in Latin America and the Pacific from the 1880’s onward, baseball was used as a way to spread Americanism.
Dyreson noted that it wasn’t always the U.S. pushing baseball onto other countries, but rather some nations have molded the game into their own “national pastimes.”
The Japanese attempted to create a true “World Series” in 1940 which pitted the best teams from every nation against each other; the concept was soon derailed by Japanese military actions.
Dyreson recounted his experience researching in the U.S. National Archives, sifting through boxes of documents for clues to baseball’s role in U.S. foreign policy.
His hard work paid off, as he discovered several official government documents either centered around or involving baseball.
Despite declining to pledge allegiance to a particular MLB team, Dyreson did proclaim a lifelong love of baseball. By merging that passion with one of history, he painted a seldom-seen picture of a truly American “Baseball Empire.”
Kyle Casey, Research Unplugged Intern