Baseball and the Intersection of Sports, Culture, and Language

by Steve Snyder

Baseball has long been regarded as being as American as “hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet,” per a jingle from that carmaker. Especially in days past, it’s been seen as a harbinger of cultural changes, such as integration with Jackie Robinson. (That’s even though pro football beat baseball to the punch.)

From Robinson, baseball went on to bringing more and more Latin-American, as well as African-American, players into the game. Baseball, although the quintessential all-American game, at least in American narrative myth, had already been exported to Japan well before World War II, and to the Caribbean, whence the rise in Latino players, even before that.

However, at some point in time, baseball, while still being The National Pastime™, ceased being America’s national sport. The NFL long ago passed MLB in TV revenue and other measures of interest. The NBA had been making up ground, relative to MLB, ever since the 1980s and the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson rivalry helped erase images of the league in the 1970s as drug-heavy, and black-heavy.

Meanwhile, baseball today has largely lost African-American interest, to the degree that a number of MLB teams have no non-Caribbean black players on their rosters. At the same time, baseball, more than the other two major American professional sports, still engenders discussion about the “right” way to play the game. “Right,” in this sense, often seems sociologically conditioned.

A touchstone of this debate is the bat flip.

People who value “old school” baseball deplore it. It’s considered too showy, too “in your face.” Or, too much disrespect for “old school” baseball values.

People who support at least an occasional bat flip, or similar exuberance, say that opponents are rather, at least in part, promoting “white school,” rather than “old school,” baseball.

And, yes, this is a real issue that arguably has real cultural, and racial questions.

An online acquaintance dislikes bat flips because they’re not “old school.” He was specifically talking about Jose Bautista in this year’s one AL Division Series.

I responded that “old school” here often equals “white school.” He eventually admitted that while he was a good white liberal, he didn’t want some parts of “popular culture” not being overtaken so much as to make people like him cringe.

However Pittsburgh Pirate star Andrew McCutchen, an African-American player has specifically said, more than once, that such old school ideas are, in his mind, part of lower African-American involvement in baseball than decades past.

And, it’s not just Latino players, though Carlos Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers has been singled out, as was Bautista.

One of Korea’s top bat-flippers, Hwang Jae-gyun, may come to the U.S., and it’s even more of an art form there than here.

If you don’t like Joey Bats, and think he’s “disrespecting the game,” you definitely won’t like this guy. If he – or one or two of his Korean fellows like Cho Hong-Seok – come to the US, and if they temper their bat flips, I hope they don’t totally eliminate them, as the New York Times said they might.

The Times notes that Koreans have a word that is almost untranslatable, like the German word ‘schadenfreude’,  for a good bad flip in Korean baseball. That said, the Korean ‘shiwonhada’ seems like it could be similar to our own ‘comfort food’, but for an action, not a type of sustenance.

To me, though, it raises multiple questions, which I present as food for thought, without claiming to have any answers. I do note that these questions have tie-ins with a number of ideas in philosophy.

First, how much is a particular sport, when created in a certain country, tied to that country’s culture, or even a subculture within that country? How much does it possibly lose, or possibly gain, in “translation”?

Second, linked to aesthetics, how much of this is a de gustibus non disputandum, even if not linked to a certain culture? In other words, in baseball, even if “old school” is not culturally biased, is it still the “right” way to play baseball, or is it simply a taste; a preference?

These questions are raised in other sports, as well. There are spikes and end zone dances in football, for example. And even with the NBA’s attempts to “domesticate” its product, professional basketball runs heavy on hip-hop culture — and not just in the U.S. Many top-level international players actually like that particular culture, within the NBA.

This ties in with other “translation” issues that also parallel philosophy in general, and specifically linguistics.

American football is still seen as very much an American product, even with the NFL working on starting a European professional league.

Basketball has long become internationalized.  The “Eurostep” footwork for modern guards and forwards has been imported back to the America, as have things such as 3-point heavy offense. The sport is second only to soccer in global popularity.

Baseball occupies the middle position. Still American at heart, it is at the same time a semi-global sport.

To use linguistic analogies, NFL football (versus what the rest of the world calls football) is American English. Basketball is Esperanto (or the Esperanto of Esperanto aficionados’ dreams).

Baseball? It’s like the English language as a whole. Today, American and British versions compete for world usage, with the British version filtered through the countries that remain part of the Commonwealth, along with now-independent non-American colonies.

And, per ‘schadenfreude’ and ‘shiwonhada’, some words aren’t easily translatable.  The concepts, however, are.

This even more tangentially relates to “the canon” of literature and the arts, and whether they are, or are not, culturally biased. A question related to that is, even if they are strongly culturally influenced, do they still have ideas that are more universal, even if a cultural patina sometimes has to be scrubbed off?

My answer is “yes.”

To me, this issue in part gets back to another philosophical idea. Friedrich Nietzsche distinguished between the Apollonian and the Dionysian temperaments. Neither is necessarily wrong. And, just as we can have a Dionysian Nietzsche vs. an Apollonian Kant or a Dionysian Wagner vs. an Apollonian Bach, we can also have a Dionysian Jose Bautista vs. an Apollonian Daniel Murphy.


New York Times link:





8 responses to “Baseball and the Intersection of Sports, Culture, and Language”

  1. Thomas Jones

    Enjoyed this piece, Steve, especially since I stayed up last night to watch the Royals win the series. That’s because I still have relatives in KC and remember my Father referring to them as the Blues. My team is (sadly) the White Sox, residual sentiment that lingers pointlessly in the mind of a young boy with a transistor radio listening to broadcasts from Chicago and marveling over the exploits of players with strange names like Minnie Minoso or Luis Aparicio or Nellie Fox. “American” baseball is simply a way to create brands. You would enjoy DeLillo’s “Pafko at the Wall,” a piece so outstanding that it has been published separately although only serving as the Prologue to his masterpiece “Underworld.”

  2. Thank you for this. I am a life long baseball fan and I have always loved players with flair. Yasiel Puig is one of my current favorites and I thought Bautista’s bat flip was spectacular. I’d like to see more of it.

    I’ve also long been bothered by the baseball media’s reluctance to embrace baseball as an international sport. It has always seemed really xenophobic. Whether it was Rob Dibble saying that Ichiro could never hit American pitching or Colin Cowherd saying that Dominicans are less intelligent, it’s an awful stain on the game I truly love. I hope more Korean, Chinese, Cuban, Japanese, Australian and Dutch players break into the league and I hope they never lose their bat-flipping, trash-talking connection to their roots.

  3. I agree that great art and literature throughout history and throughout the world can speak to something in all of us. As I said in another thread, that is part of what makes it great.

    With sport I hear the words ‘The “Eurostep” footwork for modern guards and forwards has been imported back to the America, as have things such as 3-point heavy offense.’ I am not even sure whether you are talking about sport or law enforcement. When I turn on the radio and hear “He comes in fast and delivers a leg spin to the offside which is edged off to the gullies where it is quickly tidied up ending another maiden over”, or somesuch, I am vaguely aware that they pertain, in some way, to a game of cricket – but not much more.

    But when I see one of those flourishes in celebration of scoring points – the shirt over the head in soccer, the little dance routine in Gridiron, a bat flip or in criket (all tradition and gravitas) the bat shyly raised in modest acknowledgement to the crowd’s acclaim of a century or career milestone – it is immediately recognisable for what it is – even if I have not idea of what sort of a manoeuvre it was they are celebrating.

    So, yes, those gestures are also universally recognisable. Whether they are appropriate in a particular sport will depend on how they are accepted. A cricketer who moonwalked, jived or bat flipped to celebrate a century would be met with silent tight-lipped reproof by the crowd.

    In baseball? Well – what will happen is what will happen. That is how culture goes.

  4. Societies have all sorts of divisions in them, and certainly the black vs. white one is still quite large here. Nevertheless, common sports do help bridge such gaps, though as Robin mentioned, society does decide how much cultural divergence will be tolerated. When I was a kid it really did seem that rap music would do nothing but further alienate blacks from the mainstream. And though it has done this somewhat, it’s also progressively become more and more accepted in general. It certainly isn’t now just for the “ethnic.” I consider an even faster transformation to have occurred in social perceptions of homosexuality. Perhaps “Hollywood” has had a hand in this one?

    Anyway, good job Steve.

  5. Socratic.
    Baseball *was* America at its best, as a coordinated play between teamwork and individual excellence, opening all sorts of doors to questions of what we Americans wanted to be, and how we saw ourselves. Whether that’s still true or not is open to question. The internationalization of Baseball, only re-opens questions Whitman asked in some of his more prophetic verse concerning American cultural expansion….

    I would be remiss here, not to mention the Baseball poems of my friend and mentor James LaVilla-Havelin, of San Antonio, who wrote of baseball so insightfully. (Simon’s Masterpiece is long out of print; but see for instance What the Diamond Does is Hold it All in, which is still available ( ).

  6. E.J., that is an interesting comment on another sociological issue, individualism vs. teamwork. In football or basketball, offense and defense play both involve the entire team, whereas in baseball (and cricket, of course) a batter and pitcher duel one-on-one, but the pitcher has the defense behind him.

  7. Old Gator

    I sense a subtext herein – thanks, Cutch, for dropping a few depth charges to bring it to the surface, even if the damned things were ineffectual against Godzilla – of the dichotomy for our age: the “unwritten rules” are like the pointy white hats and sheets that contemporaneous baseball and designatedhitterball (another, equally septic, dichotomy for our age) wear to mask their true racist and xenophobic origins in pre-integration Amerika’s Past Time. They are a bulwark against the more joyous, demonstrative, dithyrambic (see, there’s your “Birth of Tragedy” echolalia, Fly – happy now?) style of the Afro-Caribbean and Latino ballplayer. What is the Bautista bat flip but a reminder to the last redoubts of WASP cultural purity of the Hispanic inversion of the exclamation point at the end of every one of their expressive sentences?You can hear a Donald Trump Stump Hump in every whine and puell of a WASP like Brian McCann – who famously chose a Latino, El Keed, for his most preposterous sweat, piss, jism, blood unwritten rules blowout of all – when some cracker atavistic croaks sore about playing the game “the right way.” He’s like a plantation overseer, shorn of his whip by enlightenment pretenses and thrown back upon the limited resources of his forebrain and mouth. He dreads the brown tide. He dreads the rapidfire glottal bypass of Spanish enunciation. He dreads little crosses with ackcherel figures of Jesus nailed to them. But subliminally, I think, he’s standing guard over the western European gene pool, never mind how closely second generation slaves often resembled their owners. When Brian McCann or even Jonathan Papelbon explodes in indignation (and Paps, for all the delightful Derridean dissemination of his nickname suggests, picked a Mormon – yes, that’s right, a surrogate subaltern – for his most recent discharge of unwritten rules violation umbrage), the poor dim hayseed is merely still fighting the Civil War, like Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies.

  8. And, Jose Bautista himself has written about his famous bat flip: