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.