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“Play Ball, You All”: Baseball’s Turn Down Tin Pan Alley by Katherine Walden is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

During the TPA era, as baseball’s position as the national pastime was being cemented, threats to white American masculinity came from a variety of sources. Political suffrage and early women’s rights movements during this period worked toward providing increased opportunities for women in the workforce and higher education, challenging masculine preserves that had long held sway in American society. Coming off the heels of the Industrial Revolution, the distinct stratification of authority roles and increasingly-developed structural hierarchies within the American workplace combined with the changing notions of production, labor, and consumption to radically change the how the notions of “work” and “play” were constructed within American society and popular culture.

How the narrative of baseball as the American national pastime was—and continues to be—constructed and reinforced is directly tied to responses to these multiple threats to white American masculinity. Rather than see baseball and by extension American identity as progressive or forward-thinking, baseball’s place within popular culture looked to an imagined past to reconceptualize and enshrine a romanticized, imagined version of American identity and society. A majority of the literature about baseball, from Walt Whitman’s poetry to W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe, depicts baseball as the national pastime through constructing an imagined Midwestern cultural space that reinforces notions of a rural, agrarian work ethic and places value on patriarchal relationships. The popular music contained in this collection even further narrows who is able to access and determine how baseball operates as the national pastime, as songs about baseball caricature female fans and stereotype non-white racial and ethnic identities.

In literature and other popular culture imaginaries, baseball’s identity as the national pastime is interwoven with its connection to working-class populations and cultural spaces. In these cultural myths, baseball operates as the national pastime because it is grounded in a particular conception of “true” American identity, which most often strikes a tenuous balance between working-class immigrants in urban spaces and self-reliant agrarian farmers in the rural frontier. For example, as mentioned previously, some literature about baseball emphasizes its rural, agrarian roots; however, a smaller body of literature, for example Greenberg’s The Celebrant, focuses on how baseball in urban spaces works as an Americanizing forces for European immigrants. American popular music written about baseball fluctuates from emphasizing again imagined frontier qualities (as in Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” or John Fogerty’s “Centerfield”) while the earlier TPA titles contained in this collection reference young men working in white-collar positions like clerking running to catch a baseball game after getting off work. Other songs or performed sketches from the earlier period feature young men calling in sick or being absent from white-collar jobs in order to attend mid-day or afternoon games. However, despite those tensions, American masculinity, in its variety of forms, prevails across popular culture representations of baseball.[1]

Even after the Progressive Era years, when baseball’s place as the national pastime was generally secure, popular culture representations of baseball continued to limit who is able to fully participate or have full autonomy in baseball and by extension American society. From the wildly romanticized Field of Dreams film based on Kinsella’s novel to the ostensibly progressive (and more recent) 42: The Jackie Robinson Story, how baseball is portrayed in popular culture continues to reinforce the notion of baseball as white-dominated masculine preserve. Through a nebulous web of memory politics, representations of baseball within American popular culture work to reimagine or recreate a particular idealized version of American society. But, these representations also communicate responses to threats to white American masculinity, calling into question the blur between the imagined or romanticized and the real.

[1] The only notable exceptions are Eric Greenberg’s 2004 Tony Award-winning drama Take Me Out and William Brashler’s 1973 novel The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings. Greenberg’s plot focuses on the tension between an openly gay multi-racial professional baseball player from an urban area and a white heterosexual baseball player from the rural South.