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Thursday, April 4, 2013

April 4, 2013: Baseball in America: International Arrivals

[In honor of this week’s Opening Day, a series on some of the many AmericanStudies connections to the national pastime. Add your responses and thoughts for a weekend post that’s sure to touch ‘em all!]
On two relatively recent communities of international Major Leaguers, and the divergent strains of immigration to which they connect.
To my mind, the most interesting way to frame the mid-20th and early-21st century histories of baseball (not from the sport’s earliest moments, that is, but over the last fifty to seventy-five years) is through the lens of diversification. Of course the most famous and striking moments on that timeline relate to African American ballplayers: the rise of the Negro Leagues, the stories of Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, the inspiring and uglier sides to Hank Aaron’s record-setting career, and so on. But in the last few decades, paralleling of course the nation’s expanding and evolving multi-cultural community, baseball has grown far more diverse still: with the explosion of Hispanic and Latin American ballplayers, for example, but also with the increased presence of the two groups of international stars on whom I want to focus in this post, Japanese and Cuban players.
These two groups share a couple of core similarities: both have to this point featured mostly players who were already successful professional ballplayers in their home countries (a very different dynamic from young Latin American players drafted in their teens, for example); and both became particularly prominent with the mid-1990s arrivals of especially legendary such national stars, including the brothers Livan and Orlando “El Duque” Hernández from Cuba and Hideo Nomo and Hideki Irabu from Japan. But due to the drastically distinct situations in those home nations, such stars came to the United States and the Major Leagues in very different ways: the Cuban players generally defecting and escaping from the closed-off island nation, and thus often leaving family and friends behind in the process; and the Japanese players generally being publicly courted through high-priced bidding wars, and thus often leaving their prior teams and leagues as conquering heroes. Of course I can’t speak for any of these individuals, but it seems clear that the move to the majors was thus far more fraught, diplomatically and personally, for the Cuban than the Japanese stars.
Those Cuban professional athletes are not, of course, directly equivalent in any way to other potential refugees from that nation or similar situations—but they can remind us that even in a high-profile world like major league baseball, the very different cultural and historical paths to American identity and community remain. Similarly, while the Japanese stars are not in the identical situation as immigrants who come to the United States to (for example) study at elite universities or perform high-skilled occupations, they do connect to such experiences, and to the complex narratives of national and immigrant need that both link and contrast those immigration stories with the arrivals at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Professional sports can feel like a fantasy world, and in many ways do fit that description; but as with any part of our culture and society, they’re full of exemplary histories and trends, and ripe for AmericanStudying.
Final diamond connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on these histories, or other aspects of diversity in sports? Other baseball connections you’d highlight?

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