[As I’ve done each of the last couple years, an Opening Day series—this time focused on AmericanStudying some particularly interesting baseball identities. Leading up to a special Guest Post on a particularly important baseball life!]
On two relatively recent communities of international Major Leaguers, and the divergent strains of immigration to which they connect.
As this week’s earlier posts have no doubt reflected, to my mind the most interesting way to frame the 20th and early-21st century histories of baseball (not from the sport’s earliest 19th century moments, that is, but over at least the last hundred years) is through the lens of diversification. Although Monday’s subject, Hank Greenberg, helps us consider that trend’s longstanding presence, many of the most famous and striking moments on the diversification 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, Cuban and Japanese 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 and brought to the US minor leagues, 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 at the time, such stars came to the United States and the Major Leagues in very different ways: the Cuban players generally defecting and escaping from the then 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 from their home country to the majors was 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—not least because their prior prominence and unquestioned talents all but guarantee them employment upon their successful arrival in the US—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 can be connected to such experiences, and to the complex narratives of national and immigrant need that both link and contrast those immigration stories with arrivals who find themselves instead at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Professional sports can feel like a fantasy world, and in many ways they do fit that description; but as with any part of our culture and society, they’re full of exemplary lives and identities, histories and trends, and ripe for AmericanStudying.
Last baseball life tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Baseball lives or stories you’d highlight?
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