[For this year’s Opening Day series, I’ll be highlighting individual baseball stories and AmericanStudying their contexts and meanings. Play ball!]
On Babe Ruth, symbolism, and race in America.
There’s no doubt that sports can bring out the worst as well as the best in us, and that sports fandom does so with particular force. But even those of us who have experienced hateful sports rivalries are likely to be shocked when we read about the death threats (among other horrific attacks) that Hank Aaron faced as he approached and then passed Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. This wasn’t Jackie Robinson, breaking baseball’s color barrier and changing a still-segregated society nearly thirty years earlier; this was simply a very talented baseball player finishing a very succesful baseball career, one that had landed him at the top of the record books. And yet something about the combination of his race and identity with those of the iconic legend he was eclipsing led to some of the ugliest expressions of which we Americans and humans are capable.
The moment and those expressions tell us a great deal about racism in America, and it would likely be a mistake to focus our analyses on any other side to those histories. But at the same time, I do believe that if Aaron had been approaching a Lou Gehrig record, or a Joe DiMaggio record, or a Ty Cobb record, or any other legendary player, the responses might not have been quite so vitriolic. There’s just something about the Babe in the collective consciousness of a number of American sports fans, or rather a few related somethings: his literally and figuratively larger than life status, the way in which he was already a myth of sorts before he became one after his career was done; his concurrent representation of an earlier era in baseball and sports and America, one that likely couldn’t help but feel to many fans contrasted with the world of professional sports in Aaron’s 1970s; and, yes, the way in which each of those histories was made possible in large part because Ruth played in a segregated league, competing with only a portion of his era’s best ballplayers.
It’s with all of those different sides to Ruth, his era, and history in play that Dennis Lehane creates a series of bravura sequences interspersed with the main narratives througout his early 20th century historical novel The Given Day (2008). One of Lehane’s two co-protagonists is an African American ballplayer named Luther Laurence, and Lehane opens his novel with a set-piece in which Ruth and some of his fellow professional players (en route from one 1918 World Series site to the other) encounter Luther and other African American players, leading to a pickup game that is at once color-blind and yet ultimately as segregated as the rest of society. Ruth reappears in a few additional set-pieces later in the novel, always bringing with him the same uneasy combination of baseball and society, mythic ideals and gritty realities. Some reviewers critiqued the Ruth sections as tangential to the book’s main narratives, which is true enough—but they make great use of the Ruth mythos, illustrating one more time how much this larger than life figure can say and do in our national conversations and stories.
Next baseball story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other baseball stories you’d highlight?
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