An Investigation into the correlation between the changes in culture and the way baseball is has changed as a result
By Jack Kennedy
“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball…” a quote by Jacquez Barzun that may be truer than initially perceived. Throughout American history different events such as the Great Depression and the Cold War have influenced our state of mind to dictate nearly every aspect of our lives, so if one were curious as to the state of America as a whole they merely need to look at the state of baseball because I believe it will accurately reflect how Americans are currently reflecting their society. I have loved following baseball my entire life as well as the culture of America. I have always believed that a tie between the two existed, and I dedicated extensive research to prove that it does. Baseball has changed dramatically from the day of its induction to today and those changes are directly related to the changes our culture has experienced. To demonstrate the difference between American culture and the way baseball is played the is the aim of my investigation.
To What Extent Does the Changing Culture of America Reflect Itself In the Way Baseball is Played?
This investigation will examine baseball stats and trends throughout different decades and attempt to show a correlation and causation between these stats and the external socioeconomic factors.
Anthropological Theories Utilized:
This investigation heavily relies on Functional Theory (Bronislaw Malinowski) which was later expanded upon by Marvin Harris in his Theory of Cultural Mechanisms.
“Every belief, action, or relationship in a culture functions to meet the need of every individual.” (Malinowski Collected Works: Volume IX)
The Theory Of Cultural Mechanisms:
“Materials or conditions within the environment (climate, food, supply, and geography) influence how a culture develops, creating the ideas and ideology of a culture.” (The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture)
These two theories will combine to allow me to draw conclusions based off the idea that all people reflect their internal state of being through external actions. I will then apply this idea to different decades throughout American history and find substantial evidence to make claims about how the external climate directly impacted the practical play of baseball.
Background and History:
Throughout both the history of America and the history of baseball there have been many changes in the mindset of how to go about many things. America has changed its mind on certain things such as marriage and voting rights. Similarly, baseball has changed its mind on certain things such as how to most effectively pitch to a batter and put runs on the board. In this, one must examine American ethnology and archaeology and how the cultural and historical changes influenced American thinking. Building off of Functional Theory, established by Bronislaw Malinowski and argues “every belief, action, or relationship in a culture functions to meet the need of every individual,” I will determine to what extent the beliefs and cultures in America mirror themselves in a common act of everyday routine for many Americans. This theory was further expanded upon by Marvin Harris in 1960 when he claimed the “Theory of Cultural Mechanism” which states “Materials or conditions within the environment (climate, food, supply, and geography) influence how a culture develops, creating the ideas and ideology of a culture.” Harris’s Theory of Cultural Mechanism provides an example of how the mindset of many Americans would alter during times of hardship or prosperity.
1900’s Through 1920’s
At the turn of the 20th century, America was dealing with an extensive social movement of progressivism. This movement caused by many social reforms, these social reforms however brought about a new mindset for Americans. This mindset was one of progress, how to not just do things but to do them right. Enter Cy Young. Cy Young began his legendary career in 1890, in which he quickly began the most dominant pitcher of that era. This could arguably reflect the mindset of efficiency that America had acquired. Pitchers in this era began to pitch to strike out, meaning they no longer just tried to get the ball in play so the fielders could do the work, rather they tried to eliminate the batter from even having a chance of getting on base. This change was evident in that the ERA of pitchers dropped dramatically from previous years and began what is known as “the dead ball era” named specifically for the lack of runs and big hits generated.
Now jump forward to 1914, and we see the first year that the legend Babe Ruth entered the ballgame for the first time. Babe Ruth that year managed to hit 0 home runs, the following year he hit 4, then 3, then 2. These seem like insignificant numbers for someone who was known as “The Sultan of Swat.” Babe Ruth did not have his first impressive season until 1920 in which he hit a league-dominating 52 home runs. Coincidentally this was the year directly after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Why does this matter? The ball. In 1920 baseballs were made
differently, made using Australian methods to be precise, after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles Americans felt safer about foreign countries and were more eager to adopt
characteristics from them. This era was consequently called “the live ball era” and coincided with what is known as “the roaring 20s.” This time period in American history was characterized by opulence and grandeur as emulated in the novel “The Great Gatsby.” Similarly, opulence was in baseball too. Batters were hitting the ball more, and harder. The era of pitchers had gone, efficiency was no longer the focus. Big games, big hits, and big scores now characterized the sport.
1930’s Through 1960’s (Excluding the 1950’s)
The 1930s begin what is known in American history as “The Great Depression” in which many Americans suffered poverty after the spending and international economic reliance caused for poverty to strike America. “The Great Depression was the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world” and saw a drastic decrease in home runs and scoring for that matter. However, unlike the dead ball era, this was not caused by pitching dominance, while ERA’s and strikeouts did improve slightly during this era they did not come near the level of the 1900’s. One could conclude this was a result of a lack of enthusiasm for the game, rather a lack of enthusiasm for life in general. The Great Depression brought about a state of mind that caused many Americans to bury their head in the sand and just try to get through their own lives. This was seen in the attendance of ball games as it plummeted in the 1930’s. As the everyday American was no longer enjoying baseball it would be easy to assume that many ballplayers, when faced with similar struggles, began to lose their joy too. No longer did batters step up to the
plate to make the most of every appearance for the glory of the game, rather they were putting in their hours as they needed the income like everyone else at the time. In fact, ballplayers were more focused on being employed at the time. This trend is a perfect example of the Theory of Cultural Mechanisms as when faced with poverty many Americans turned to a state of depression. They began focusing on their everyday lives and now had a mentality focused on surviving rather than thriving.
The 1940’s saw America robbed of many of its great players such as Ted Williams who, if not for serving in the war, might be regarded as the greatest pure hitter of all time. This continued the downward trend of attendance until 1946 season, after the end of WWII. Attendance then boomed. Nationalism was running rampant throughout America and this caused everyone to rediscover their love for America’s pastime. This began a feel-good era in America, as they were finally coming out of the war. Americans began to love their fellow-man again and the historic season of 1947 began. A man like no other stepped on the diamond. A hero by the name of Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson, of course, was the first African-American to play baseball since the 1880s. America was finally moving away from its roots of traditional racism and progressing to focus on itself as a country. Nothing demonstrates this new focus on social reform and improvement after the war effort like the drafting of African-Americans into the heart of America.
During the 1960’s America was faced with a very intense confrontation with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the later assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Along with these America was still facing the Vietnam War and the Cold War with Russia. These internal and foreign conflicts caused Americans to rally around their patriotism. Not coincidentally there was a massive expansion in baseball during this time. Throughout the decade the respective National League and American League expanded their roster to each include at first 10 teams from 8 then each had 12 by the end of the decade (American baseball has been a competition between the National and American leagues since 1903). Americans wanted to be more unified, this would correlate with the statistical trend that the approval rate of governments skyrocketed during times of crisis, American, like all people, contain a strong sense of nationalism and do not like their ideologies to be challenged. If they are challenged Americans will rally together to promote unity and their ideologies among each other, which is exactly why there was such a large expansion of America’s past time.
1970’s Through 1990’s
The 1970’s saw what might be the largest change to the game in baseball history: players got paid. The MLB saw a hyperinflation of wages during this time in which players began making up to four hundred percent of what they were making in previous years. The reason for this was the expansion of what is known as “free agency.” Free agency is the process in which a player’s current contract expires and another team (or the same team) is able to sign that player to another contract. This process was limited by the Adamantine Reserve Clause that was overturned in 1975. However, players were not the only ones to acquire new representation and respect. The 1970’s saw the advancement of many civil rights movements. Women were being treated with more equality and phrases such as Policeman were being removed from the vernacular and phrases such as Police officer were annexed as their replacements. Minorities and those in the LGBT community were beginning to see less discrimination during this time as well. The 1970’s became a decade of giving power to the people, and this trend was not lost among baseball players. No longer did club owners dictate the financial fate of players, rather they fought over each other to see who could acquire great athletes, and the athlete would go to the highest bidder. Ballplayers were no longer limited to restraints of the past, they followed and embraced the American trend of pride in one’s innate individuality and received wonderous benefits from it.
During the 1980’s many of the past’s baseball fans in the baby boomer generation were getting older. It was time for society to cater to a newer, younger, louder generation. Music became intense with bands like the now Brian Johnson led AC/DC and the sex-centered European rock band, Def Leppard; the movies became cruder as well such as CaddyShack (1980), Stripes (1981), and baseball related did not miss out on this with the wildly popular flick Bull Durham (1988). This louder and more intense society was more than just prevalent in movies about baseball but in baseball itself. Thus began a sharp retraction of the popularity of signing free agents. Teams began focusing on signing younger players that appealed to the newer generation. The contact hitter was less important and people craved the long ball. There was a subtraction of small base hits and home runs and big swings began reaching all-time highs (according to baseabllreference.com) Players acted more like rock stars, taking illegal drugs and misbehaving off of the field and losing the dignity older fans of the sport were proud of. The game began reflecting the mentality of the youth.
The 1990’s delved further into this idea of appealing to the youth. The 1990’s were the most hectic and chaotic in history with players such as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa who began mashing home runs into the sun. Records were being set that was a direct result of the 1991-2004 period known as the “Steroid Era.” This electrifying era for baseball was a direct result of the youth growing as well. Popularity in more extreme forms of entertainment such as the X Games was growing and baseball too had to become more intense, and nothing is more intense than crushing every major hitting record besides highest batting average in a season (hard to have a high batting average when you swing for the fences every time). Unfortunately, this also led to many controversial players and questioning the legitimacy of them and if their records should be in the hall of fame. Players that likely would have been in Cooperstown (the baseball hall of fame) without steroids such as Barry Bonds will now likely never get the votes the might have deserved.
Analysis And Modern Day Correlation
To what extent does the changing culture of America reflect itself in the way baseball is played?
The changing culture of America reflected itself adamantly in player actions, statistical trends, and public relations.
Any external or internal changes to the American people are prominently displayed in all aspects of their lives. It influences the way they walk, the way they think, and the way they talk; naturally, it also influences their favorite past time. From the rise of anthropology as a major scientific doctrine in the 1850’s (History of Anthropology: Second Edition) anthropologists have worked tirelessly to determine the correlation between thoughts and actions of a society influenced by what is around them. This correlation has been determined to be very strong and applies to nearly all aspects of a society’s life, which of course includes baseball.
Since the wide acceptance of Bronislaw’s functional theory, those studying cultures have been able to make ties between external influences and their effect on a culture’s actions. External influences have been determined to hold a sort of monopoly on one’s consciousness and seem to dictate nearly all the thoughts and actions of people. This theory, however, builds off of John Locke’s theory of “Tabula Rosa” (which translates to blank slate). Tabula Rosa is the idea that all humans are born with an empty mind and it is molded by our experiences, that all people are in fact equal at birth and are wholly developed by their experiences. Experiences drastically affect our thinking and how we act, an idea that has been around longer than anthropology has been accepted a scientific doctrine. The idea that different factors such as the Great Depression and Cold War affect every aspect of our lives (taking into account the previously stated theories) no longer seems like an uncertainty worthy of investigation, rather a fair and true statement that has had its groundwork laid before it for some time.
Finally, I would like to discuss the current state of America and the current state of baseball and how they relate to one another. In a study by the American Psychological Association, the average child today has the same levels of anxiety and depression as the average child in a mental therapy hospital during the 1950’s. The claim is not hard to understand, focuses have shifted since then. Today there is a focus on monetary success over personal success. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman writes that there is no definite correlation between monetary success and personal happiness yet the United States Department of Labor shows that the average American (including those who don’t work) work roughly 50 hours a week, which is a 400% increase since 1950. A focus has gone to productivity rather than enjoyability. Now let’s look at baseball and what is infamous among fans of the game, the shift (and other technological changes).
A common way to prevent a batter from getting a base hit today is to look at the data of where all of the particular batters different hits have gone and positioning the fielders accordingly, this caused there to be less and fewer hits to occur. This has been named “The Shift.” The offensive result of this was simple, if the batters could not hit the ball on the field they would simply attempt to hit the ball out of it and the amount of home runs dramatically increased (last year shattered the MLB record for home runs by the league in a single season). As a result of these big swings, there were far more strikeouts than before as well, players such as Joey Gallo would lead their team in both home runs and strikeouts and would only be batting roughly .200 (about 50 points below league average) and be viewed as productive. They were productive players because their hits didn’t matter as long as they went over the fence. This entire analytical philosophy has created what many would call a very boring game. Hardly would runners have to beat out throws from the outfield, instead they just jogged across the plate as a result of the long ball. Now only 3 things seem to happen, the batter strikes out, the batter walks, or the batter hits a home run. It is not fun to see a scorching line drive up the middle caught by someone standing 15 feet out of position because the numbers told them to stand there, hits are what make the game fun and they are being taken away. Just like our world, the baseball world has sacrificed enjoyability for productivity.
Throughout my research and analysis, I have deduced that the changing culture of Americans has a great influence on the way baseball is played. Our adaptation of external influences throughout our culture is shocking as we subconsciously cater our entire lives to whatever event we may be experiencing. Our lives are built off of what we experience and what we go through. This reaches a higher level than just baseball but our entire society, and our lives as individuals.
Today we are burdening ourselves, impeding ourselves, from being content with our lives. There is pressure for efficiency and excellence, so much so we sacrifice our enjoyment for it. I can personally say that I feel socially pressured to sacrifice my own desire for even briefly developing a devil-may-care attitude for working tirelessly towards the future that feels like it never comes. Similarly, baseball is now being managed on pure analytics so that teams can be as successful as possible. This game of “analytic ball” has resulted in a sharp decline in ratings because the game simply is not as fun anymore. The game is reflecting America’s society, a society that focuses on efficiency and achievements but just is not fun anymore. Maybe we should take a closer look at baseball and the problems it is facing, then with that knowledge in hand all take a look at our own lives and see if we feel the same way.
Of course, baseball is far and away my favorite sport, this paper was written by gathering the opinions and beliefs of many others and utilizing the theories of anthropological experts in their fields.
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