Baseball and American Culture

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Gwen Outen. This week on our program -- baseball and American culture.

The game is traditionally known as America’s national pastime. The men who play it professionally are “the boys of summer.” Baseball is considered part of the American spirit. Books, songs, movies, plays, poems and lots of baseball terms have become part of the American experience.

An exhibit called "Baseball as America" is currently on show at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. It contains more than five-hundred historical items. Most come from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. Many people believe that baseball first started in this small town in eighteen-thirty-nine.

In nineteen-oh-five, a committee was appointed to study the history of baseball. It was called the Mills Commission. Three years later, the Mills Commission reported its findings. The report declared that a Civil War hero named Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown.

Evidence collected by the commission showed that Doubleday modernized what started as a game of catch with as many as fifty players. The evidence showed that he reduced the number of players, added bases and created a playing area in the shape of a diamond.

No one knows for sure exactly how baseball began. But a copy of the commission report can be seen in the exhibit at the Natural History Museum. So can one of the first baseballs used by Abner Doubleday. The ball was found in a farmhouse near Cooperstown in nineteen-thirty-four.

Organized professional baseball started with the National League. Teams formed this league in eighteen-seventy-six.

Baseball was supposed to stand for American beliefs like equality and the chance to succeed. But the sport was representative of society at the time. The National League was for white players only.

By eighteen-eighty-eight, more than sixty black players were on minor league teams. Barred from the National League, black players joined what were called the Negro Leagues. Teams began to appear in black communities throughout the country.

The unofficial ban against black players in the National League lasted seventy years.

World War Two and the civil rights movement in the United States helped end the racial divisions in professional baseball. Jackie Robinson became the first black player to break the color barrier. The Brooklyn Dodgers accepted him to their team in nineteen forty-seven. Soon, other black players began to join major league teams.

The "Baseball as America" exhibit includes a shirt, hat and glove that Jackie Robinson wore as a Brooklyn Dodger. Also included is an example of the hundreds of death threats and hate letters that he received.

Blacks were not the only group excluded. Hispanic and Japanese players were also among those rejected.

Yet white Americans were not the only ones who enjoyed baseball. The museum exhibit includes baseball equipment used by Japanese-Americans held at an interment camp during World War Two.

In nineteen-ten President William Howard Taft started a custom. President Taft threw out the first pitch on opening day of the baseball season that year. Almost every president since then has continued the tradition of the opening day pitch.

Signed baseballs thrown by Presidents Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower as part of the exhibit. So are baseballs thrown by Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and the first President George Bush.

On December seventh, nineteen-forty-one, Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on the American Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. As a result, the United States entered World War Two.

The baseball season was suspended after the attack. Five weeks later, the head of Major League baseball asked President Franklin Delano Roosevelt if the season should continue. The president said yes. He wrote the baseball commissioner that the game was a way to raise American spirits.

That letter from President Roosevelt is part of the "Baseball as America" exhibit. Other items from World War Two include objects from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. This league was formed to help keep American spirits high during the war. At that time, some of baseball's most famous male players were away as pilots and soldiers.

The war ended in nineteen-forty-five. The women's league ended in nineteen-fifty-four after it lost popularity.

Major League baseball postponed games for one week after the terrorist attacks of September eleventh, two-thousand-one. Several weeks later, a New York City firefighter discovered a baseball in the ruins of the World Trade Center. That ball is also in the "Baseball as America" exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Washington.

Baseball and a similar game, softball, are among the first sports that American children learn to play. Many children compete on teams through Little League programs.

Boys and girls can play together on Little League teams. Little League Baseball began to accept girls in nineteen-seventy-four as a result of court action. That year, Little League also established a softball program. Girls and boys can play either baseball or softball, but most girls choose softball.

There are more than seven thousand Little League programs in more than one hundred countries around the world.

Children between the ages of five and eight often play a game called T-ball. T-ball is similar to baseball. However, the ball is not thrown to the hitter. Instead, the ball sits on a stick called a tee.

The "Baseball as America" exhibit includes pictures of T-ball games on the grounds of the White House. Games take place there each month during the baseball season, which runs from April to October.

President Bush started this tradition three years ago. Before he entered politics, he owned part of the Texas Rangers baseball team.

Ten years ago, Major League baseball players went on strike over pay and other issues. Part of the nineteen-ninety-four season and all the championship games that year were cancelled. The start of the nineteen-ninety-five season was delayed.

When play finally began, many people had lost interest. They thought players earned too much and cared too little about the fans. Public support for baseball was at an all-time low.

The national pastime worked hard to save itself from becoming a game past its time. In nineteen-ninety-eight a homerun race between two players helped renew interest in baseball. That year Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa each broke the record for the most homeruns in one season.

In nineteen-twenty-seven Babe Ruth set a record with sixty homeruns. That record stood for more than thirty years, until Roger Maris hit sixty-one.

Sammy Sosa finished the nineteen-ninety-eight season with sixty-six homeruns. Mark McGwire had seventy. Now, their bats and the bats of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris are all part of "Baseball as America."

The exhibit closes October third at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. But it will travel to other American cities through two-thousand-six. Internet users can find out more on the Web at baseballasamerica.org.

Our program was written by Jill Moss and produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Steve Ember.

And I’m Gwen Outen. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.