The Foreign Policy of Baseball

A few days ago, I turned on the radio and heard the sweet sounds of San Francisco Giants broadcaster Jon Miller announcing this year’s first spring-training game. I thought, “Ah, baseball is finally back, and all is well in our national pastime, our country, and the world.”

Of course, that’s not true, so my reverie was cut short. For all the optimism many of us hold for the new season and the Obama administration, both the Major League Baseball (MLB) dynasty and U.S. empire remain deeply troubled and seriously misguided.

Baseball and empire are profoundly intertwined. Not merely have the Major Leagues been fueled by performance-enhancing drugs, but U.S. foreign policy has also been acting as if it’s on steroids. But the convergence between baseball and American military, diplomatic, and globalization policies goes well beyond their recent, mutual burst of power. For more than a century, organized baseball has been pursuing a “national pastime tradeoff.” In exchange for being an unceasing booster of U.S. expansion around the world, MLB has reaped untold profits and an exemption from serious oversight.

Professional baseball has used flag-waving patriotism as a marketing tool since as far back as the Spanish-American War. It’s supported virtually every U.S. war and military intervention ever since. In return, the U.S. foreign policy establishment has gained a valuable ally, recruitment tool, and unabashed cheerleader. The MLB has also proved to be a convenient social control mechanism for diverting the attention and wrath of people whose nations the U.S. has so frequently invaded and occupied — including current-day Iraq and Afghanistan.

Baseball and Empire

Wherever the U.S. Marines have landed, almost invariably baseball has, too. The 1898 war against Spain was launched to “Remember the Maine,” and public support was garnered by a call to avenge the loss of the ship’s baseball team. In his Sunday Herald, war booster William Randolph Hearst eulogized the players: “The sailors of the ill-fated Maine were great lovers of the national game, and [their] baseball team was the crack club of the fleet.” Baseball tagged along with the U.S. interventions in Cuba, Guam, Haiti, Samoa, Puerto Rico, China, Japan, and the Philippines. Promotion of U.S. culture and products abroad — Americanization masquerading as early globalization — was pioneered by America’s quintessential sport, via a series of international missions dating back to the late 1800s.

Baseball prepped the nation for World War I with its close-order drills at ballparks. Ballplayers used their throwing skills to train soldiers in tossing hand grenades. Baseball accompanied the endless U.S. military and corporate interventions in the Caribbean and Latin America, including Nicaragua, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic, and even Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. According to Albert Spalding, whose sporting goods company was an early supporter of American expansionism: “The United States has no lands or tribes to conquer but it is only to be expected that Base Ball will invade our new possessions and [demonstrate] that possession’s American-ness.”

Baseball became a powerful and poignant symbol of America during its involvement in World War II, which took the game not only back to Europe, but to Africa, the Middle East, and South and East Asia. MLB fervently supported America’s wars in Korea and Vietnam, and helped spread propaganda against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Ohio Senator John Bricker, for example, claimed that “while the marching hordes in China and Russia are spreading communism, officials of the national pastime are helping democracy work.” Baseball, he observed, was “indoctrinating American youth and combating the alien influence of communist ideology.”

From this longstanding relationship, organized baseball has profited dramatically, escaping the constrictions of American antitrust laws and converting patriotism into billions of dollars in revenue. Yet in the 1970s, football began to compete with baseball for the “national pastime” title, in part by supporting the Vietnam War. And after decades of court-rebuffed challenges, ballplayers finally escaped their bondage to major-league teams and were allowed to pursue free agency. Rather than sharing the sport’s riches and restoring baseball’s place as America’s most popular sport, organized baseball instead declared its own war and redoubled efforts to promote America’s continuing wars and interventions.

A Game of Globalization

In its war abroad, MLB International, Inc. became a significant player in the emerging new era of globalization, cutting costs by exporting its operations to cheap labor havens abroad. A few weeks ago, MLB offered $1 million to Haiti in earthquake relief. Yet organized baseball and its allied industries made hundreds of millions of dollars on the backs of Haitian workers, who were paid slave wages for making balls, apparel, merchandise and other baseball equipment. MLB was offering pocket change in exchange for all Haiti had given it (until the human rights outcry forced baseball to move its manufacturing operations to Costa Rica in the late 1980s).

In its war at home, MLB exploited another globalization by-product: cheap labor. Ballplayers in Latin America and the Caribbean are excluded from the baseball draft. MLB has taken advantage of this absence of rules to harvest hundreds of Latinos for a couple of thousand dollars each. This “boatload mentality” was tremendously profitable. It has enabled organized baseball to inexpensively stock their leagues while casting aside most prospects (many of whom were underage boys), often despite extravagant promises and substandard conditions.

And to further beat off the higher costs of player salaries after free agency, major league teams colluded to drive down the price of U.S. ballplayers. When that strategy backfired, MLB was so desperate to monopolize its riches that it even risked killing the sport altogether: In 1994, it pushed the players’ association into striking with the goal of breaking the union. Instead, it forced the cancellation of one of America’s sacred rituals, the World Series, and threw the game into a tailspin.

Both before and after this narrow escape from self-destruction, MLB kept waving the flag, hoping jingoism would save the day. It applauded the Reagan administration’s aggressive militarism and low-intensity warfare, endorsed the Bush I White House interventions and Gulf War, and backed the Clinton administration’s incursions in Bosnia, Colombia, Haiti, and Iraq. What sportswriter Joe Gergen observed about the first Iraq War applied to them all: “Baseball rushed to identify with the successful war effort, to tie a yellow ribbon around the season. Johnny is marching home again and baseball is standing in tribute.” But it was a losing battle. MLB needed much more to win back the American people from football.

After September 11

Support for major league baseball got a much-needed boost after September 11. Baseball was plagued by the steroid scandal, rumors of which began during the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home-run battle in 1998 and escalated in the 2001 season, as Barry Bonds chased McGwire’s single-season record. Then 9/11 hit and everything changed.

By being in the right place at the right time, baseball turned from being a suspect into being a salvation — “a shelter in the storm” for a shell-shocked nation, as was dramatically captured in the documentary Nine Innings from Ground Zero. MLB used the ballparks to rally not only for American survival and recovery, but also as springboards for the military response.

The U.S. foreign and military establishment took full advantage of the baseball hoopla. Bush’s White House commandeered one ballpark after another for demonstrations of America’s military resolve. As Lara Nielsen observed: “The game of baseball was narrated by an image that endorsed the moral victory of war, [promoting] the conclusion that military retaliation [rather than any other script]…was the only appropriate response.” Sportswriter Bill Littlefield claimed he didn’t mind having politicians show up at ballgames, where they “are less likely to engage in dangerous mischief. Nobody has ever called an air strike from the pitcher’s mound, the proximity of military jets notwithstanding.”

But Bush’s World Series appearance was tantamount to just that. In effect, he launched the wars on terrorism, Afghanistan, and Iraq with the perfect strike he threw from the Yankee Stadium pitcher’s mound. Bonds broke the home-run record and in the short run, nobody worried about the muscle boost that got him there. To the contrary, it was the very symbol of U.S. power many Americans sought to unleash after the destruction of the World Trade Center. And it was baseball, not football, that served to rally the troops and wave the flag.

Even so, major-league baseball’s popularity may again be living on borrowed time. To begin with, U.S. foreign policy has been discredited, especially by the lies used to rationalize the U.S. attack on Iraq. The United States’ military, diplomatic, and globalization policies are widely resented around the world, and MLB should reconsider its long association with such initiatives. Waving the flag for America’s current wars is paying diminishing returns for baseball. Instead, the sport should recapture its historic role and begin promoting a new American dream.

A Perestroika for Baseball

Organized baseball must become a better caretaker of the game. It needs to promote baseball for baseball’s sake, and not merely where it enhances MLB’s bottom line. MLB must also recognize what it’s lost as the handmaiden of U.S. foreign and military policy, and as a multinational corporation tainted by top-down globalization. For example, America’s outdated Cuba policy is not in MLB’s best interests. Rather than risk being implicated in defections from Cuba, such as in the recent signing of Aroldis Chapman by the Cincinnati Reds, organized baseball must push harder to undo reactionary Cold War policies.

Besides repairing the game at home, MLB must better promote it abroad, establishing greater equity and a more level playing field. It should institute an international draft and stop exploiting Latino ballplayers. It should extend the same protections to Caribbean leagues as it has for the Japanese and Korean leagues. Instead of raiding players and depleting foreign leagues, MLB must adequately compensate foreign players.

If MLB isn’t going to work to restore baseball to the Olympics, then its World Baseball Classic must be opened up and more broadly shared. Have the next Classic played elsewhere in the baseball world, such as Japan, and let far more national teams compete. Make the Classic into something more than merely a profit center and a chance for MLB to recruit top foreign players. Pursue such tournaments as if MLB really cares about the game. And act responsibly as a global corporation: Stop relocating baseball manufacturing to the cheapest labor haven. Pay workers a decent wage and send Haiti something more for its troubles than a token gesture.

At the ballpark, MLB needs to stop waving the flag. Enough with the military extravaganzas, patriotic songs, and obligatory jingoism. MLB can be a good citizen without being an extension of the Pentagon. By all means, hold respectful military appreciation days. But how about a separate day to celebrate Americans who have dedicated themselves to peace without weapons or wars? If MLB wants to endorse programs such as Barry Zito’s Strikeouts for Troops (which raises money for the worthy cause of helping returning soldiers), then at least stop short of allowing it to serve as a pro-war propaganda tool for the Fox Network (its corporate media sponsor) and for Sean Hannity and Oliver North’s Freedom Alliance (its primary financial conduit). And for goodness’ sake, stop being cheerleaders for illegal and counterproductive U.S. wars.

The late journalist Mary McGrory lamented that “baseball is what America used to be, while football is what we’ve become.” That’s got to be turned back. Let football beat the war drums, while baseball promotes higher American ideals of democracy, equity, and community.

It’s Opening Day. Wouldn’t it be great if MLB could start playing a whole new ballgame?

ROBERT ELIAS teaches law and politics at the University of San Francisco. His book, The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy & Promoted the American Way Abroad has just been published by The New Press.

This article was originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus.