Field of Myth
Major League Baseball and its broadcast partner chose to continue propagating some very particular myths about the sport they steward with its "Field of Dreams" game in Iowa.
Many people are puzzled as to why Major League Baseball would put so many resources into hitching itself to a 30+ year-old movie. But I believe the league was trying to attach itself to something much deeper in the American psyche than a faded pop culture reference.
While one can reduce the scope of the marketing exercise doubling as a real game between the Yankees and the White Sox to merely an allusion to the 1988 Kevin Costner movie shot on the same location, what they are actually marketing is the idea that both baseball and America originated as primarily rural endeavours. An underlying theme of the Field of Dreams Game was baseball returning to its roots. The buildup to the game saw a steady stream of references to James Earl Jones' monologue from the movie about how baseball in a corn field "reminds us of all that once was good, and it can be again." The idea that baseball emerged out of rural America has always been a resonant echo of the belief that America also emerged out of rural America.
When the lords of the baseball realm were looking for a home for their new Hall of Fame for the sport in the 1930s, they latched onto Cooperstown, a rural enclave in upstate New York. Thirty years previously, Abraham Mills, president of the National League had announced that research he had commissioned demonstrated that Union Army Colonel Abner Doubelday had invented baseball in 1839 in that same village. This "research" was as much of a marketing ploy as the Field of Dreams game. But it served to tie the game of baseball to the notion of America as a primarily rural endeavour.
Before the United States had even elected its first president, it was fighting with itself about what kind of nation it was and wanted to be. On one side was Alexander Hamilton, advocating that commerce and free enterprise was the path for building America into an economic powerhouse and beacon of freedom. On the other was Thomas Jefferson, who believed that America should be an agrarian society; not only because of the vast amounts of land it had claimed and conquered, but because working the land was idealized as a more pure, honest existence. Farming, it was felt, would keep America away from the temptations and vices that were brought about by the pursuit of wealth and easily located in cities.
This myth of the unsullied farmer was all a lie of course. Rural landowners sought wealth and power so hungrily that they were comfortable keeping human beings as slaves to work their farms, which was the only thing that made their idyllic country life possible. They believed so stridently in their right to get rich through unpaid labour and violence that they up and left America when the country took even moderate steps to end the practice. America without slaves working their fields wasn't America to them.
Americans never really chose between these competing visions. The mutated idea of the "family farm" outlasted the institution of slavery and persists today, along with a love of free commerce and technological enterprise. And the tension is noticeable in the country's cultural dialogue. Even as the vast majority of the country has moved to cities (and their surrounding suburbs), the notion of America's rural origins, and of non-city dwellers being the "real Americans" persists.
The announcement that baseball was invented in a rural setting was meant to align the sport with that notion. But even a cursory exploration of the sport's history and evolution makes it clear that baseball is an urban creation.
The general consensus is that baseball emerged as a sport in New York City, played between dozens of amateur groups. It was an organized means for urban workers to journey to the parks and open fields at the city's edges in the 1840s. The most popular early spot was the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. And rather than being invented whole cloth by one patriotic small town denizen, the rules of the game we think of as baseball were arrived at by consensus, most notably at an 1854 meeting convened by the most prominent club, the New York Knickerbockers, according to Paul Goldberger's book "Ballpark: Baseball in the American City". And as the sport grew, its most fervent enthusiasts were urbanites, with thousands of people surrounding the city fields were competitive baseball was played.
It has to be acknowledged of course that the wide expanse of open grass is a central part of baseball's appeal. The pace of the game gives one ample time to take in the verdant expanse where it occurs. The appetite for the game is inextricably tied to the idea of a temporary escape from the bustle and density of the urban environment. But while the nature of the game is not particularly urban in spirit, the city was the critical accelerator for the sport to not only emerge, but prosper.
So why the rural mythmaking sixty years after the game was created?
At start of the 20th century, even from within cities were felt, not without reason, to be overpopulated, dirty, crime-ridden and festering with disease and vice. The exploitation associated with urban industrial life had undeniably made many cities fairly unpleasant places to live.
At the same time, the notion of American exceptionalism was an increasingly dominant cultural force that was tied closely to the manifest destiny policy of western expansion of the late 19th century, as well as America’s first forays into Empire in the recent Spanish-American war. Both exercises required a moral underpinning of virtue, and that underpinning was the idea that America was a unique county and a unique idea. Americans desperately needed to believe they were special. Anything that was to be held up as a signifier of what America was in that moment had to be verifiably unique.
There wasn't really anything especially American about exploitative and unsanitary cities at the time. Similar urban environments could be found in just about every industrialized. Indeed, the problems of city life at the time gave great sucre to the adherents of the Agrarian America perspective. And while there was nothing particularly inventive about America's rural lifestyle (farming as a way of life preceded the Declaration of Independence by roughly 10,000 years), it at least felt more worth claiming. (Maybe they were just so impressed with how much land they were able to steal?)
But the stated goal of the Mills Commission was to demonstrate that baseball was something uniquely American. And a story they received in 1907 about Doubleday and Cooperstown gave the National League president exactly what he needed. So rural myth became accepted history.
The modern stadiums in which baseball is played point to the vestiges of the sport's urban emergence. The idiosyncrasies that give each major league team's home ballpark its unique identity, and their incumbent teams something of a home-field advantage, call back to the fact that baseball stadiums had to suit the dimensions of the city block on which they were built. There were no standard dimensions for a baseball field, unlike virtually any other sport. Almost every major league stadium in the first half of the 20th century had signature features that were shaped by urban necessity. You didn't just know you were in Brooklyn because you were playing the Dodgers; you knew you were in Brooklyn because there was no other stadium like Ebbett's Field. Second decks, introduced in stadiums in the late 1900s, allowed owners to fit more fans into confined urban footprints. The Green Monster in Fenway Park in Boston exists because of a street immediately on the other side of the fence that would make a regular height fence too easy to hit over.
When baseball followed America to the suburbs in the 1960s, it's idiosyncratic fields vanished. Cookie cutter suburban neighbourhoods were accompanied by cookie-cutter multi-purpose stadiums. At the same time, baseball faded quickly in popularity, overtaken by football. One can't help but wonder, if baseball was so closely tied to America's founding notion as a rural powerhouse, why did enthusiasm for it decline as the game moved closer to the countryside?
As baseball moved back to the city with a string of new, "retro" stadiums beginning with Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992 in Baltimore, teams had a renewed understanding of the connection between baseball and its urban surroundings. So much so that they went the extra mile to find clever ways to have the field interact with the urban environment. The San Diego Padres oriented their new stadium so that an old warehouse building would intersect the field of play. The Houston Astros installed a hill in deep centre field with a flagpole on the warning track, calling back to a similar "feature" in old Tiger Stadium in downtown Detroit. The Pittsburgh Pirates moved into a stadium abutting the Allegheny River where it passed through the city's core, with sightlines that prominently feature the downtown skyline. Baseball teams now go out of their way to remind their fans "you are in a city".
But despite this recent trend of renewed urban enthusiasm, when MLB wanted to find an interesting way to market the game, it chose to lionize a story about a game that takes place in a cornfield in Iowa. A game full of players who are heartbroken over their exclusion from professional baseball, yet manages to still exclude players that never even got the chance to play the major league game because of the colour of their skin.
Marketing nostalgia isn't necessarily a bad move. But baseball picked a very specific lane with the Field of Dreams game, particularly when other approaches were available. MLB recently announced that it would be incorporating Negro League stats into its own records in an effort to acknowledge its exclusion of Black players for decades. It could have organized a game focused on Negro League history, which also has a decidedly urban bent.
Baseball isn't a quintessentially American game because it emerged out of the country's mythical rural beginnings; it's American because it lives at the focal point of the ever-present tension between the its two founding aspirations: an open field, shaped by the quirks of the city surrounding it. If Major League Baseball really wants to grow its fan base it should stop trading in myths that exclude so many, and embrace the whole of America; a fullness that the game of baseball already embodies.