Memorabiliaphilia: Nationalizing a Pastime

When the subject of baseball arises among Americans, the phrase “national pastime” gets bandied about more than a round-the-horn ball after a three-pitch strikeout. That might be because baseball is ready-made for cliché and worn metaphor (see above), a sport that’s yoked to a sense of both patriotism and history — and all the empty catchphrases that attend them both. It’s also because, of the three major American sports, baseball situates itself most consciously as an “American” activity, mobilizing nostalgic images of yesteryear in order to remind us all that, as the country has grown, this sport has grown with it.

More than football or basketball, baseball is an exercise in “American-ness” — not in any factual, demographic sense, but rather in the way that George Washington’s cherry tree serves as a character reference. They’re both the product of artifice, intricately and purposefully woven into the collective sense of our national fabric for particular effect. In the case of baseball, it’s simply good marketing to hitch one’s wagon to the star(s and stripes) of American identity. This continual harkening back to a better place and time helps to build cultural currency that’s been used to sustain the sport through leaner times of labor disputes, gambling furor, and drug scandals.

Cynics, then, might regard The Official World Series Film Collection as just another public relations ploy in an ongoing attempt to distract fans from the sport’s more recent, steroid-related failings. Such an accusation would deny the rich and varied history that baseball has produced for more than a century and a half — or at least, in the case of this DVD collection, since 1943. The set includes summaries of every World Series contest from that year until the Philadelphia Phillies’ victory in 2008. Every game of every series is efficiently summarized through well-edited, high-quality video and audio commentary, condensing up to seven three-hour contests into roughly a half-hour of footage.

Those less inclined to sit through rain delays and pitching changes will no doubt appreciate these shortened versions, but, even as highlights, the entire collection would take more than two days to watch if played back-to-back. The 65 summaries, running more than 3,000-minutes, are contained in a single case of such gravity (both emotional and actual) that the word “Official” need hardly be included in the title. This kind of embodiment speaks directly to the sheer magnitude of information that sport offers its enthusiasts — and this only after the first 100 years were in the books.

As a collection like this points out, baseball is that most encyclopedic of sports. (This series runs nearly twice the length that Ken Burns’ celebrated, day-long documentary does.) Few other games feature the kind of statistical wealth that might describe a batter’s chances against left-handers in July, or a pitcher’s lifetime earned run average against shortstops. It’s precisely that kind of obsessive information-keeping that helps to cement the sport’s prominence in popular culture. As the subject for such exhaustive study, baseball is accorded a certain grandiosity, in the way that anything peered at intently through a magnifying glass seems to gain in size and importance.

Ultimately, it’s the size of baseball — in our collective imagination, or our filing cabinets, or our DVD collections — that makes it so American. Only a sport so enamored of national exceptionalism would choose to call its league finals a “World” series. It’s the kind of hubris (underscored by the increasing ethnic and national diversity of the players featured in this collection) that has helped to create the caricature of the brash, self-impressed, willfully ignorant American amongst the rest of the world.

Of course, there are those who would counter that, as an American invention, baseball should be awarded special status. Then there are authors like Zev Chafets, whose book Cooperstown Confidential impolitely disabuses us of that notion. Chronicling the often sordid business dealings that led up to the establishment of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, Chafets describes how A.G. Spalding (the sporting goods magnate) set about to “discover” the American roots of the sport by founding an investigative commission. In 1907, their findings attributed the origin to Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, hence the founding location of the Hall of Fame.

Chafets goes on to point out, however, that Doubleday — a popular Civil War hero — never mentioned the sport in any of his prolific writings. In addition, Chafets details Spalding’s anxiety over historian Henry Chadwick’s findings that baseball descended from an English game called rounders. In short, the commission findings were inspired more by anti-immigrant, pro-American sentiment and financial interests than actual truth.

Still, however, the pastime continues to underscore its “national” character. This has less to do with shadowy, jingoistic conspiracies than a popular desire to apprehend the American experience through the sanctity and simplicity of a game. Enter a massive DVD collection like The Official World Series Film Collection. Despite being a multi-national endeavor that is itself the product of foreign influence, baseball has, it’s true, amassed a substantial record as an American sport. Willy Mays’ “The Catch”, Reggie Jackson’s transformation into “Mr. October”, Jack Morris’ ten-inning shutout, the Red Sox reversing “the curse” — these and so many other American memories are ably captured on these discs. So much history is here, in fact, that the DVDs have no need for any additional extras. It’s all laid out in the first offering — hour, after hour, after hour.

Still, it’s simplistic to suggest that such a record of the sport makes baseball more important to Americans. It does, however, provide a telling study in how Americans might have viewed themselves, and what part sports have played in the construction of that prism. This series also allows for a glimpse into the future. The glossy companion book, which offers pictures and descriptions going back to 1903, includes some blank pages for fans to include their own memorabilia of World Series to come. For now, we can only wonder what records of our national pastime will be dutifully added to the pile.