The theme of President Joe Biden’s Inauguration speech focused around his goal to unite the country, saying that, “with unity, we can do great things, important things.” Though, it seems that the Biden Administration recognizes that it would be a missed opportunity to ignore the potential that the sports industry holds in bringing together a country that is weakened divided. While American sports have an influence on American culture, baseball specifically is more than simply the U.S.’s favorite pastime; it is possibly the U.S.’s greatest cultural signifier, holding the power to unite the country in our time of need.
American sports, and particularly baseball, have a history of playing a significant role in both reflectings and participating within the sociopolitical climate. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Major League Baseball postponed their games for a week, both out of respect for what had happened and for safety. However, the country — especially New York — needed something to root for. Eleven days after the attack on 9/11, New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza hit a historic home run that pushed the Mets to a 3 – 2 victory against the Atlanta Braves. Piazza’s home run, and, in turn, New York’s win, proved to the world that New York was resilient. The city was healing. “I’m just so happy I was able to come through in that situation and give people something to cheer about,” said Piazza, after hitting his winning home run. “This isn’t life and death, this is baseball.”
Six days later, right fielder for the Chicago Cubs, and one of the few MLB players born in the Dominican Republic at the time, Sammy Sosa, hit another historic home run. Sept. 27, 2001, was the Cubs’ first home game since the attack on 9/11. When Sosa hit his home run, he grabbed an American flag and held it above his head as he rounded each base. The U.S. was prevailing through one of its darkest moments in history, and baseball players took to the field to prove it.
Not only has the sport contributed to reflecting the country’s needs, but it has also served to reflect the U.S.’s ever-shifting social climate. During World War II, about 500 major league and more than 2,000 minor league players joined the military, though the MLB season carried on even after the bombing on Pearl Harbor despite efforts to delay the season during wartime. As a result of male players being drafted, women’s leagues and teams of mixed races were formed — a change that reflected the necessity for inclusion across all industries to carry the economy through the war.
While racial inclusion within the MLB did not come easily, players of color have continually made large strides in representation within the sports realm. Baseball legend Hank Aaron, who passed away earlier this month at age 86, was the first player to beat Babe Ruth’s career record for hitting the most home runs, claiming the space for Black men in the major league. Aaron broke this record in 1974, the same year that the Morgan v. Hennigan ruled against de facto segregation in Boston schools on the basis of discrimination. Throughout his career, Aaron was vocal about the disruption his record-setting career sparked, often citing the hate mail and death threats that resulted in FBI involvement even before he had broken the record. “I don’t want them to forget [Babe] Ruth,” said Aaron, after surpassing the career home run record. “I just want them to remember me!
While the MLB has served the role as a signifier for American culture, it should come as no surprise. American ideals are engraved within the very structure that we celebrate baseball as an American ritual. Each game begins with the singing of the National Anthem, uniting both teams and their fans in the stands and at home under what brings them together: their place in the USA. In the heat of the game, crowds are again brought together to dissipate the tension during the seventh inning stretch, with both the home and away teams singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in unison.
During the four years of the Trump Administration, sports traditions were disrupted when American championship-winning teams neglected to visit the White House. Half of the teams that won championships were “not invited or declined the invitation” to visit the Trump Administration White House in celebration of their victory, while the other half of teams who decided to attend had team members decline to go as individuals. Trump also blocked a deal between the MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation that would have allowed Cuban players to sign contracts with the MLB, which would stop the human trafficking of baseball players from Cuba. “We stand by the goal of the agreement, which is to end the human trafficking of baseball players from Cuba,” said MLB Vice President Michael Teevan.
The Biden administration, and President Joe Biden’s ultimate goal of American unity, is looking to flip the Trump administration’s involvement in sports on its head. “He’s certainly going to look to sports and sports figures to help bring us back into alignment as Americans,” said the President’s younger brother, Francis Biden. Joe Biden views sports as “one of the central things that binds us together as Americans,” Francis said.
So, why, now, can baseball unite us in our current climate of devastation? While team rivalries reign at high tensions, they are still an escape from the more devious tensions of the American political climate. The stakes of baseball have always been high, and the consequences have always been heavy, but the joys and sorrows compartmentalize themselves into the digestible nine innings. The confines of the diamond uphold the sport’s fans desires and fears, a resemblance of what it means to live from the confines of our living rooms.
American citizens are carrying the weight of terrorist attacks, political discourse, financial hardship, and the many paranoias surrounding the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. However, rooting for our favorite sports teams and watching our favorite players take to the field to play the age-old game with reliable rules that predate 9/11, the Trump Administration, or the pandemic gives us consistency. It gives us something to root for, together, while apart.
Feature image: Courtesy of YouTube