On opening day 2010, President Barack Obama continued the long tradition of American presidents throwing out the first pitch. He strode to the mound in a Nationals jacket, withdrew a White Sox cap from his pocket and pulled it snug on his head. The crowd cheered, and he threw a ball. Commissioner Bud Selig issued a statement: “Opening Day of the baseball season is a special event for our country, and its importance has been reinforced by the 100-year history of presidential participation.”
The next day, the paper reported that “the Obama administration has taken the extraordinary step of authorizing the targeted killing of an American citizen.” The target was a bearded New Mexican named Anwar al-Awlaki, who was hiding in Yemen. Al-Awlaki said bad things, and used words to encourage others to do terrible things. The director of national intelligence said, “If we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific information to do that.”
An American president ordered the assassination of a citizen, without trial, for speech. But the news was swallowed up by the start of a new baseball season. A little more than a year later, U.S. drones flying in Yemen murdered the American and his 16-year-old son, who was also an American.
An owner of the Washington Nationals released a statement on the day Obama opened the baseball season: “It’s a time of renewed hope and optimism for fans everywhere.”
I used to think baseball was a game of certainties. The pitcher and batter did their gritty work, and the blurred ball thudded into the catcher’s mitt or bounced off the right field fence. The official scorekeeper recorded precisely what happened. Every pitch was tabulated, digested, and put to use in understanding what might come next. The hit-and-run. A double steal. A grand slam on a 2-and-0 count. The game was a controlled space of its own. Its boundaries were clear: foul lines, baselines, backstop, outfield walls, strike, ball, out, walk. A defined physical space where players played, and seemed to do what they wanted even as they followed rules. A space outside of time. There was no clock. The final inning could last an hour, or five minutes. The game was predictable, yet it birthed infinite stories about what happened in the past or could happen next. Even within these variations, it felt comforting to see the same pattern, game after game. It felt comforting to sing along before the first pitch with my hand over my heart and my eyes on our flag. It felt comforting to stand and stretch during the seventh inning, and sing again. It felt comforting to go to the ballpark and escape life for a while.
Two baseball teams, the Chicagoans and an assemblage of players called the All-Americans, left for a tour of the world in 1888. Upon their return a banquet was held in their honor at Delmonico’s in New York City. The papers reported it was the liveliest event ever held there, with more than 250 guests feasting, drinking, and smoking cigars. Speeches were given by Al Spalding, Cap Anson, and Mark Twain. Several politicians spoke. The partiers were intoxicated, and so was the rhetoric. A. G. Mills, the man whose committee falsely claimed that Abner Doubleday invented baseball, lauded the contributions made by the touring teams to “universal peace and good rule which Americans have always done most to promote.”
Daniel Dougherty: “In all your wanderings you have been distinctly Americans and as such have tightened the ties of peace with distant people; have, perhaps, paved the way to new commercial relations, have widened the brotherhood of many. . . .”
Mark Twain: “And these boys have played base ball there [the Sandwich Islands]. Base ball, which is the very symbol, the outward, visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century. . . . They have carried the American name to the utmost parts of the earth and covered it with glory every time. I drink long life to the boys who plowed a new equator around the globe, stealing bases on their bellies.”
Railroad booster Chauncey M. Depew: “George Washington was a great and good man, but he never saw base ball games. Madison wrote the Constitution of the United States, and Jefferson gave Democracy its birth, but there is no indication upon their tombstones that they were ever roused by the enthusiasm of a home run. . . . Athletic sports are the mainstay of civilization.”
Like Babe Ruth in his early years with the Red Sox, certain players had a knack for thrashing the Yankees. Christy Mathewson was among the first, but he beat them in 1910, before the Yankees were a worthy opponent. During periods when no team could beat them, when the Yankees were the unquestioned kings of the sport, lone and often lowly players were able to excel when no one else could. Papers in the early decades of the twentieth century called them Yankee Killers. People love an underdog.
They didn’t level the playing field, they didn’t change the course of baseball history, but Yankee Killers managed to win a few games and their fans saw them as heroes. They were merely shin splints for Achilles, annoying insurgents against the efficient New York machine. Yankee Killers slowed them down, tripped them, stung them, bit them, hit them and gave hope to the other teams in the league. If mediocre hurler Willard Nixon could beat the Yankees, maybe the Washington Senators could, maybe the St. Louis Browns could, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and so on, forward through baseball history all the way to the abysmal twenty-first century Royals. These teams knew they’d never be the Yankees, and would never have a history like the Yankees. But they could take pride in the rare trouncing, in occasional revenge against the Yankees for being everything they were not: the best, the richest, the most powerful, the most confident. Yankee Killers punished the Yankees for preventing everyone else from being the Yankees, from being winners, from having a fair chance.
When Babe Ruth brought a team of all-stars to Japan in 1934, they were sponsored by Tokyo publisher Matsutaro Shoriki. Ruth was revered as a hero throughout Japan, and the tour was hugely popular. Like the U.S., the country was in an economic depression. Nationalist elements resented the visit by the American ballplayers, and specifically Babe Ruth, because they believed that paying them was sending cash out of the country during a time of need.
In late February 1935, a man named Katsuke Nagasaki stabbed Matsutaro Shoriki in an act of revenge for bringing Babe Ruth to Japan. The assassin believed Shoriki was insufficiently patriotic, and his association with the American ballplayers proved it. Nagasaki was a member of a group called the Warlike Gods Society. Upon hearing of the attack, Babe Ruth told the newspapers: “Yes, I knew Mr. Shoriki well and liked him. He was a fine host and full of energy and hustle. He wasn’t in the game for money, but because he believed that baseball would be a good thing for Japan.”
A Japanese businessman traveling in the United States at the time sent Ruth an open letter in response to the stabbing, saying that Ruth’s visit to Japan was “one of the best means of promoting the Japanese nation’s understanding of true Yankee spirit.”
New Britain is an island in the Bismarck Archipelago near Papua New Guinea. It was a strategic location for the American military during World War II, and marines were sent to try to wrench control from the Japanese occupiers. Some Japanese were still angry about Babe Ruth’s tour of Japan in 1934, and the “heroics” of blade-wielding Mr. Nagasaki were even more meaningful in the midst of a war. Men charged American troops, yelling: “To Hell with Babe Ruth!”
The events in New Britain inspired the New York Times editorial page to spin fantasies of revenge: “When the peace treaty with Japan is signed it will be well for our envoys to remember ‘To hell with Babe Ruth!’ and not overlook the vital importance of bringing about the elimination of the samurai, the Black Dragon, the Warlike Gods and other secret societies in that country.”
Standard Operating Procedure
In January 1942, not long after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote President Roosevelt asking whether the sport should take a hiatus during the war. Roosevelt famously responded: “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.” Baseball, as a means of escape, was essential for victory.
Near the end of the war Del Webb purchased a stake in the Yankees. He partnered with Captain Dan Topping and Colonel Larry MacPhail to buy the team for $2.8 million. Over the course of Webb’s long career as a construction contractor, he built shopping malls, air force bases, a Las Vegas casino called the Flamingo, and the first operational Intercontinental Ballistic Missile facility, from which the atomic Minuteman would launch in the event of nuclear war. Webb became famous for creating the Sun City retirement communities, where “oldsters” live with convenient shopping and entertainment options near their self-contained clusters of homes.
As in the corporate world, Webb was successful in baseball. He maintained a businesslike mindset while owning the Yankees. Webb standardized procedures, and his staff called it “Webberization”: extreme pressure toward uniformity applied to people to make work more efficient and more profitable.
Within a month of Roosevelt’s suggestion that baseball continue during the war, he issued Executive Order 9066, which forced people of Japanese descent out of their homes in portions of the West Coast without being accused or convicted of a crime. Japanese Americans were rounded up, imprisoned, and their properties confiscated. Roosevelt acted on precedent: it had been done to Native Americans many times in the past.
Roosevelt’s order created an urgent need for housing. Del Webb’s company won the contract to build camps near Parker, Ariz., named Poston. Most Americans at the time didn’t know what happened to Japanese Americans during the war. The massive construction projects near Parker brought jobs, workers and an influx of business to an otherwise sleepy region of Arizona, and the few white Americans who knew why did not protest. Webb chose to build Poston’s three concentration camps on Native American land, despite arguments from the Colorado River Indian Reservation Tribal Council.
A map of Poston Unit I from November of 1942 makes the camp look like one of the Sun City retirement communities Webb would create decades later. The map shows a woodcraft shop, a drama center, a library, a hospital, a center for adult education, a barber and a beauty parlor. The perimeter is clearly marked, but the fence is not labeled as a fence. Apart from the police department, there is no evidence of the fact that residents were not allowed to leave. Webb was a former semi-pro baseball player, and his camp included America’s favorite pastime: the map shows a baseball field between the hospital and the Buddhist headquarters.
There were camps in seven states, and all of them had baseball teams. An anonymous prisoner in Poston wrote a now-famous poem entitled “That Damned Fence.” Two lines fleetingly evoke a ballpark at night before the meaning becomes much darker.
We seek the softness of the midnight air,
But THAT DAMED FENCE in the floodlight glare
Awakens unrest in our nocturnal guest,
And mockingly laughs with vicious jest.
With nowhere to go and nothing to do,
We feel terrible, lonesome and blue:
THAT DAMNED FENCE is driving us crazy,
Destroying our youth and making us lazy.
Imprisoned in here for a long, long time,
We know we’re punished — though we’ve committed
Our thoughts are gloomy and enthusiasm damp,
To be locked up in a concentration camp.
Loyalty we know, and patriotism we feel,
To sacrifice is our utmost ideal,
To fight for our country, and die perhaps;
But we’re here because we happen to be Japs.
Units II and III of Poston closed permanently on Sept. 29, 1945, as Del Webb was finishing his first season as co-owner of the Yankees. That day, as the camps closed and Japanese Americans regained a measure of their freedom, Del Webb’s Yankees blanked the Boston Red Sox 5 to nothing. Spud Chandler, recently back from fighting in the war, pitched the shutout. President Roosevelt had been right. Baseball had proved valuable as a way to keep Americans in a state of distraction.
Year later, Sports Illustrated said of the concentration camps: “Both the wisdom and the morality of this project have since been seriously questioned, but at the time it was a job to be done, and Webb did it remarkably well.”
Good Will Should Be Exploited
Friends, enemies, and now friends again following the firebombing of Tokyo and the slaughter in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan and the United States both viewed baseball as a national pastime. Former player Lefty O’Doul wanted to bring Major League Baseball back to Japan, and have a Japanese team visit the United States.
O’Doul met with the Department of Defense and the head of the Psychological Strategy Board (PSB), a unit of government charged with coordinating American propaganda during the Cold War. It was October 1952, a week after the Yankees beat the Dodgers in seven games for another World Series title. In a memo for the record, the PSB noted of Lefty O’Doul: “He apparently has met with some opposition in his efforts to take the New York Giants to Japan, due to certain major league regulations, and also to the attitude of the baseball commissioner.”
But O’Doul was persuasive, and Raymond Allen, interim head of the PSB, agreed to call on Commissioner Ford Frick to press the case for sending a team across the Pacific. In 1955 the Yankees made a post-season tour of Japan.
A colonel present at the PSB meeting between the ballplayer and the propagandists noted that: “Mr. O’Doul’s activities have resulted in a great area of good will which should be exploited for the mutual benefit of all concerned.”
Sometimes the gods have a sense of humor. During game four of the 1955 World Series, Yankees pitcher Don Larsen hit a foul tip into the stands, where it bonked owner Del Webb in the head. The Yankees lost the series to the Dodgers that year and then toured Japan. Webb’s skull healed, and he went along. Only 10 years had passed since the war in the Pacific ended: 10 years since the domestic internment camps were closed, 10 years since the United States detonated nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and 14 years since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The trip fulfilled the aims Lefty O’Doul and the PSB had discussed. Baseball gave the Japanese and Americans something to talk about besides radioactive fallout.
Elston Howard, the first African American to play for the Yankees, had just completed his rookie season as a backup catcher and outfielder. He brought along a 16mm movie camera and shared it with Andy Carey, the young third baseman. Afterwards, Carey edited the footage into a silent color film, which they distributed to their teammates.
Everywhere the Yankees go in Japan, they are greeted by crowds eager to see Americans. The Yankees ride around in open-topped cars, waving to fans. The stadiums are packed, the Japanese media omnipresent. The Yankees visit Osaka, Nagoya, Sapporo. Locals give flowers to the players before the games. Red balloons are released and float toward heaven. The mood is light. Everyone, players and fans alike, seems happy. Baseball is a softer kind of violence than war.
The pleasant mood falls away. They are in Hiroshima. There are no fans, no convoys of waving Yankees, no welcome signs, no games. It could not have been a stop on the official itinerary. The cameraman focuses on a shrine. Shot from the side, it has the shape and look of a covered wagon, though it’s built of cement or stone and emits a dull gray color, like nothingness extruded from the sky on a cloudy day and used as paint. A patch of sunlight illuminates its center. The light catches the cameraman from behind, and his shadow wavers. Several other shadows are there, too. They seem to reach for the shrine and almost touch it. Ephemeral as ghosts, their faces are never shown.
The cameraman has stepped around the shrine and moved closer to the building for greater impact. The dome, which had looked blue, is more visible now. It is not blue. It was a trick of perception. The dome is nothing but naked, skeletal framing for the cupola of a ruined building. The blue came from the bleeding sky. The bottom floors are intact, the top ones are collapsing. The same golden light that struck the shrine now makes the building glow. The clouds behind are dark, and the contrast gives the building an otherworldly feeling. Its broken walls make it look like the edge of a key. The building vibrates. The cameraman is trembling.
The front of the building is now visible. Locals pass on bicycles as though nothing had happened. They live with the memory every day. They survived. They are rebuilding their lives. The cameraman continues to shake. The image flickers. The ruined edge of the building becomes clear, revealing broken walls singed black. The camera pans to the right, lingering over the damage. Andy Carey, the editor of the film, devotes more time to this building than to any other image in the tour of Japan. Finally the camera reaches the far right of the crumbling edifice, then pans up to the dome. The camera is wobbling. It shows the crown, the empty, burned-out crown. It cuts.
A Japanese man stands in front of the building. He wears a dark blue coat and a white shirt, and has longish black hair. He looks grim. The camera focuses on him, then shifts to reveal his English-language sign.
THE ATOMIC BOMB CASUALTY SHOP
BOMB VICTIM NO. 1 K. KIKKAWA
I am introduced in the LIFE TIME
and other magazines as the Atom Bomb
Victim No. 1. Over half of my body was
burned by the Atom Bomb on Aug. 6
1945. I was taken into the Hiroshima
Red Cross Hospital stayed there for
6 years and during the period I had 16
operations. Miraculously I was saved
and now I want to support myself
Thank you for your kind attention
BOMB SOUVENIR MATERIALS
The camera cuts away, back to the building. But this time it starts with the pool of water beneath, where its image is imperfectly reflected. In the water, the building has come apart. Its pieces have eerie spaces separated by water. This aquatic vision of the building ripples and shimmers, looking like a memory, looking like buildings American scientists filmed during atomic bomb tests as they trembled, shook, dissolved and blew away in a single overwhelming gust of burning, radioactive wind.
Decades later, former Yankees owner Del Webb died of complications from cancer surgery. Before his death, he’d been asked to reflect on his long, successful career: “‘I think the greatest thing our company ever did was move the Japs out of California. We did it in ninety days back in the war.’”
The Milwaukee Effect
After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, in the fall of 1957, the United States tried and failed to launch its own. The Soviets were suddenly ahead in the Space Race. In November the Communists launched Sputnik II, and their little dog Laika became the first animal to orbit the earth. A month later, Vanguard, the American rocket designed to launch a satellite, exploded just four feet off the launch pad. The American government was embarrassed, the public was furious and afraid, but the Canadians enjoyed the spectacle. Toronto audiences watching newsreel footage of the Vanguard explosion cheered. It was about time the United States got a dose of humility.
The next fall the Yankees played the Milwaukee Braves again in the World Series. United States Information Agency director George V. Allen — a man charged with implementing psychological warfare and propaganda programs overseas — briefed the National Security Council on what he called the “Milwaukee Effect.” He noted that in the ongoing World Series, the Braves drew “many friends whose only interest in the contest is to see the leading team brought down to size.” The Yankees, along with the United States itself, had “dominated the big leagues for a number of years.” And that was why the residents of Toronto, and so many other people around the world, took such delight when the Soviets beat the Americans to space. Allen continued: “Our chief problem is to grow up psychologically. We boast about our richness, our bigness, and our strength. We talk about our tall buildings, our motorcars, and our income. Nations, like people, who boast can expect others to cheer when they fail.”
Everyone loves a Yankee Killer. Except a Yankee.
It is considered un-American to question the morality of capitalism, but the same people who reflexively defend it in a conversation will not hesitate to express hatred for the New York Yankees. The Yankees have all the money, so they buy the best players and win the most games, keeping the rest of the league weak, ensuring they will earn more money. Teams like the Royals remain terrible for generations and are unable to keep good players, who leave for wealthier and better teams. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. People praise the profit-sharing system in professional football and observe how it has led to better teams across the league and a healthier overall game. And though some critique the lack of equity in baseball, few make the connection to the larger world, in which America operates like the Yankees and most other countries are like the Royals. This anxiety about capitalism and the many decades of success by the Yankees is evident in how fans react when the Yankees are beaten. They love it. Yankee Killers leave people trying to figure out how in the world they beat the unbeatable team. Religion, good luck charms, extreme focus, and other forces have been used to describe Yankee Killers’ success. They reveal how fans see the Yankees, but also hint at how the rest of the world sees the United States.
Every year, as part of a baseball research conference at the Hall of Fame, attendees play a game of town ball before a picnic. Town ball is an early version of baseball, but the ball is softer and you don’t use a glove. I was there in 2006, when it rained heavily and the grass field became saturated. The ground was too muddy for walking, much less running the bases. It would have torn open the field, uprooted the grass, and caused long-lasting damage to land lent to us by a kind area resident. The game was canceled, but the picnic took place under a large open tent on the edge of a hayfield. Conference participants — mostly a group of white men in their forties, fifties, and sixties — huddled under the shelter and feasted on corn on the cob, chicken, and cans of cold American beer. It wasn’t entirely homogeneous: there were a few younger men like myself, a few women.
During dinner Tim Wiles from the Hall of Fame’s research library stood in front of the group dressed as the Mighty Casey. Wearing a red and white uniform and a bristled mustache, he was the master of ceremonies, a shepherd for the flock, a priest for the faithful. We set down our forks and conversations slowed. Wiles led us in a recitation of “Casey at the Bat,” and we all joined in a grand call and response, booing and cheering as the crowd does in the poem.
Then Mighty Casey began to sing softly, earnestly. The tent was quiet again. It was a melancholy sound, like a Gregorian chant or the opening to Lou Reed’s "Coney Island Baby," his ode to sports and loneliness.
Katie Casey was baseball mad.
Had the fever and had it bad;
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou Katie blew
Wiles reached the end of the first verse and I still had not recognized it. It was quiet, even sad, and despite myself I felt a twinge of the sentimentality the older men seemed to be sharing. I wondered if we had been hypnotized by the music, or if the mood was due to the steroid scandal or larger issues like war and the erosion of the Constitution. I looked around. I was younger than most by twenty years. Baseball’s steroid scandal seemed more shocking to these men who grew up in a time when players like Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Carl Yastrzemski were seen as heroes. When I was a kid, Denny McLain, the last man to win thirty games, had already done time in prison. Several of my hometown Royals had been caught with cocaine. There was a strike, and then another. Pete Rose, Doc Gooden, Steve Howe. I could go on. I never had a hero, and I never felt deprived for it. When it finally broke, the steroid scandal had been almost natural to me, like an extension of everything I had seen so far in sports. I was not disillusioned by athletes using steroids because I never had an illusion of baseball’s purity in the first place. As we sat in the tent listening to the opening of the song, I pinpointed my own feeling of loss as not about baseball, but about America. I had believed so many good things about our nation that had proven untrue once we began to use torture, imprisonment without trial, and domestic spying as tools in the War on Terror. I realized the steroid scandal was just another window into the problems of America: fake home run records, illusory weapons of mass destruction, economic bubbles hyped by Wall Street. All symptoms of the same syndrome. Ballplayers bloated by steroids, fans bloated by corn syrup and sloth. Both rotten with greed and hubris.
Wiles continued his incantation.
On a Saturday her young beau
Called to see if she’d like to go,
to see a show but Miss Kate said, “No,
I’ll tell you what you can do”
Then, in an instant, we all recognized the song. The tone became jovial. We smiled and chanted along.
Take me out to the ballgame
Take me out to the crowd
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack
I don’t care if I never get back
The melancholy burned away. We sang along happily until the end of the song because it felt how being at the ballpark should feel. Carefree, open, simple. Never mind that it was written by two people who had never been to a professional baseball game. On that day in Cooperstown it wielded hypnotic power over us as we sat under the tent, our beer cans empty, our plates piled with chicken bones, cartilage, and denuded corncobs.
Excerpted from "The Devil's Snake Curve: A Fan's Notes from Left Field" by Josh Ostergaard. Coffee House Press © 2014. Reprinted with permission.