Home Runs of the Brave: Patriotism and the American Sporting Culture

Saturday, January 5, 2019
Stevens C Prefunction (Hilton Chicago)
Aaron Miller, Ivy Tech Community College
Since August 2016, national anthem protests, most notably in the National Football League, led Americans to consider the link between the national sporting culture and displays of patriotism. Many Americans had never considered why or how these traditions started. My poster will argue that demonstrations of patriotism and loyalty at sporting events started with baseball during World War I. Baseball sold itself as a martial, wholesome, and patriotic activity—essential for national security.

In 1908, the Mills Commission, a blue-ribbon panel tasked with determining the origins of baseball, used tenuous evidence to determine that General Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. Doubleday was a Union army officer who served during the bombardment of Fort Sumter, as well as in the Battle of Gettysburg. Selecting Doubleday not only distanced baseball from the British game of rounders, but also imbued the national pastime with a military connection at its very inception. The Doubleday myth has had tremendous cultural impact. Millions of Americans believed for generations that the former Civil War general had indeed created the game.

In the years before World War I, baseball claimed through its publications and the sporting press that it was essential for strengthening the military. The popular sport constructed a new masculinity—one that connected sporting prowess and military strength. Thus, baseball apostles argued that the game was necessary for physical training and the national defense.

During World War I, baseball promoted itself as an essential industry. It touted its contributions of equipment and money to the war effort. Before games, many teams would engage in mock military drills on the diamond. Teams used bats as stand-ins for rifles. In New York City, after draftees paraded through the city on National Draft Day, they attended a game at the Polo Grounds between the New York Giants and Boston Braves. Before the game, a band played “The Star-Spangled Banner” before an indifferent crowd.

Major League Baseball played a shortened 1918 season. During the 1918 World Series, bands played “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the seventh-inning stretch of each game. Throughout the war, the sporting press touted the accomplishments of the players who served in the military. In 1919, American soldiers played baseball against other countries at the Inter-Allied games in Paris.

The link between the national game and national defense continued after World War I. During World War II, for example, the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants payed a three-way contest to sell war bonds. Even today, many teams occasionally wear uniforms with camouflage patterns.

In the early twentieth century, reformers claimed that vice had infiltrated sports. Baseball wanted to avoid accusations that it was infused with drinking, cursing, and gambling. To increase the game’s popularity, avoid criticism, and cement its self-proclaimed status as the national pastime, baseball created a mythology that it was patriotic, masculine, and imperative for military strength. This was the genesis of the link between patriotism and the American sporting culture.

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