Episode 59: National Pastimes — Mindless Militarism in American Sports

Citations Needed | December 5, 2018 | Transcript

Citations Needed
39 min readDec 5, 2018


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Adam: Military worship is so ingrained in sports, it’s difficult to know when exactly and how exactly we got to this point where it’s so mindless, so perfunctory and so excessive.

Nima: Yeah. “The Star Spangled Banner” is played before baseball games. “God Bless America” is now played during the seventh inning stretch. And, uh, also most games even feature a sixth inning salute to “the veterans” sponsored no less by the United States’ largest military contractor: Boeing.

Adam: Football has #SalutetoService promotions that donate to quote unquote “military charities” three weeks out of the season. This is capped off with military fatigue gear for everyone from the ball boys to the head coaches to the players. Several teams in baseball and football give free tickets to the troops and to veterans.

Nima: One commercial break alone during the 2018 World Series saw commercials ostensibly raising funds for veterans from T-Mobile, Budweiser and Lowes.

Adam: But what are the origins of this runaway troop worship? How did baseball and football become so infused to our military state, and what, if anything, we’re going to ask today, can fans do to kind of deconstruct, criticize and pushback against the forces of jingoism and military fetishization?

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be speaking with Robert Elias, Dean’s Scholar and Professor of Politics and Legal Studies at the University of San Francisco. He is currently a Visiting Professor at McGill University in Montreal and author of a number of books, including The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad.

[Begin Clip]

Robert Elias: Whenever the US intervene and it was almost nonstop in other countries and especially if they occupied for any period of time, one of the first things they did is to try to implant baseball as a way of distracting the locals from the occupation, from their justifiable concern that you’ve got a foreign power occupying their country.

[End Clip]

Adam: Before we start, it’s full disclosure, I am a very big baseball fan. Um, I know, Nima, you like baseball as well.

Nima: I do enjoy the game of baseball.

Adam: My ultimate problematic fave is college football, which is really gross and exploitative and bad in about a million ways.

Nima: And I’m a fan of college basketball, which is not any of those things.

Adam: Um, yeah, sure. But college football especially is, um, you know, I went to the University of Texas, that’s my excuse. Uh, they won the title what would have been my senior year and it’s ingrained in your culture and I know it’s, I know we talked about this offline, that I really, really like baseball, but I feel like if I was, you know, an alien species came down and I had to explain why I like it I don’t even know if I could convey a good reason. Um, there are elements of course that I think are entertaining. It’s very, um, sort of similar to football it’s very, it’s very situational focused, you know, there’s not a lot of play in baseball and football. There’s really I think only about 11 minutes of play in a football game. Baseball is probably way less of actual quote unquote “action.” You savor the moment. Right? And what we’re going to talk about in this episode is to the extent to which maybe I don’t know, there’s some degree of conditioning going on as to why I like baseball, um, and that why certain things, why certain sports took off in the United States and why others didn’t, and what the kind of political origins and those are.

Nima: In American football and baseball, F-22 flyovers are routine. 160-foot flags draped across the field. Sporting events have become, more than ever, non-stop, almost head spinning marathons of patriotism porn.

[Begin Clip Montage]

Man #1: Ladies and gentlemen we are honored to introduce one hundred servicemen and servicewomen representing each branch of the armed services as they present the American flag on the field.

Woman #1: Hundreds of service members were honored tonight before kickoff.

Man #2: Fox Sports salutes the troops.

Man #3: All military members stand and be recognized.

Man #4: Sometimes fans cheer for those who wear different uniforms.

Man #5: Together we choose to serve those who have served us all.

Man #6: This Memorial Day weekend we’ll salute our troops like no one else.= at the Coca Cola 600.

Man #7: At T Mobile we’re committed to honoring our military veterans and their families.

Man #8: It is in this network’s logo and the shield of the National Football League, the colors red, white and blue, and that is not by mistake. Nothing is more patriotic than a big time National Football League game.

Man #9: This summer Budweiser committed a portion of its sales to provide scholarships to military families.

Man #10: Now the players of both these teams have relatives in the Gulf region and like all Americans with relatives over there, it has been very difficult to concentrate on a football game.

Man #11: As you cheer on the teams we all love, remember that we are all part of one team. This is Fox NFL Sunday. Thank you for your service.

[End Clip Montage]

Nima: So also we should add that we fully understand that sports in general are very martial in their inception, that dating back to Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, elsewhere that aren’t just in Classic Studies, that sports substituted for military training oftentimes, that they were nationalistic, especially when it came to the Greek Olympics, the Ancient Greek Olympics that had to do with city states vying against each other. This is a kind of foundational approach to understanding sports in our both human history and also current discourse. What we want to do on this episode is not so much investigate that, but investigate how American culture has really embraced a few different sports and how these are not always simply grassroots cultural initiatives that sprout up because people really like playing sports and enjoy the athleticism and the camaraderie, but also sometimes, sometimes there’s a top down approach in terms of this sort of cultural conditioning.

Adam: First off, let’s start off with the history of the national anthem before sporting events in the United States, which is unique to the United States and completely batshit, and I want to start by talking about Kaepernick. The Colin Kaepernick protest that began in earnest in 2016 and has since spiraled into one of the cultural friction points. We won’t focus on it too much, but suffice to say that one of the rejoinders to criticisms of Kaepernick has been that the national anthem at sporting events specifically football is relatively new. It was done during national holidays and baseball games for probably about a hundred years, but it wasn’t done yet in every other game, especially in football, until really the fifties. This was done in the context of Vietnam and football taking over as a kind of national martial sport parallels deeply with Vietnam and what was perceived as being waning patriotism in this country. Uh, the first Super Bowl, uh, took place in 1967. The first military flyover took place in 1968. And then of course you have, which we’ll get into later, you’ll have the creation of tax code specifically to protect football in 1966, the previous year.

Nima: So another big turning point for the militarization of football specifically came in 1991. The Super Bowl in 1991, which occurred pretty much right at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War, the first major military conflict really since Vietnam. This particular Super Bowl set a new precedent for security at national sporting events. For example, fans were not allowed to bring in any outside electronics into the stadium. Uh, this was before the advent of cell phones when everyone carries major electronics in their pocket. So really this had to do with not bringing cameras, not, not bringing photographic devices into the stadium. This was a new thing, but that was kind of a big deal because no rule like that had ever previously existed. You know, now in the post 9/11 sports era, you basically have to go through full on TSA-style security just to get a hot dog and cheese fries, but really that sort of a security state at stadiums began in 1991.

Adam: Yeah. So in, in 1991 before the launch of the Persian Gulf War, Whitney Houston did a, um, this was around the time of the Super Bowl, Whitney Houston did her now infamous rendition of the national anthem, which the announcers read this before she went on:

[Begin Clip]

Male Announcer: And now to honor America, especially the brave men and women serving our nation in the Persian Gulf and throughout the world, please join in the singing of our national anthem. The anthem will be by a flyover of F-16 jets from the 56th Tactical Training Wing at MacDill Air Force Base and will be performed by the Florida Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Jahja Ling and sung by Grammy Award winner Whitney Houston.

(Cheers, applause)

Whitney Houston: (Singing) Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?….Brave. (Deafening applause and jet engine sounds)

[End Clip]

Nima: (Laughing) All hail the United States.

Adam: So you had the stars and stripes uniform. And the Persian Gulf was sort of the first modern war in the sense that it was 24-hour news and this is really where this is really where football began to accelerate its place as the most martial and most patriotic sport. And what you will see and we’ll talk about this with our guest is it’s really at this point in the nineties and the lead up to 9/11 where football and baseball are constantly jockeying to see who can out patriotism the other. Because to be the most patriotic sport carries with it not just marketing value, you know, sort of warm and fuzzy feeling of jingoism at little cost, right? It doesn’t really cost you anything to sort of wrap yourself in the flag. Coca-Cola learned this early. Coca-Cola has always tried to be synonymous with America, sort of this warm and fuzzy feeling. And then they, uh, they sort of jockeyed for the top spot and this really kind of took off more after 9/11 obviously. There’s an old story that people in marketing tell about how baseball cards start, where in the 1910s and ‘20s they had, packs of gum would be sold, and then they started to put little cards of baseball players, you know, Honus Wagner, so forth, inside the packs of gum. And then eventually the baseball cards themselves became valuable. And so they collected the cards and then so eventually it became half card and then half gum. And then eventually when we were kids, Nima, I know they don’t, I don’t know if have it anymore, but during when we were kids, the baseball cards then still had the residual pack of gum.

Nima: There was that sad little brittle, brittle piece of gum that cut your cheeks.

Adam: Right. This is sort of a marketing one on one case of how the medium and the message become, you know, flipped right?

Nima: Fused and flipped, right.

Adam: Fused and flipped. So you, you know, with the 9/11, the sort of drawn out wars that go on forever and the jockeying to sort out patriotism everyone that eventually, I don’t know where the sporting event ends and the military pageant begins. At what point will we be just be going to a military pageant where you happen to have a baseball game.

Nima: Right. Where like the color guard just stands at midfield the entire time.

Adam: (Laughs) Yeah. I don’t know, uh, you know, at some point, again, if an alien species came down and viewed this game I think they would view it as a military pageant that incidentally involved some sideshow of baseball or football. I mean, I don’t think we’re there yet, but I definitely could see that.

Nima: Don’t worry, Adam, we’ll get there.

Adam: If our permanent war on terror and our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, uh, you know, because the war in Afghanistan is going to go on probably my entire lifetime. And in a weird way is as, it seems like a lot of patriotism porn is sort of a consolation prize.

Nima: Because we don’t win wars anymore. So we have to infuse winning into our sports, or rather military into our sports.

Adam: Yeah, exactly. Because what we’ll talk about is that militarism in baseball, especially in football as well, have always gone on over time, but it’s kinda gone, it ebbs and flows with war. World War I had a tremendous amount of patriotism porn and then it kinda went away and then World War II you had it. And, but now we’re involved in wars that by definition will never end. And so the incentive to sort of just keep pouring on this mindless troop worship is so great and it’s almost like we’re saying we sent you off to these wars that were based on lies, but your consolation prize is, you know, Joe Buck is going to donate $15 to the…, you know what I mean?

Nima: That’s like the worst consolation prize I can possibly imagine. We had been talking, uh, Adam and I, about the, not only use and kind of exploitation of the Super Bowl halftime show, which I think, you know, most people who have seen one can kind of understand the uber-nationalism, which is why when any of the artists who are performing push up against that, it’s either loved or, or, or hated. But there’s a reason for that is because this is a major, major national spectacle. We’ve mentioned the Whitney Houston moment and there are plenty more, but we also wanted to point out the earlier side of this and where Super Bowl halftime shows first came from.

Adam: Up with People is a Christian cult full of maybe dozens of members that created the original halftime show in 1976 and then up until the, up until the late eighties.

Nima: The bicentennial year, no less.

Adam: Yeah. And much of much of what we’re going to talk about on this show is the degree to which a lot of this is contrived, um, that it isn’t an organic thing that we happen to come across, that these are sort of developed in the proverbial smoke filled back rooms. Up with People is a prime example of that. Up with People, a right-wing astroturfed Christian cult band that was created by groups like Exxon, General Motors was a huge funder of theirs as was Enron back in the eighties, that was created in the sixties from a right-wing Christian elements as a counter to what they viewed is increasingly secular, increasingly left-wing music such as, you know, pop music such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and so up with people was this cult where you had arranged marriages and they were squeaky clean. They didn’t drink, they didn’t do anything. And they were the first halftime show in 1976. So here’s a clip of Up with People. I just wanted to convey how corny they were. So let’s listen to that right now.

Super Bowl XVI halftime show featuring “Up With People” on January 24, 1982. (Credit: Manny Millan /Sports Illustrated)

[Begin Clip]

Female Announcer: We have an exciting halftime extravaganza in store for you this afternoon. The National Football League is pleased to present Up with People in a special performance featuring music of the 1960s, the decade the Super Bowl was born. Up with People is an extraordinary educational and cultural program for young people all around the world. So without further ado, let’s welcome 430 young people from 24 countries, ladies and gentlemen, Up with People!

(Group sing “The Twist”)

[End Clip]

Nima: If you are a Simpsons fan, or if you remember, um, there’s this squeaky clean Benetton-esque group which resurfaces now and again called Hooray for Everything and they perform at Duff Gardens for example. But also at one point Homer Simpson is driving down the street. And this comes on the radio:

[Begin Clip]

Male Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, Hooray for Everything invites you to join them in a salute to the greatest hemisphere on earth, the Western Hemisphere! The dancingest hemisphere of all!


[End Clip]

Nima: (Laughs.)

Adam: There’s a documentary on Up with People called “Smile ’Til It Hurts,” which you should definitely check out. You can buy it online. The filmmakers, one of them used to be a member of Up with People, as, by the way was Glenn Close. Fun fact. But back to this issue of contrivance, Nima, I know you, I know we wanted to sort of talk about what we viewed as the X factor, the sort of original sin about why football and also baseball became national pastimes. And again, it wasn’t, it was through what was basically one big government subsidy for decades.

Nima: So Gregg Easterbrook wrote a great article in The Atlantic in 2013 where he outlines how the National Football League really bilks the American public of funding. So Easterbrook points out how in the 1960s lobbyists for the National Football League got congressional leaders to change the 501(c)6 tax code, uh, granting certain elements of the American business culture tax exempt status, making them nonprofits basically. So what used to be phrased as nonprofit status, to quote “business leagues, chambers of commerce, real-estate boards or boards of trade” post 1966 and effective lobbying efforts became this quote, “business leagues, chambers of commerce, real-estate boards, boards of trade, or professional football leagues.” End quote. So they just, they just stuck that in there.

Adam: Yeah. And of course we’ve seen that the DoD not just has these subsidizations through, through tax breaks, but they actually directly pay them. For several years the DoD spent between 2012 and 2015 the Defense Department’s been $53 million across 122 advertising and marketing contracts with, with professional sports teams. Uh, that included quote, “on-field color guard enlistment and reenlistment ceremonies, performances of the national anthem, full-field flag details, ceremonial first pitches and puck drops” for hockey. This caused a little bit of a controversy. They had given almost a million dollars to the Atlanta Falcons between 2012 and 2015. Uh, the Massachusetts Army National Guard paid the Patriots about $700,000 over a two year span. The Milwaukee Brewers alone were paid by the Pentagon $49,000 to sing “God bless America.” So this is sort of seen as an extreme, the extreme end of it, right? You have this relationship between the military and sports, but it wasn’t quite enough.

Nima: Yeah, they decided to just literally pay them to do shit.

Adam: Yeah. And so it’s not only astroturfed through through tax breaks, subsidies, antitrust exemptions, but it’s also astroturfed through direct payments when that’s not enough, and that sort of not adequately patriotic. They said, fuck it, let’s just give them a check for $800,000 to sing “God Bless America” during every game.

Nima: And so Easterbrook in this Atlantic article also says this quote, “For Veterans Day last year,” he’s talking about 2012, “the NFL announced that it would donate cash to military groups for each point scored in designated games. During NFL telecasts that weekend, the league was praised for its grand generosity. The total donation came to about $440,000. Annualized, NFL stadium subsidies and tax favors add up to perhaps $1 billion. So the NFL took $1 billion from the public, then sought praise for giving back $440,000 — less than a tenth of 1 percent.” End quote.

Adam: Yeah, you really can’t underestimate how valuable these tax subsidies are. The NFL, you know, I want to be clear, the teams themselves are not nonprofits and the NFL itself stopped being a nonprofit extensively last year. But the NFL for decades, from 1966 to about 2016, uh, the organization itself was a nonprofit, the organization itself had billions of dollars, there was the same nonprofit status you get in terms of taxes, in terms of growth. And the teams themselves of course were subsidized to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year off subsidized stadiums, tax breaks for teams. So these are not businesses. This is the irony, they’re supposed to sort of be these beacons of American capitalism, but they don’t compete in an honest and fair way, they’re constantly subsidized by the state. Of course, as we talked about offline Nima, there’s no difference between getting a billion dollars given to you by the government and a billion dollar tax break. From an accounting perspective at the same thing.

Nima: Right.

Adam: So if the US government gave, you know, the NFL a billion dollars or if the Pentagon gave the NFL a billion dollars, we would have a more direct understanding of why they’re so in sync with the military state apparatus. So in a way the NFL and also baseball, which we’ll discuss later, are because they get this antitrust and anti-monopoly exemption are allowed to drive down, you can’t even calculate how having a complete monopoly on labor drives down bargaining and drive down salaries and has for decades. This of course was, was pushed back a little bit in the seventies and eighties with free agency. But, um, but even then, you know, there’s, there’s only one league a professional football player can play in. There’s only one league a professional basketball player can play in. And they know this, and this is how they drive down wages. Um, so the number is probably in the multiple, multiple billion dollars in terms of how they’re, they’re special relationship with the federal government has made these national pastimes, uh, so profitable and made them, made them grow as much as they have because they, again, these aren’t, these aren’t organic things necessarily. Uh, of course people organically like sports to some extent, but it’s difficult to know where the top down contrivance and the organic appreciation or passion for a game begins and ends because so much of this as we’ll discuss even more later is astroturfed.

Nima: Because that’s precisely how effective propaganda works. You take something that is, you know, uh, actually likable and digestible and that people really want to pay attention to and you infuse your messages into it. We can see this both off the field and on the field. So with these tax subsidies, tax breaks off the field are then also manifest for what is televised to massive audiences. So for instance post 9/11 in 2002 leading up to the actually the, the, the very first Super Bowl since the attacks of 9/11, Fox broadcast a three hour pregame special that it titled “Heroes, Hope and Homeland.” U2 played the halftime show that game while the names of those who were killed during the 9/11 attacks, scrolled on a giant screen behind them. In 2006, this kind of same thing was being done, although it had shifted somewhat from scrolling names to rather showing the troops doing, you know, fun stuff like getting haircuts and engaging in humanitarian missions.

Adam: Uh, and this was, this was capped off with a reintroduced after 9/11, this is not an all stadiums, but it’s in I think most stadiums, “God Bless America,” the seventh inning stretch, supplemental to or in addition to, I think often in, in addition to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Now “God Bless America” is now a second national anthem. And there was a case where in the Yankee Stadium in 2008, the NYPD officers who run security, again, another form of public subsidy, and a lot of them I think may have been off duty, uh, but they still wear their uniform off duty so the distinction doesn’t really exist from a civilian perspective. People were trying to leave during “God Bless America” and the NYPD wasn’t letting them leave. They were basically detaining them. They were kidnapping them to stand for “God Bless America.”

Nima: During the seventh inning stretch — I actually remember this at Yankee Stadium, I remember going to those games and having the feeling that you could not like go get a hot dog. You couldn’t get a beer during the seventh inning stretch. Granted, that’s what the, like the seventh inning stretch is so that you can fucking stretch your legs when it’s a really, baseball games are not short. So like we were prevented, they used to actually before the seventh inning stretch started, stadium security would come down the aisles with chain links like on the, on the sides of the seats to make sure that people wouldn’t leave their seats before the end of “God Bless America.”

Adam: And so there was a gentleman by the name of Bradford Campeau-Laurion, who was a Queen’s man, he, he, um, he tried to go use the restroom during “God Bless America,” and he was detained and he pushed back and then they, uh, like they, he didn’t push back, but he, he objected to this. They ejected him from the stadium. Uh, anyway, they sued. They ended up winning. They had to pay him $10,000 for violating his rights. This kind of shows the obligatory nature of a lot of this where there is no incentive to not be as mindlessly patriotic as possible. Now I think a foreign observer would look at this and people I’ve talked to think this is all incredibly fucking strange, that this is not how normal countries behave.

Nima: You don’t pen people in so that they have to observe a standing honoring of like a second national fucking anthem.

Adam: The second one, like we’ve already had one.

Nima: Yeah, we already did the thing that I didn’t stand for, so now I have to like not go to the bathroom for the second one.

Adam: You know this history goes back a long while, which specifically in baseball, we kinda went into this show thinking that this was, that we were certainly at an extreme now. I think that patriotism is definitely at one of its extreme points, but this is not new. This has been going on for years and baseball especially as always been tethered to American foreign policy and baseball itself, Major League Baseball itself was given antitrust and monopoly exemption by the Supreme Court for decades because people would try to contest this, especially labor leaders and baseball from its earliest days grew as the American empire grew west. The term “bullpen” itself was taken from a term that the US cavalry in 1870s and ‘80s used to describe places where they would detain Native Americans before expulsion or execution. They called them bullpens. It’s a place you put rounded up Native Americans and other and other prisoners of war

Nima: In the lead up to World War I, Major League Baseball actually acted as a leading kind of chief propagandist for the American military. Major League Baseball players would do literal military drills on the ball field and also actual military troops, regular troops were invited to march on the field, army sergeants trained ballplayers, who were then called tin soldiers, there were these drills conducted. The St. Louis Browns won the cash prize for like a drill competition among the teams that we’re judged by a Lieutenant Colonel. Charles Comiskey had the White Sox parade in khaki before a large crowd that included 7,000 soldiers and six different military bands. This kind of pomp really led up to the US entering World War I in 1917 and since then baseball even followed suit becoming even more aggressively militaristic.

Adam: Uh, yeah. And that same year, there was this tour, they would constantly do these, these baseball tours where were two baseball teams would travel to Europe or travel to Asia to try to promote baseball. This was always seen as a vanguard of American capitalist expansion. This was the thing that would come before we would send either the marines or the US Chamber of Commerce to come push what they viewed as the American way. And there was a British novelist who loved baseball. Baseball was actually briefly popular in Britain around this time, it kind of obviously waned in popularity, but, um, there was a British novelist by the name of Hall Caine, who presented a bronze statue to the, to the New York Giants and he said, quote, “Baseball is the brother of war but it’s battles shed no blood.” So baseball is the brother of war was seen as a very common feature at the time that baseball was the other side of the coin of American militarism, that it was there to promote the American way. And it’s interesting in retrospect, Nima how much we now view football as the kind of manly Marshall game, but it’s, you read tracks from that time and you read tracks from the tens and twenties and thirties. And baseball was seen as violent. And of course it was way more violent back then. This is before they introduced all the rules that made it less violent. It was seen as Marshall. It was seen as, as, as sweaty and masculine.

Nima: Yeah. So, Scientific American in 1919 actually said this explicitly. A baseball was quote, “efficient means to cultivate national vitality, citizenship, and the martial spirit.” End quote. The article continued that the athleticism of, of baseball would be its own kind of military training, uh, and, and would not only train quote “American men in the ‘soldierly values’ of obedience, citizenship, and combat, but also repair class schisms and restore social order.” End quote. So to talk more about this, we’re going to be joined by Robert Elias, Dean’s Scholar and Professor of Politics and Legal Studies at the University of San Francisco. He’s currently a Visiting Professor at McGill. He is the author of a number of books, including The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Professor Robert Elias. Thanks so much for speaking with us today on Citations Needed.

Robert Elias: Thank you for inviting me.

Adam: Uh, when we talk about militarization of sports and the military alignment with sports in America and the kind of popular discourse, um, we focus a lot on, on football because I think it’s, the game itself is considered more of a martial metaphor, but you write in your book, Empire Strikes Out, you sort of talk about how baseball was really the first instance of combining US foreign policy and militarism with sports and kinda laid the framework for all subsequent sports to follow. Can you talk about that and why baseball was seen as this quintessentially American and almost ideological export?

Robert Elias

Robert Elias: Well, sure. Um, first of all, baseball is a lot older sport than football, so it’s had a chance to start doing this much earlier in our history and um, you know, baseball showed up, not necessarily by design, but it showed up as far back as the Revolutionary War. Um, and then it was involved with troops in the Indian Wars both before and after the Civil War. And even prior to the Civil War, it was already being called the national pastime. So when baseball became more organized, and this is even before the, the first real league, the National League, it occurred to the people who were organizing it, that if you could connect it to the American nation, that you could promote the sport much better. And so it began this process of trying to find characteristics in baseball that might reflect the best of America. And so that’s, you know, baseball then became quintessentially American. So this had to do with it status both in the United States but also beyond the US. And of course our, our military and foreign policy initially was to conquer the continent. And then, you know, after that, by the end of the 1800s, we began to spread out more and then it became a part of our foreign and military policy as we expanded beyond US borders. So, um, at first it was happenstance, you could say. And then organized baseball took the opportunity to say, well, you know, if we’re the national pastime, what does that mean and that this could help promote the sport. And, and you know, I think it was a combination of being a true believer that actually this was quintessential America, you know, represented in baseball, combined with the, you know, the pursuit of profit, trying to make money by virtue of linking it all the time to American policy.

Nima: So Robert, what role did it play in post Civil War America? Was it used to heal the wounds of war and then from there was exported, when did it really establish itself as closer to the game that we know today?

Robert Elias: Well, we can date baseball games that we would recognize actually much earlier than that. Um, as far back as at least the 1830s and 1840s. But the Civil War was very important because the game was played as recreation mostly in the North but also in prisoner of war camps on both sides. And then after the war, the game really was implanted and then taken back. So soldiers going back to the South, soldiers leaving to go out west. So it really spread the game. It was used, again as baseball became more organized, it was used as a part of trying to, you used the word healing the nation, and that, that word was used quite a bit. Right? Could baseball, uh, be used as a way of bridging the gap between the North and the South after this horrible war? And the verdict is sort of out on whether, you know, how successful that was, but, but to a certain extent, teams played each other between Northerners and Southerners and, um, they at least tolerated each other if it didn’t necessarily heal all the, um, all the wounds. And then the idea after that was, ‘well, if it’s spreading across the nation, then maybe it could also be spread beyond our national boundaries.’ Albert Spalding, who was a top star pitcher in the National League, but, but soon became a Major League Baseball owner and, uh, also started his sporting goods business, became very interested in not only establishing his business in the US but trying to launch it abroad. And so, um, he launched a world baseball tour in 1888 that went literally around the world and was quite successful actually in implanting that business. So you have this, um, this combination of waving the flag for America, um, but using baseball as the way of saying, ‘look, we have something special to offer you, it’s embodied in baseball and you, if you’re smart, you really ought to accept this.’ And this was really the theme everywhere that baseball landed on this tour. And of course if baseball was implanted, they would need equipment. And so all you had to do is go to one of Spalding’s, uh, stores and buy that equipment. So it was a nice sort of combination of patriotism on the one hand and profit motive on the other hand. Spalding is a neglected figure from this period of time I think, you know, we talk about the robber barons and uh, he was really a neglected robber baron during this period of time. And the owners, the baseball owners as the National League began to form, really thought of themselves as magnets, as, as sort of maybe junior robber barons during this, during this period of time. Not as big as maybe the Rockefellers and the Carnegies, but nevertheless aspiring to be.

Nima: Well, that’s amazing. It’s kind of like the Spalding baseball tour was the precursor by two decades to Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, you know, that displayed US naval power all around the world. This is like the baseball version of that.

Robert Elias: Exactly. Yeah, and it’s kind of an early version of, of globalization really. It’s the idea of spreading this business beyond the boundaries of the US. So you have baseball involved in foreign policy and military policy, later in diplomacy and also in early, you know, vestiges of globalization.

Adam: So let’s fast forward here to the present. Most non Americans would view our tethering of sports to patriotism, specifically the use of national anthems at the first and in most stadiums now the seventh inning stretch, there’s another national anthem and then in a lot of stadiums, at least at Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field where I, where I watch baseball, quite often there is now the fifth or sixth inning salute the troops by Boeing where you have to stand again. So you have basically three instances of patriotism. Most non Americans find this deeply, deeply strange. So I guess my question is, when we went into this episode, we viewed the current status being a height of patriotism, but maybe a more correct way based on reading your book now is that it kind of goes in ebbs and flows. That there’s times of increased patriotism in sports and then it kind of wanes, let’s say it kind of waned before 9/11 and then came roaring back. Is it simply a matter of perverse incentives? Offline I spoke with someone I know who works with the MBA and he’ll say, yeah, there’s no, you know, you never get fired from the marketing department by coming up with something about the troops and of course you have more sinister stuff like the DoD or the Pentagon actually paying for some of these, these displays of patriotism.

Robert Elias: Right.

Adam: Is that the thing that kind of animates it? It’s just sort of this de facto thing you can do from a marketing perspective?

Robert Elias: Well, it just never, it never hurts and I guess it is in waves through a certain extent. But baseball has been doing this for a long time and it started actually quite early. When, when football emerged in the late 1800s, early 1900s, it was quickly enlisted by people like Theodore Roosevelt as a part of this notion that, you know, we’re a strong nation and we’re going to be aggressive and you know, that whole sort of macho masculine orientation, you know, walk softly and carry a big stick. And this became a threat to baseball because baseball wanted to be the sport that was connected to our policy and our national character. And so it pushed back by pointing out all of the ways in which baseball was militaristic, um, and maybe more militaristic than football. And actually partly because football was so dangerous at the time, baseball was able to succeed and get beyond that. But it never stopped waving the flag all through our subsequent wars and including our cold wars as well as hot wars. And I think what happened is, you know, in, in more recent times is as of the early 1970s when football became more popular than, than baseball, that baseball ramped it up again. And here’s another instance when we’re going to have to fight off football. And one way of doing this is by being more closely associated with the military and waving the flag. So it’s been sort of playing that game and you know, I think Bud Selig, when he was commissioner was particularly involved in doing this kind of thing. I’m not sure that Rob Manfred has been as, you know, is involved in that. And, and I think basically it’s a losing proposition compared to what football can ramp up in that, in that regard. But, but you’re right, it’s, it’s turned, especially in post 9/11 it’s turned the ballparks into, um, a display of patriotism nonstop and often military patriotism. And, uh, you know, the ball players, I don’t know, I, I think a lot of them don’t mind. You know they’re, they’re willing to dress up in camouflage uniforms. A lot of the teams do this. Um, San Diego does it every Sunday. But some pushback, you probably know the story of Carlos Delgado. In 2004 when he felt that, uh, “God Bless America” at the seventh inning stretch was, uh, an implicit endorsement of the war by baseball and by the ballplayers and he refused to, um, to stand for “God Bless America” and you know, he was considered to be a traitor. He got hate mail and um, so it, you know, it’s risky sort of standing up against this kind of thing.

Adam: Yeah. You know, there’s nothing really gained by it. You mentioned this idea of macho-ness and manliness, and I got to say one of the most fascinating threads in your book is this constant obsession with waning masculinity and manliness. It seems like there’s a moral panic every ten years between, let’s say 1870 to like the 1960s, about this lack of manliness. You see it typically a lot, oftentimes during times of peace, relative peace, right? That men are getting weak, that boys are getting weak. Teddy Roosevelt was also obsessed with this. This is why he loved football and that sports like baseball and then later more so football were a way of kind of keeping your edge, keeping sharp, keeping manly when you weren’t actually going in and storming some hill somewhere. Can you talk about the sort of, I don’t like to use this word because it’s a little buzz wordy, but sort of toxic masculinity, informs this constant need to wed patriotism with sports?

Robert Elias: Yeah, sure. It’s a little bit odd. If you go back far enough in the 1800s, you actually find some pretty negative things about sports, how sports are just frivolous and really have no importance. One of the first places where it begins to take on a different perspective is, is in um, in religion and Christianity, the immersion of what was called Muscular Christianity. But I think it really spread to all institutions that sports have to be masculine and that sports had a relationship to manifestations of masculinity and other realms, but particularly in America as projection of itself abroad. And so even things that would seem to be rather mild indicators of masculinity were really, you know, puffed up when Spalding came back from his tour in the 1880s there was banquets and dinners for the returning players. They were viewed as conquering heroes. And the whole line of discussion was that these were, um, practically warriors that had been sent out on behalf of the country, even though they were just playing baseball. So I don’t think this has ever really changed. To the extent that it’s toxic I think is the repercussions of putting athletes in this, uh, in this position because it carries over beyond the playing field. And I mean, I think this is particularly true in football, but it has a negative effects on the behavior of athletes off the field and not just on the field.

Nima: So Robert, you were speaking earlier about the uses of football, baseball, other national pastime sports in the United States during the Cold War. Really using that as ‘this is super pro-American’ as opposed to Soviet Communism. Can you tell us how that was wrapped up together? Especially when it has to do with the player’s league and, and a lot of anti-union rhetoric that was then leveraged using this baseball as being anti-Communist.

Robert Elias: So even in its earliest days, baseball was very closely linked to the promotion of capitalism and democracy and all sorts of things were imagined about the sport that would support both of those institutions. So this carries through from the late 1800s and certainly through the red scares of the early 20th century and then on into the post World War II and baseball associated itself with other institutions that had this similar theme, for example, it was involved and connected very strongly to the American Legion. American Legion Baseball ended up being a pretty strong pipeline for players into the professional league. It also came out of Little League. Um, if you look at the founding of Little League, it really was an institution that was designed to make sure that kids would be resisting godless communism that’s very explicit in the early literature of Little League. So you have these, um, these institutions that are helping Major League Baseball take this role during the Cold War. And, you know, some interesting examples of this, Branch Rickey gets Jackie Robinson to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in a sort of anti-Communist commentary that Robinson later regretted. He felt he was really manipulated with that. In the 1950s, the mid-1950s the Cincinnati Reds decided that they couldn’t be called the Reds anymore because that was too closely associated. Anything red at the time was considered to be bad, Red China and all and all the rest. And so they changed their name to the Redlegs and then they didn’t change it back to the Reds until the 1960s. Uh, so, you know, this notion of the anti-Communist hysteria was really ramped up and baseball very explicitly, Ford Frick was the commissioner during this period of time, very explicitly said that baseball’s role was to help fight the Communists.

Adam: Ironically enough, many famous Communists and leftists became huge baseball fans. Cuba obviously, Fidel Castro and then Venezuela, Hugo Chavez and other kinds of anti-American, big name anti-Americans embraced baseball. Which kind of gets to one of your points, which is that baseball can both be anti-American, pro-American. It can also be used to control. This plays out most significantly in Latin America I think, where it’s kind of taken on different iterations because it’s obviously value neutral. It’s a sport. Can you talk about the ways in which both sort of pro-American dictators, if you will, and anti-American revolutionary types have used baseball to their end from 1880s in Cuba all the way to today?

Robert Elias: Yes, sure. And you’re right, it’s on both sides of the ledger. So, uh, you can look at Cuba, you know, baseball came to Cuba very early and um, baseball was not initially well regarded and well received by the Spaniards who were controlling Cuba prior to the Spanish American War. And uh, there was a pushback against the Spaniards and part of that was organized through baseball teams and playing baseball. Baseball was considered to be a revolutionary act. So it happened very early on the more leftist side of the ledger. On the more right-wing side, you have a series of dictators, you’ve got Rafael Trujillo, you’ve got Somoza in Nicaragua, and they, uh, thought that baseball would be a good thing to enlist to help them promote themselves and keep themselves in power if they could be associated with a game that everyone in the country liked then it might distract the population from rising up and pushing back. Um, and certainly when, whenever the US intervened and it was almost nonstop in other countries, uh, and especially if they occupied for any period of time, one of the first things they did is to try to implant baseball as a way of distracting the locals from the occupation, from their justifiable concern that you’ve got a foreign power occupying their country. So, um, yeah, I think the sports, the sport has been used on both sides.

Nima: It reminds me of that climactic scene in Good Morning Vietnam when Adrian Cronauer is about to fly out and he stops off on his way to the airfield to visit his English language class full of native Vietnamese and they play baseball, uh, on his way out of town as a way of, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together,’ even though literally he is part of an invading and occupying army.

Robert Elias: Right. There’s some interesting stories about, well, okay, so this is a social control mechanism, but then the locals are getting pretty good at baseball and with few other resources or power to push back against the occupier, if you could beat the Americans at their own game, that was pretty good. Um, so, you know, sort of small victories.

Nima: We’ve been talking about the nexus between sport and colonization and imperialism, also obviously capitalism, you’ve written about how baseball and also football years later, was actually given an antitrust exemption. Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the 1910s said that it was not subject to monopoly restriction thereby giving the league tremendous market advantage, allowing them to drive down salaries for their players, etcetera. You, you kind of say that doing this gave them, um, that there were maybe implicit or informal obligations for them, these leagues to also support the US government, support US foreign policy. Can you talk about that a bit? How there were these incentives in place?

Robert Elias: Uh, this is very important and it really illustrates one of the reasons why baseball has tried to, organized baseball has tried to associate itself so closely to US domestic and foreign and military policy because it’s concerned about losing this antitrust exemption. So antitrust laws were on the books since the 1890s. They weren’t very well enforced, but there was always a threat that they would, and baseball as a growing series of corporations was very concerned about this because they violated every aspect of the antitrust legislation. In a case in 1922 Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes issued an opinion and he came to the conclusion that although baseball looked like a business, although it did cross state lines, so it was interstate, in other words, it’s satisfied all of the requirements to being regulated by antitrust, that nevertheless it was exempt and the reason for it being exempt was because it was the national pastime. And so as the national pastime, it meant the laws didn’t apply and not just that law, but other laws as well as baseball enjoyed later on. So this was a very valuable thing to preserve and so you wanted to keep in the good graces then of the government. Congress could step in and rescind this at any time. And so there was always the threat of that and so you wanted to make sure that you were true blue American and that you were in line with conventional American policies. So yes, this is a very strong motivation. This was partly undone, uh, this exemption allowed the reserve clause to, as you faced oppressed salaries, prevent players from selling their skills on the open market. Um, this was challenged again in the early 1970s, the Curt Flood case. And even though it lost, uh, it led to really a revolt by the players led by Marvin Miller and free agency emerged. Eventually, the exemption from the antitrust laws for labor issues was rescinded, but it’s still in place, the exemption is still in place, for business activity for Major League Baseball. And so they enjoy all of the advantages that they otherwise would not enjoy if antitrust with seriously enforced.

Adam: Yeah. This is something that gets really overlooked when we talk about our national pastimes of football and baseball, is the extent to which they are contrived. Football was a nonprofit until just recently the, the organization itself, not the teams, but the organization itself, antitrust exemption, monopoly exemption that, you know, obviously they’re popular, you know, I enjoy football, I enjoy baseball, but in many ways, the reason why I enjoy them is because I was conditioned to. And the reason why I was conditioned to is because they had this tremendous advantage over competing sports. Um, and other forms of entertainment. They were basically subsidized and protected by the federal government. Uh, like you said, with this kind of Faustian bargain to promote patriotism. As someone who sort of identifies as lefty or whatever, or maybe skeptical of militarism and is also a huge baseball fan and huge football fan, I often complain about what I view as hyper militarization of sports. Every time I go to a game I roll my eyes. I think it’s sort of super excessive. Is that basically me just showing up to, you know, a barbecue restaurant and complaining they don’t have vegan options? Is it possible to sort of divorce militarism from baseball and football or is it sort of baked into the cake and that and that lefties should just sort of maybe try to find a new, a new hobby?

Robert Elias: (Laughs.) Well, it’s a, it’s a hard decision, right? Because there are a number of things that are characteristic of Major League Baseball and, and certainly football that are not, you know, not very attractive. So I mean, does that mean that we can’t then have our sports and be fans? Well that would be playing their game. I think we still have to remain fans and try to maybe help steer our sports in a more positive direction. I mean I’ve been arguing that it’s a foolish game for Major League Baseball to keep trying to compete with football for waving the flag and displays of militarism and that there are other values in America that baseball could tap into that doesn’t require it to do this kind of thing all the time. And in my book I say, you know, let football bang the war drums and let baseball regroup and look at things where the sport might be able to tap more positive American values rather than than those values. So I, I wouldn’t give up just because there are aspects of the way in which the sport is organized as a business that fly in the face of our political perspective.

Nima: I think that’s a great place to leave it. We have been speaking with Robert Elias, Dean’s Scholar and Professor of Politics and Legal Studies at the University of San Francisco. He’s currently a Visiting Professor at McGill University and author of a number of books including The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad as well as Baseball and the American Dream: Race, Class, Gender, and the National Pastime. Robert, it has been so great to talk to you today on Citations Needed.

Robert Elias: Thank you very much for having me.


Adam: Uh, yeah, that was awesome. Definitely check out his book Empire Strikes Out. It’s, it’s a fun read. It’s a quick read if you’re interested in either imperialism or baseball or as I know a lot of you are, you’re interested in both.

Nima: (Laughs.)

Adam: Um, I know who you are. I see you with your Fidel-Castro-playing-baseball avis, I know you, I see you. So that was great. I thought it was a new thing. It turns out it’s gotten worse lately, but definitely goes in ebbs and flows and I, and I think that um, I think that negotiating these spaces, you know, where do you give your money? What do you enjoy? Because, you know, baseball is such a conditioned part of like my life. It’s a, you know, I love going to baseball games, but it’s, it’s, um, when your bee lining to go get a beer during the national anthem and you’re getting dirty looks, which happened to me at a Cubs game once and I was like, what do you want from me? Like, what are you like the fucking veteran protector? Like there’s this weird social pressure to engage in these rituals in a way that um-

Nima: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. When one does not stand for the national anthem and is instead carrying on the same conversation that you were engaged in before that song started playing, just before you’re going to watch a sporting event that you’re excited about, it is part of social conditioning and makes perfect sense because sports are great. And, you know, I disagree with those who say that sports are not great. I think sports are great and they’re so much fun and they’re also really fucked up. So we just wanted to kind of give a little, a little insight into where that all comes from and hopefully no one feels that terrible about it.

Adam: So, um, you know, next time you’re at a sporting events and you get dirty looks for not being adequately patriotic, uh —

Nima: Just tell them about Citations Needed.

Adam: Just be like, look, here’s, here’s the deal. This is all kind of fashy and weird and creepy.

Nima: Yeah. And I’m sure that’ll go over really well.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: Uh, and so with that, we will thank everyone for listening to this episode of Citations Needed. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook: Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. An extra special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Research and script support by Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks for listening again everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, December 5, 2018.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.