Armed American forces have fought in eighty-five out of the one hundred ninety-four countries in the world (excluding the USA itself) or forty-four percent of the total. Over the course of this amazing history, filled as it is with heroic liberations and a few tragic blunders, we Americans have had one undeniable achievement – we have exported the game of baseball around much of the world.
The Romans built gladiatorial arenas throughout their empire. The Brits introduced the sports of rugby and cricket to the one-quarter of the globe their empire occupied. The deployment of baseball-loving Americans serving in the U.S. military around the world has spread our national pastime far and wide. And the spread of American Baseball Imperialism got off to a very early start.
Abner Doubleday, the legendary “inventor” of Baseball, served in the First Regiment of Artillery in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American war from 1846 to 1848. Could this West point graduate and future Union General in the U.S. Civil War have introduced some batting practice while on campaign in Mexico?
American soldiers have taken baseball with them on campaign to some of the remotest corners of the earth. In the spring of 1919 the Polar Bear brigade was deployed by President Wilson to Archangel in northern Russia where they tried to support the white Russians against the Bolsheviks. Most of the Polar bear brigade were made up of young men from Michigan who had trained at Fort Custer near Kalamazoo. Godfrey Anderson, a member of the Polar Bears’ medical corps, wrote, “We had got some baseball equipment, however, and did a little practicing in the evenings. A game was arranged with the engineers across the river at Beresnik and we crossed over to where they had set up a diamond and played the game, but came out somewhat the worse for our efforts.” One can only imagine how puzzled any Russian spectators might have been!
The Battleship Texas near Houston is the last dreadnought class battleship still afloat. She did convoy duty in World War I and provided shore bombardment at Normandy on June 6, 1944 and at the invasion of Iwo Jima in the Pacific. A visitor to the Texas can find a poignant reminder of the cost of American Baseball Imperialism. In a display case there is a baseball, an old glove and a photo from a game played on April 15, 1936 on a Pacific island between the crew members of the Texas and the ill-fated Arizona.
By the time World War II broke out baseball was firmly ingrained in the national consciousness. During the war Americans were reluctant to give up baseball merely because the nation was at war. FDR declared, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.” Many famous players such as Stan Musial and Hank Greenberg served their country off the field. Ted Williams, the “Splendid Splinter,” trained pilots as a Marine aviator in World War II. Despite having his parents classified by the government as “enemy aliens” due to their Italian heritage, Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, joined the US Army Air Force in 1943. His Red Sox brother, Dom, served in the U.S. Navy.
In Operation Torch, the 1942 invasion of North Africa, American troops would use challenge and countersign: ‘Brooklyn?’ ‘Dodgers.’ ‘Brooklyn?”Dodgers.‘” Later sentries would bark the password challenge “Three?” and would be answered with the countersign: “Strikes!”
Some of the more fortunate American prisoners of war in German camps even had an opportunity to play some baseball while in captivity. Who can forget Steve McQueen throwing his baseball against the wall while stuck in the “cooler” in the film, The Great Escape?
After the victory against Nazism was finally won, Americans would celebrate by playing baseball in occupied Europe. In the final moments of Steven Spielberg’s miniseries, Band of Brothers, the paratroopers of Easy Company relax by playing a game of baseball in Zell am See, Austria. Major Dick Winters, of the 101st Airborne, had ordered the construction of a baseball diamond in this alpine paradise.
Americans even used baseball to exorcise the demons of Nazism in the very belly of the beast–building a baseball stadium in the Hitler Youth Stadium at Nuremberg. The site of so many Nazi rallies was transformed into “Soldier’s Field” and the European Theatre of Operations (ETO) World Series, featuring many major leaguers in uniform, was held there in September 1945.
Over and over again, countries that have been occupied by American forces have turned into baseball playing countries. After the Spanish were defeated in the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898, and just weeks after the arrival of American troops, the first baseball was played in the Philippines. In 1956 Bobby Balcena, of the Cincinnati Redlegs, became the first Filipino to play in the majors. Today the Filipinos have a league of their own featuring teams such as the Manila Sharks.
Baseball was first introduced to Japan in 1872 by Horace Wilson, an American educator in Tokyo. The American occupation of Japan which followed World War II helped to vastly spread the popularity of the game.
Ichiro Suzuki is, perhaps, the poster boy for American Baseball Imperialism. In 2001 Ichiro joined the Seattle Mariners to become the first Japanese position player to play in the major leagues. In 2007 in San Francisco he was the first player in history to hit an inside the park home run at an All Star game. He played eleven years with the Mariners, three years with the New York Yankees team and is now with the Miami Marlins.
But it was actually Japanese Baseball Imperialism that first brought baseball to Taiwan in the nineteenth century. Taiwan became a Japanese colony and major naval base after defeating China in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, a major American military presence came to the island. The US Air Force maintained a major airbase at Ching Chuan Kang during the Cold War from 1953 to 1973. It was in those years that Taiwanese boys began their long domination of Little League Baseball. Taiwan’s Wei-Yin Chen pitches now for the Baltimore Orioles.
Baseball first came to Cuba in the 1860s with the arrival of American sailors making port calls and Cuban college students returning from studies in America. Teddy Roosevelt famously called baseball a “mollycoddle game” but his Rough Riders brought their passion for baseball to Cuba after the Spanish American War where it flourished. In 1899, the All Cubans, consisting of Cuban League professional players, became the first Latin American baseball team to tour the United States.
The young Fidel Castro was a gifted athlete who sought a career in baseball. In 1949 the lanky Cuban was offered a contract by the New York Giants which he declined. How would the Cold War and Cuban-American relations have differed if Castro had opted to join the show? Surely Cuba would have far more current major league players much as the Dominican Republic, occupied for many decades by the US Marines, does today.
The recent normalization of relations between Cuba and the USA means that more young Cuban players will soon be making it to the big leagues. The Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles have both announced their desire to play exhibition games in Havana.
Jackie Robinson famously broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947. In 2012 Donald Lutz, an outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds, broke another barrier, becoming the first German-developed player to play in the major leagues. His father was an American GI and his mother is German. Thus the diamond that Major Dick Winters of Easy Company built in Austria in 1945 is paying off baseball dividends in the 21st century.
How many years will we need to wait before we see an Iraqi outfielder or an Afghan pitcher in the show? Allah knows that the Mariners could use some help!
Photo by Norman Schneeberg