Jackie Robinson Day

April 15, 1947: a great day for baseball, a better day to break down barriers. Jackie Robinson made his professional baseball debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on this day in 1947. The impact was not only prolific in terms of civil rights, but within the realm of the sports world, professional baseball gained a huge contender.

Today, Robinson’s courageous step into the national spotlight in becoming the first African American professional baseball player is celebrated through Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson Day. This year marks the fifth annual celebration that is recognized annually on April 15th- the day of Robinson’s major league debut. During every ball game today, all the uniformed personnel will be sporting Robinson’s iconic jersey number, 42.

Spring is in the air so naturally baseball season is in its prime. Head out to the ballpark and learn some more about what Robinson added to America’s favorite pastime!

1. Baseball in Blue and Gray: The National Pastime during the Civil War by George B. Kirsch

During the Civil War, Americans from homefront to battlefront played baseball as never before. While soldiers slaughtered each other over the country’s fate, players and fans struggled over the form of the national pastime. George Kirsch gives us a color commentary of the growth and transformation of baseball during the Civil War. He shows that the game was a vital part of the lives of many a soldier and civilian–and that baseball’s popularity had everything to do with surging American nationalism.

By 1860, baseball was poised to emerge as the American sport. Clubs in northeastern and a few southern cities played various forms of the game. Newspapers published statistics, and governing bodies set rules. But the Civil War years proved crucial in securing the game’s place in the American heart. Soldiers with bats in their rucksacks spread baseball to training camps, war prisons, and even front lines. As nationalist fervor heightened, baseball became patriotic. Fans honored it with the title of national pastime. War metaphors were commonplace in sports reporting, and charity games were scheduled. Decades later, Union general Abner Doubleday would be credited (wrongly) with baseball’s invention. The Civil War period also saw key developments in the sport itself, including the spread of the New York-style of play, the advent of revised pitching rules, and the growth of commercialism.

Kirsch recounts vivid stories of great players and describes soldiers playing ball to relieve boredom. He introduces entrepreneurs who preached the gospel of baseball, boosted female attendance, and found new ways to make money. We witness bitterly contested championships that enthralled whole cities. We watch African Americans embracing baseball despite official exclusion. And we see legends spring from the pens of early sportswriters.

Rich with anecdotes and surprising facts, this narrative of baseball’s coming-of-age reveals the remarkable extent to which America’s national pastime is bound up with the country’s defining event.

2. Creating the National Pastime: Baseball Transforms Itself, 1903-1953 by G. Edward White

At a time when many baseball fans wish for the game to return to a purer past, G. Edward White shows how seemingly irrational business decisions, inspired in part by the self-interest of the owners but also by their nostalgia for the game, transformed baseball into the national pastime. Not simply a professional sport, baseball has been treated as a focus of childhood rituals and an emblem of American individuality and fair play throughout much of the twentieth century. It started out, however, as a marginal urban sport associated with drinking and gambling. White describes its progression to an almost mythic status as an idyllic game, popular among people of all ages and classes. He then recounts the owner’s efforts, often supported by the legal system, to preserve this image.

Baseball grew up in the midst of urban industrialization during the Progressive Era, and the emerging steel and concrete baseball parks encapsulated feelings of neighborliness and associations with the rural leisure of bygone times. According to White, these nostalgic themes, together with personal financial concerns, guided owners toward practices that in retrospect appear unfair to players and detrimental to the progress of the game. Reserve clauses, blacklisting, and limiting franchise territories, for example, were meant to keep a consistent roster of players on a team, build fan loyalty, and maintain the game’s local flavor. These practices also violated anti-trust laws and significantly restricted the economic power of the players. Owners vigorously fought against innovations, ranging from the night games and radio broadcasts to the inclusion of African-American players. Nonetheless, the image of baseball as a spirited civic endeavor persisted, even in the face of outright corruption, as witnessed in the courts’ leniency toward the participants in the Black Sox scandal of 1919.

White’s story of baseball is intertwined with changes in technology and business in America and with changing attitudes toward race and ethnicity. The time is fast approaching, he concludes, when we must consider whether baseball is still regarded as the national pastime and whether protecting its image is worth the effort.