Guest post by David Vaught
On Opening Day, many a broadcaster waxed poetic over the green grass, blue sky, fresh air, and carefree atmosphere of the downtown oasis of a professional ballpark. But ponder this: Baseball captures the essence of the American rural experience. Whether they know it or not, Americans think of baseball in agrarian terms—from Abner Doubleday and Cooperstown to Kevin Costner and Field of Dreams. We associate the game with nostalgia, romantic imagery, and pastoral flights of fancy. Even in today’s predominantly non-rural culture, rural culture continues to be expressed through baseball. Where else other than a major league ballpark does someone sitting in the middle of a row of thirty seats pass a $20 bill down through the many different hands—black, white, brown, male, female, gay, straight—to the hotdog man with the complete and total expectation that they will get back not only the hotdog but every last penny of change? That innate trust and sense of cooperation is rooted in our agrarian heritage, dating back to the days before the market complicated farmers’ lives. It epitomizes what Thomas Jefferson thought a nation of farmers would become.
Baseball has also been immensely popular among rural people themselves since the days of Thomas Jefferson. Yet, few farmers and townspeople embraced the game so passionately and with such commitment for its abstract qualities—agrarian, nostalgic, romantic, or otherwise. For them, baseball’s appeal rested on real, tangible attributes. On one level, they simply enjoyed the excitement and camaraderie of the game. Baseball offered recreation, a distraction from their arduous daily routines, and an opportunity for hard-working farm families to gather together for a pleasant Sunday afternoon. The widespread, sustained passion for baseball among farm people over the decades, however, indicates that the game had a deeper, more complex cultural meaning than such an explanation suggests. Far from just a simple pastime, baseball became an expression, indeed a symbol, of the way farmers perceived day-to-day reality. With the emergence of market-oriented agriculture in the early nineteenth century, that reality became increasingly defined by skill, competitiveness, and chance: skill, with regard to their ability to produce high-quality crops in prodigious amounts; competitiveness, in terms of their insatiable appetite for achievement in a world of change and unpredictability; and chance, in that for all their skill and competitiveness, a spell of bad weather or a run of bad luck in the marketplace could bring failure, misery, and frustration. Given that perspective on life, farmers and townspeople preferred games that demanded skill, competitiveness, and chance—and baseball, with its intricate set of rules and rituals, action and suspense, and winner-take-all mentality offered them everything they wanted and needed and more.
Rural baseball now exists primarily in memories and on vintage fields—not because the game has lost popularity but because there are just barely enough farmers left to field a team. For much of American history, however, baseball served as the farmers’ game.
David Vaught is department head and professor of history at Texas A&M University and author of the recently published book The Farmers’ Game: Baseball in Rural America, available from JHU Press.