Spalding’s World Tour: The Epic Adventure That Took Baseball Around the Globe—And Made It America’s Game (PublicAffairs, 2006), 341 pp., $26.
Globalization extends the logic of the market across national borders. Products are made anywhere—generally where the costs of production are low—and sold everywhere. In the 21st century, services as well as goods are part of the process of globalization, and among the fastest-growing service industries is entertainment. The more leisure time and disposable income people have, the greater the role entertainment can play in their lives, so as a country becomes richer, its demand for entertainment tends to rise.
Where a physical product is made and sold depends mainly on price and quality. For the globalization of entertainment, a country’s cultural features are also relevant. Language is the most obvious of them. Something is always lost in translation, and the more a form of entertainment relies on language to entertain, the greater the difficulty it will have in finding an audience in countries in which the original language is not widely spoken. An action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger crosses borders more easily than a play by Oscar Wilde. The language of gunfights and explosions is universal.
Even where entertainment does not depend on language for its meaning, however, culture—that is, particular national histories, traditions and values—can affect its international reception, as the experience of one prominent form of mass entertainment—team sports—demonstrates. In virtually every country at least one such sport is a major industry, with its contests generating revenues on a large scale. By far the most popular of all team sports worldwide is what Americans know as soccer but the rest of the world calls football. Its quadrennial championship, the World Cup, which was held most recently in Germany last summer, is the most-watched event in the world: Television broadcasts of its matches attract billions of viewers. The United States, where soccer is less popular than it is almost everywhere else, has three major team sports: baseball, American football and basketball. Each has attempted to extend its reach beyond North America, and the experience of the oldest of them, baseball, vividly illustrates the impact of culture on one particular aspect of globalization.
Alan Klein’s Growing the Game: The Globalization of Major League Baseball, is a loosely connected series of reports and observations about the various international dimensions of the American pastime. Klein, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Northeastern University, depicts baseball as a mature industry that must seek its continued growth outside the United States. He offers a twofold prescription for success in this endeavor: clever and energetic promotion, and cultural sensitivity, which he defines in political terms as the avoidance of arrogant, “neocolonial” behavior by Major League Baseball.
Good manners and deference to local sensibilities no doubt increase the chances for success of any commercial venture. Then again, the three countries outside North America in which baseball has achieved the greatest popularity—Japan, Cuba and the Dominican Republic—have each been invaded and occupied by the United States at some point in their histories. But the globalization of baseball faces obstacles beyond the potential chauvinism of its American promoters.
One of them is the fact that no country has proven hospitable both to baseball and to the sport it most closely resembles: cricket. Different makes of automobile, different genres of film, even different sports can and do flourish within the same country. Just as it is generally uneconomical for more than one railroad line to connect the same two cities, however, the similarities between baseball and cricket are evidently so pronounced that the presence of one satisfies whatever demand there might otherwise be for the other.
Both games are played with a bat and ball. In both, scoring occurs when one player strikes with a wooden bat (or in the case of amateur baseball, an aluminum one) a ball hurled rapidly by a member of the opposing team and runs from one point to another on the playing field. While strength and speed are physical traits that are valuable assets to baseball players and cricketers, as they are in other sports, of even greater importance in these two sports is hand-eye coordination. Both are played on grass and dirt, evoking their rural origins. Both are played during the summer, and in the event of rain baseball games and cricket matches are interrupted or postponed. Unlike other team sports, both are played without the discipline of a clock, which means that each proceeds, in comparison with other games, at a leisurely pace.
If baseball and cricket are twins, however, they are fraternal rather than identical ones. They differ in two important ways. In baseball, the defense has the advantage over the offense. Scoring is difficult; points, known in both games as runs, are relatively scarce. In cricket, runs are plentiful, with teams ordinarily scoring in the hundreds in multi-day matches. This is the opposite of what would be expected on the basis of prevailing cultural patterns. Americans like scoring: Each of the three major American team sports altered rules more than once during the 20th century to make scoring easier. An old saying about American sports holds that “defense wins championships but offense puts people in the seats.” (In soccer, by contrast, scoring is difficult and matches in which one or even both sides fail to score at all are not uncommon.)
The other difference between baseball and cricket does conform to the national preferences that are on display in other sports. In baseball, tie games are impermissible; in cricket they are common. Americans demand a decisive result from their sporting contests. The rules of basketball as well as baseball prohibit ties, and American football changed its rules in the 1980s to make ties impossible in the college version of the game, and very rare in professional contests. (In soccer, by contrast, matches frequently end in ties.)
Cricket originated in England and followed the Union Jack to the furthest outposts of the British Empire. It is played in Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica and South Africa, although not in Canada. In what was once the jewel in the imperial crown, South Asia, it has achieved a special status. Cricket has become not simply the most popular sport, but also a major cultural institution and a consuming passion in both India and Pakistan. None of these countries therefore has room for baseball.
But that still leaves much of the planet with neither bat-and-ball game. In these cricket-free parts of the world, the efforts to implant baseball confront another obstacle, however, one that is peculiar to team sports.
In the case of this particular form of entertainment, demand requires supply: People will generally not pay to watch a professionally played game unless they grew up playing it. Participation in the sport throughout the society is a necessary condition for the commercial viability of games involving the most skilled players. People who have played a sport in their youth become paying customers as adults because they are familiar with its nuances and history and because, through their childhood experiences, they have formed an emotional attachment to it. Team sports are therefore rituals as well as spectacles. They can become profitable spectacles only after they are established as widely practiced rituals. How, then, do they take root as popular practices in the first place?
Here timing is important. In the life of a country there seems to be a limited period when a sport can readily establish itself. This occurs when no game is already solidly entrenched, but when the society has become wealthy enough, with sufficient leisure time, to play and watch games regularly. In most countries the period of maximal receptivity for baseball came in the second half of the 19th century.
While the game was played in Colonial America in the 18th century, it only came into its own in the decades following the American Civil War, when the first permanent teams and formal leagues were organized. The sport came to Japan in the 1870s and 1880s and to Cuba and, by way of Cuba, to the Dominican Republic, at the end of the 19th century, as well.
During a country’s window of opportunity for team sports, vigorous, effective promotion can do a good deal to establish it. But this is not always sufficient, as is clear from one elaborate 19th-century attempt to promote baseball that did not succeed.
The promoter was Albert Spalding, first a player, then a team owner, and ultimately the proprietor of a sporting goods firm that retains his name today, 130 years after he founded it. Spalding was a gifted and energetic, if not always scrupulous, booster of his team, his firm and the game of baseball. Between October 1888 and April 1889, he organized and led an around-the-world trip of baseball players, which is engagingly recounted in Spalding’s World Tour: The Epic Adventure That Took Baseball Around the Globe—And Made It America’s Game by Mark Lamster, an editor at Princeton Architectural Press. The traveling band was divided into two teams, which staged games, sometimes before sizable audiences, in New Zealand, Australia, Ceylon, Egypt (where they played in the shadow of the pyramids), Italy (where a game took place in the historic 17th-century Roman park, the Villa Borghese), France, England, Scotland and Ireland.
Spalding aimed to introduce baseball to these countries, which, he believed, once the game put down roots, would create a demand for the baseball bats, balls and gloves he sold. The tour received extensive press coverage in the United States and Spalding returned home to an enthusiastic reception, which included a banquet at New York’s celebrated Delmonico’s restaurant with the future president, Theodore Roosevelt, and Mark Twain, too, in attendance.
Chien-ming Wang [credit: Associated Press]
Upon his return Spalding said that he had “a proud consciousness of having established our national game throughout the world” and felt confident that “many countries will adopt baseball as a game.” His prediction proved incorrect. Baseball did not prosper in any of the countries the tour visited. One reason was certainly that cricket had preceded it in several of them. The Prince of Wales attended one contest in London and, while generous in his appreciation of baseball, he hastened to add that cricket was, of course, the better game.
In countries where cricket was not played, however, another feature of baseball probably inhibited—and continues to inhibit—its adoption. That feature is the structure of the game itself, the effect of which is illustrated by the contrasting fortunes, where globalization is concerned, of baseball and another of the three major American team sports, basketball.
Basketball is the newest of the three sports, invented two years after Spalding and his players completed their tour. It was created in 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts by a Canadian-born YMCA instructor named James Naismith, who needed a game for his students to play indoors during the winter. Having arrived on the scene late, basketball did not become a truly national game in the United States until after World War II. Yet in the second half of the 20th century, and especially over its final two decades, basketball spread rapidly all around the world. It succeeded in establishing itself where soccer was already the favorite sport, in countries such as Spain, Greece, Argentina, Brazil and Nigeria. While still a distant second to soccer in worldwide popularity, by the first decade of the 21st century, basketball has become the only other game with a claim to truly global status.
Soccer and basketball have a common structure, from which arises the appeal that has made them both popular around the world. Compared to other team sports they are user-friendly. Both are relatively easy to play. Neither requires much equipment: soccer involves a ball, basketball a ball and a metal hoop mounted on a pole ten feet above the ground. In contrast to baseball, cricket, American football and its English ancestor, rugby, neither soccer nor basketball requires much space to play. Although a full-sized soccer field is large, informal games can take place on far smaller patches of grass, dirt, concrete and even sand. Basketball courts are small in comparison to the playing fields of the other sports, which is why the game has flourished for decades in America’s inner cities, where open space is at a premium. Informal games of soccer and basketball, finally, do not require a full complement of players, eleven in the first case, five in the second. Indeed, many a young basketball player spends hours practicing the game by himself.
The two games are also easy to watch. The purpose of each—to put a ball in a goal—is immediately apparent even to the first-time spectator. Each has relatively few rules. Other team sports, by contrast, are more complicated, which makes them difficult for a newcomer to understand. An Australian columnist, seeing baseball played for the first time, termed it “a game of such wonderfully abstruse character that it takes a man half his life to learn it.” Not least important, the ball itself, the focus of the action, is much easier for spectators to see in soccer and basketball than in baseball or cricket, where it is small. The same is true in American football and rugby, in which the ball is often strategically concealed by the players. For the purposes of globalization, then, baseball has some serious handicaps. The game is too similar to cricket for many, too complicated for others. And the early 21st century is simply too late in the life of many countries for it to take root in much of the world.
Yet all is not lost. One country does offer a potential welcome to the sport, and, happily for baseball’s proponents, it is the most populous country in the world: China.
Neither cricket nor any other team sport had put down deep roots in China by dawn of the 21st century. The country is certainly large enough to support more than one sport, and, after a quarter century of rapid economic growth, it has reached the stage of development at which the demand for entertainment is growing. Spectator sports have the potential to establish themselves as a widely patronized form of it. Moreover, baseball flourishes in neighboring countries. In addition to Japan, it is widely played in South Korea and Taiwan. The Chinese, according to Klein, consider it an Asian sport.
Albert Goodwill Spalding, 1899 [credit: Associated Press]
Finally, a promotional strategy is available to baseball that basketball has already used to increase its popularity in China: the use of a superior Chinese player to enhance the sport’s visibility, thus encouraging youngsters to play it and their parents to watch it. The Chinese basketball player is Yao Ming, at seven feet five inches the tallest player in the American professional league. His exploits as a member of the Houston Rockets are avidly followed by his compatriots, who tune into televised NBA games throughout the People’s Republic, play the sport themselves, and purchase NBA-sponsored apparel in increasing numbers.
Baseball involves more players than basketball—nine per team as opposed to five—so it is more difficult for one individual to stand out. Still, baseball has produced many star players because it is, preeminently, an individual’s game, with anything that happens during the course of the contest the personal responsibility of a particular player. The tallies of their individual achievements and failures are the statistics that are so important to baseball.
For the strategy of promoting baseball in the world’s most populous country through the exploits of a successful Chinese player, the year 2006 brought good news and bad news. The good news was that during this past baseball season a Chinese player did stand out; indeed, his accomplishments on the baseball diamond surpassed those of Yao Ming on the basketball court. Chien-ming Wang was the best pitcher for baseball’s most famous team, the New York Yankees, winning an impressive 19 games in a season in which the Yankees captured their divisional championship.
The bad news was that Chien-ming Wang comes from Taiwan.