Is Baseball a Racket?
The American Communist Party thought it was. Through the 1920s and until the mid-1930s, the party considered athletics a bourgeois distraction, and did not report on sports in the Daily Worker. The youth party paper, Young Worker, called baseball “a method used in distracting … the American workers from their miserable conditions.” In the ’30s, however, as the otherwise unidentifiable mischaDC wrote in 2006: “Part of the goal was to get the party out of its immigrant niche. One way of doing this was to expand the Daily Worker from a party newssheet to an American paper. A sports section was the key. Mike Gold, a Daily Worker writer, later said: ‘When you run the news of a strike alongside the news of a baseball game, you’re making American workers feel at home. It gives them the feeling that communism is nothing strange or foreign, but is as real as baseball.'” [http://goo.gl/XmfLb6]
In 1936 the American Communist Party hired Lester Rodney as a sportswriter, and he went on to have a profound influence on baseball’s eventual racial integration. But that is a story for another day. Today I’d like to focus on Michael or “Mike” Gold–either way, a pen name for Itzok (Isaac) Granich (1894-1967). He first wrote for the radical monthly The Masses under the name Irwin Granich, and adopted the nom de plume of Mike Gold in 1919, reportedly from a Jewish veteran of the Civil War whom he admired for having fought to “free the slaves.” In 1930 he published his first and only novel, Jews Without Money, which was widely read and translated into other languages; with this he became America’s most famous proletarian writer. Sinclair Lewis praised him–in the same sentence with Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, and Dos Passos–upon receiving his Nobel Prize in Literature that year.
Three years later Gold became a columnist for the Daily Worker, a role he would retain until the end of his life. His unflagging dedication to the Soviet Union led him to some uncomfortable policy decisions (to uphold, for example, the invasion of Hungary in 1956) and to some grim, humorless prose.
He wrote one baseball column for the Daily Worker, evidently in October 1934, which holds archaeological interest for readers of Our Game: “Baseball Is a Racket,” offered below. For what it’s worth, I agree with him about Mother’s Day.
We are in the process of watching the birth and evolution of a new national hero. He appears to be a tall, gangling young man with a strong right arm who hails from the cotton belt, and pitches a terrifically fast ball for nine innings a few times a week. At present his name is known to probably more Americans than the name of, let’s say, Nicholas Murray Butler [president of Columbia University and Republican Party power broker–ED.] , who also amuses his countrymen. Down in Sportsman’s Park, in Saint Looie, a crowd of 50,000 citizens howl themselves hoarse when the name of Dizzy Dean roars from the umpire’s mouth. According to private reports, even the Mississippi “lifts itself from its long bed” when the Dizzy goes to the mound to put on his stuff for the honor of St. Louis and a couple of extra thousand dollars World Series money for Frankie Frisch’s boys.
Dizzy seems to be quite a boy. Not only did he single-handedly, it appears, win the pennant for St. Louis, but he has managed to accumulate around himself a whole mythology of legends that would do justice to any of the old Greek gods. Dizzy’s what the boys on the sport sheets call “color” stuff. Strong right arm for pitching, but kinda weak upstairs.
In the fourth game of the Series Dizzy got slammed with a fast ball trying to break up a double play. It smacked him square in the forehead. It would have been curtains for an ordinary mortal, but not for Dizzy; he just passed out cold for a couple of seconds and then came to fresh as a daisy.
Furthermore, it appears that Dizzy has a heart as big as a wagon. After Saturday’s ball game, a couple of smartly dressed gentlemen tried to pick Dean up in their fast roadster as he was leaving the ball park. They offered to drive him back to the hotel. Dizzy, whose heart seems to be unspoiled and whose mind is a bit weak, grandly accepted the offer. He almost gave poor Sam Breadon, the Cardinal’s president, heart-failure. “My god,” yelled Sam, “haven’t you ever heard of gamblers and kidnappers?” But Dizzy just beamed, the idol light shining from his face. Dizzy’s going around town now with a police guard.
With each successive game the fables about the Dizzy Dean grow. It helps business along, piles up the gate receipts, gives the newsboys from the big city papers something to write about, and continues building the tradition of glamor and prowess that surround the heroes of the diamond. Dizzy seems to be a simple-minded, Ring Lardner “You Know Me Al” ball player, raised down in the Southwest on grits and cornbread, gifted with a powerful pitching arm and a keen pair of eyes. But the stockholders of the St. Louis Cardinals and the racketeers and speculators who infest organized baseball as they do every other national sport in the country today, have a keener eye than Dizzy’s pitching ones and a stronger arm when it comes
to counting the season’s profits.
Like everything else in the country, baseball is not run primarily for the fans, but for the pocketbooks of the stockholders. Communists are often ridiculed for their insistence that everything in the present capitalist system is a “racket.” Hollywood recently caricatured the Communist who shouts on Mother’s Day, “It’s a racket!” Well, it is. It’s a racket for the flower merchants, for the candy manufacturers, for the pulpit. The sickening sentimentality that is deliberately fostered by the manufacturers, the false mother-love decorations that surround the price on the box of flowers, attest to the way the emotions of people are deliberately and viciously exploited by the manufacturer for his own profit. Baseball, too, the love of sport, is deliberately and viciously exploited by the promoters.
Dizzy probably loves baseball. So do millions of other Americans. I remember that we all wanted to learn how to throw a two-finger drop earlier than we wanted to learn why the earth turns around the sun, or the origin of surplus value. But there is a sharp division made in the life of people today: sport, active participation in sport, stops early in life. Life under capitalism is not an integrated life, it is not full in the sense that sport is looked upon as one of the activities of a fully developed man. And, strange as it may seem, to those who see the Communist as a professional kill joy, he has a firmer, richer belief in the development of the full man, than the health culturist like Bernarr Macfadden, whose advertising caters to the sick and the shamed, or the neo-Humanist, whose “full” life is an abstraction born of the library.
One has only to look at the Soviet Union to see how sport is deliberately organized as part of the whole life of the proletariat. But in America, baseball is a different thing. There were 50,000 fans out there in St. Louis and 50,000 more in Detroit shouting their heads off every time Pepper Martin took a head-first slide into second or Hank Greenberg leaned his bat against a fast ball.
They were playing in the World Series too. It was vicarious baseball for the masses, phantoms of their own longing were smacking out homers, striking out the third man with the bases full, or making a miraculous stop of a line hit.
Workers love baseball. But baseball, in its own way, is used as an “opium of the people.” The “bosses” are cashing in on the “heroes” and cashing in on the frustrated love of the people for sports.