America’s Pastime: Not All About the Past
By George Goldstein
Baseball is inarguably America’s pastime, however this great game is not played by just Americans. The game is a global one and it has impacts on cities and countries all around the world. One way to illustrate this is to tell the story of a player who crossed countries and continents to live a baseball life over the course of seven decades. Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso was born on November 19th, 1925 in La Habana (Havana), Cuba. Minnie’s baseball career is particularly interesting because he was able to not only play for so long, but he was also able to play across many leagues in a number of countries. His baseball days began when he was a kid. He formed his own team when the sugar plantation he was working at did not have its own team. Minnie, who was no older than thirteen at the time, was already determined to have his team be successful. So much so that he would fine his teammates fifty centavos if they did not learn the baseball signs that he had implemented. Around the age of fourteen Minnie saw Cuban superstar Martin Dihigo play. Dihigo is a Hall of Famer who notably played just about every position on the field possible. After watching him play, Minnie decided to take after the successful player. While Minnie was primarily a catcher at the time, he started playing every position after seeing Martin do the same. However, after being hit by a batter on his swing’s follow through, Minnie’s mother forced him to switch out from behind the plate and he started to pitch more while playing the outfield. Following his mother’s passing around the time Minnie was eighteen years old he began to travel all across Cuba doing odd jobs and playing baseball.
Miñoso finally got his first break when he approached Rene Mirdsten who ran the Ambrosia Candy, a team based out of Havana. Minnie played semi professionally with the Candy for one year and another semi pro team the year after. Finally he entered professional ball at the end of 1945, joining Havana’s Mariano club, which was a top winter league team in the Caribbean at the time. After hitting .300 and winning the league’s rookie of the year, Minnie signed on to play with the New York Cubans in the Negro Leagues for the 1946 season. He would go on to excel with the team as their leadoff hitter and even helped them win a pennant in 1947 while also making the leagues all star team. Minnie then was noticed by two scouts with the Cleveland Indians who passed along their recommendation that he could play major league baseball to Bill Veeck, the team’s owner. Over the next two years Minnie absolutely tore up the Pacific Coast League playing for the Indians Triple AAA team. He eventually was traded to the Chicago White Sox in the Spring of 1951 where he broke the franchise’s color barrier, additionally he became the first black Cuban to play Major League Baseball. Miñoso endeared himself to the Chicago fans immediately, hitting a home run in his first at bat. He would go on to be incredibly successful with the White Sox, making the All Star team as a rookie, coming in 2nd in rookie of the year voting as well as 4th in the Most Valuable Player vote. Over his seventeen year major league career Minnie would make seven all star appearances, win three gold gloves and finish 4th in the MVP vote on four occasions. He was adored by Chicago fans, playing for the team in three separate stints while becoming a coach following the end of his playing career. His number 9 is retired by the team and a statue of him remains outside of their stadium.
Minnie notably played winter ball in Cuba for nearly ten years while he was also in the Majors. Following his MLB retirement he went on to play eight years in a professional league in Mexico which is where he pushed his career hit total to over 4,000 which is unheard of in professional baseball. As previously mentioned Minnie’s story is so unique because his baseball life spanned multiple continents, countries and many decades. He broke color barriers and was part of baseball’s influence on the culture of two different countries, the United States and Cuba. Minnie’s story did not have a satisfying ending, he fell off the Hall of Fame roster after fifteen years and he failed to get any higher than 21.1% in any year while the line to enter the Hall is 75%. He was passed over again when a committee had his name on a long list of former Negro League players to possibly be elected in 2006. Minnie passed away in Chicago in 2015. While he unfortunately passed away prior to being honored as much as he should be, he now has a much more deserving end to his baseball story. Minnie was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown by the Golden Days Era Committee on December 5th, 2021. His family was able to celebrate and his son Charlie had this to say: “My dad lived the American Dream. He was able to open doors and break barriers all while doing what he loved, fulfilling his lifelong dream of being a Major League Baseball player.” While Minnie’s story may have been unique, baseball, race and culture have been mixed together since the late 1800s. Baseball offers a unique lens through which to view Cuba and the US, allowing us to compare and contrast how their cultures and countries have modernized
Baseball has been labeled as America’s pastime for many years. The game has been around in the United States since the mid 1800s and Major League Baseball is significantly older than the other three major US sports leagues: the National Football League, the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association. Baseball has lived through two world wars, the civil rights movement and many other major events in the history of the US. However, it was not just that baseball existed through these times, baseball has helped shape this country and its culture as it was in the process of modernizing. From a personal perspective, my own life has been shaped by baseball. I play baseball in college and I intend to work in baseball upon graduation. I am also an avid Mets fan and that consumes a lot of my personal life, making several trips to Citi Field a year. Baseball is part of my own personal culture. But, this is not just a phenomenon of the United States. Cuba has a similar sport and baseball culture, largely cultivated in post-revolutionary Cuba by Fidel Castro and his government. Castro’s government entirely changed how sports worked in Cuba following the Cuban revolution which successfully overthrow the previous regime in 1959. Baseball in Cuba became an important part of how Castro intended to rebuild Cuban Culture. He was largely unsuccessful at building the “new Cuban man” outside of the world of sports. However, eventually Castro was able to find a shining example of a near perfect model through athletes. We will continue on by comparing and contrasting how baseball has helped in the development of the United States and Cuba.
The best way to show how baseball has ingrained itself into American culture is by first discussing some elements of baseball that explains how it has spread to so many people. David Chidester writes an article on the study of religion in American popular culture that includes a section called “The Church of Baseball.” This section of the article explains how baseball can be considered a religion, coming from the basis of an interview being done by Ken Burns who was interviewing Buck O’Neil. The interview was for Burns’ television series on the history of America’s pastime. Burns asked the now hall of fame inducted O’Neil what he had learned from a lifetime of baseball. Buck, who was a professional player, scout, and coach responded by saying “it is a religion.” Burns goes on to explain that baseball is a religion because it operates in American culture as a church. Such as having governing rules, maintaining continuity, uniformity, being a sacred space and having sacred time. “As a faith of fifty million people, baseball does everything that we conventionally understand to be done by the institution of the church.” Chidester offers four reasons why this is the case.
He begins with the fact that, “baseball ensures a sense of continuity in the midst of a constantly changing America through the forces of tradition, heritage, and collective memory.” He claims that the deep rooted baseball memory is sacred and allows the past to inform the present and that this same phenomenon occurs with a church as well. The memory of baseball allows for people across multiple generations to share in this culture. In this way baseball is able to connect people of many different ages within the same culture which helps advance American culture as a whole. Chidester then describes how baseball provides a sense of belonging to a much larger group.
Chidester cites Thomas Boswell, who said that his mother compared her feeling of being involved with baseball similar to the feeling she got in her church. She felt like baseball provided her with a place to share beliefs and symbols with those around her and this made her feel “calm and whole.” Boswell makes a number of connections between baseball and his mothers church, organs, clapping along to hymns, and distinctive robes are all present in both his mothers church and a baseball field. Chidester explains that he believes Boswell provided sufficient justification that his mother attending a baseball game was equivalent to her belonging to a church. Americans feel as though they are all connected to one another by living under the umbrella of the United States. Baseball is able to cultivate that same feeling and sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself that connects one person to another as Chidester has just explained. This feeling of belonging to baseball can help someone feel as though they belong in American culture as well. The sacred space of home is the next topic that Chidester moves to in his explanation.
Chidester explains that baseball is a religion of the familiar and the obvious. This is because it is so clear what is going on if you are paying attention. Very little happens behind a curtain during a baseball game, if you are watching you will be able to see everything. He then goes on to cite Boswell again who explains that “baseball rejoices in the absence of mysteries”. This is part of what makes baseball so accessible to everyone and so wide reaching into American culture. Chidester finishes by discussing the sacred ritual of time, “Through ritual and revelation baseball provides an experience of sacred time that liberates its devotees from time’s constraints.” By creating its own sacred time baseball can exist on its own plane while a game is going on. This makes those connected to baseball feel a special kind of connection to the rest of the participants, players, coaches and fans alike. This only deepens the culture. This whole explanation that baseball could be a religion is meant to show that baseball is much bigger than just a sport. Its influence on American culture is far reaching and one specific example of how baseball has helped shape current American culture is its impact on race.
Anyone who knows even a little bit about baseball knows the story of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947 when he appeared in a game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He would win the National League Rookie of the Year award and go on to play a Hall of Fame career. However, baseball and race were connected long before Jackie stepped on a Major League field. Baseball and race are connected in this country in many ways other than just the story of Jackie Robinson. This is not to say that baseball was a perfect example of a racial utopia. There is a color barrier to begin with because Cap Anson, who was a superstar in the late 1800s, refused to take the field against an opposing team that had a black player on its roster. While baseball became a segregated sport at the highest levels it did not disappear for minorities as David Laliberte goes on to explain in his piece titled Foul Lines: Teaching Race in Jim Crow America through Baseball History. Native Americans were a minority group that also had baseball become a part of their culture.
Laliberte first notes that Native Americans greatly embraced the game of baseball, especially in their high schools. Some of the schools dominated their states, with a high school team in South Dakota beating even semi-pro teams in their region. At Pipestone Indian School in Minnesota there was even a complete flip of the traditional Native American school. That usually involved white teachers attempting to “civilize” the native american children. However, at Pipestone they hired two indegineous coaches to teach the young athletes baseball. In 1891 there were Chickisaw and Choctaw community teams that played each other. As well as, other teams including ones filled with white players throughout Indiana and Oklahoma. Upon visiting some Choctaw reservations in the 1970s anthropologist Kendall Blanchard saw that baseball games were still a staple in the community. A hardball league had even developed between a number of Choctaw reservations in eastern Mississippi. While the game at first was likely seen as foreign to these native people and just a white man’s game it became part of their own culture and traditions. Even at a time when the professional level was segregated baseball was able to transcend race and set the grounds for a move towards racial equality.
Laliberte also discusses African Americans and baseball prior to breaking the color barrier. This includes a limited discussion on barnstorming. Barnstorming is when teams would travel across the country and play whoever was in town as opposed to being part of a league. White and black players barnstormed across this country and sometimes Latin America throughout the 1930s and 40s. Barnstorming matchups offered an entirely integrated setting for baseball players and fans. Ballparks where normally black fans were either segregated or not allowed at all could sit wherever they wanted. The most notable of these barnstorming adventures were the games put together by Satchel Paige and Dizzy Dean. The two of them played games against each other across both of the decades leading up to Jackie Robinson’s debut. Satchel was a lanky pitcher who dominated the Negro Leagues, he was a future Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest pitcher to walk this Earth. Dizzy was no slouch, he was also a future Hall of Fame pitcher who had excellent Major League success mostly with the St. Louis Cardinals. From a baseball standpoint little separated them other than race. Dizzy was once quoted saying, “I know whose the best I ever see and it’s old Satchel Paige.” While they were not able to play in the same league as one another these barnstorming games truly set the groundwork for integrated ball at the highest level. It also shows that while the Major Leagues may have been segregated, not all of baseball was. Through all of this, baseball was helping move American culture towards racial equality.
Baseball had a large impact on culture in America. While Cuba and the US are built very differently, baseball was able to have a similar cultural impact in Cuba. Julie Marie Bunck writes a wonderful piece on The Politics of Sports in Revolutionary Cuba. She begins by explaining that Castro and his government set out to change the culture of Cuba by creating the perfect “new Cuban man.” Bunck claims that they “generally failed” at doing this except when it came to sports. Castro and his government created a whole new sports consciousness and through sports they were able to transform Cuban culture in a way they could not without sports. The Castro regime wanted Cuba to have a revolutionary culture, but in many of the avenues they attempted to address this they fell short.
However, when they turned to the existing interest that the country had in sports, things started to go much better. The Castro government was able to unify the masses around its interest in sports. Having more athletes also added to the labor and military forces. From an international perspective, Cuba was able to parade their world-class athletes as “successes of the Socialist revolution.” They also served as the model of a new perfect man in Cuba. This was something that everyone should look up to and try to attain according to the Castro regime. In the 1970s and 80s Cuba consistently placed highly in the Pan American Games and they generally won the Central American Games handily. They were able to consistently flex their sports muscle on an international stage and back home they used this to bring the country together. At the very beginning of the Castro reign, he felt as though sports in Cuba were filled with elites and the rich. The baseball league in Cuba was shut down and restarted at this time. Castro consistently gave anti-American speeches when discussing the state of sports and the change he was attempting to instill was very nationalistic.
In 1961 Castro’s government created the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education, and Recreation or INDER to develop even more athletes in Cuba. INDER would oversee the building of sports arenas, fields and the education of a new wave of athletes. In 1974 Castro announced, “We can say that our athletes are the children of the Revolution and at the same time, the standard-bearers of that same Revolution.” Castro wanted the “development of a widespread, mass movement” and that included Cuba becoming the first country in the world to intertwine a sports curriculum with the rest of its schooling from primary schools all the way up to colleges and universities. This meant that sports would be so wide reaching that every educated person in the country would have some kind of sports background. The culture of the country had to be influenced by sports, it was a staple of the education system and therefore it had a reach far greater than one would think possible for sports. Luis Orlando Dominguez was the first of the National Committee of the Young Communist League and once stated, “We encourage sport activities as an instrument for forging the new man of the Communist society; sports are an essential component of the communist training of our new generations.” Sports got to be a base for nearly every part of post revolution Cuba, this meant that it was almost impossible to shape Cuban culture without connecting it to sports. The regime even mandated that sports should be a part of leisure time for its workers, enhancing the culture that they were creating. Bunck concludes by saying, “Although Castro never ceases to attack American “capitalist, professional” sports, his system is in certain respects suspiciously similar.”
Baseball influenced culture in America and Cuba in very different ways, but in both countries baseball was similarly influential. While in the US there was a bottom up spread of baseball and culture. It was motivated by the people. Baseball grew naturally and reached itself into popular culture and race as the United States modernized throughout the late 19th century and the entire 20th century. In Cuba it was the opposite, there was a top down attempt by the Cuban government to entirely change post revolutionary Cuban culture due to an existing interest in sports amongst the people. Sports, including baseball, spread throughout the country in a way that it had never done before. It was able to reach into politics, on a national and international scale, and even became a base component of education. Eventually a new elite class of athletes formed that looked eerily similar to American sports culture. Baseball was able to change culture in ways that nothing else would be able to in two different countries in two very different ways. It is a beautiful sport that constantly shows itself as being bigger than just a game.
Chidester, David. “The Church of Baseball, the Fetish of Coca-Cola, and the Potlatch of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Theoretical Models for the Study of Religion in American Popular Culture.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64, no. 4 (1996): 743–65.