“Once I live in America, . . . I want to live in America. Dot’ sh a’ kin’ a man I am! One must not be a greenhorn.” So says, Jake, the protagonist of Abraham Cahan’s novel, Yekl (1896). Jake shows that he’s no greenhorn by talking about American sports, especially baseball. Understanding baseball makes Jake feel less like a Semite and more like a Yankee, particularly because “all college boys and tony peoplesh play it.”
When I teach the novel, I suggest that Cahan is invoking a developing cultural mythology that links baseball both to individualism and Americanization. In 1886, Harper’s magazine reported that “the fascination of the game has seized upon the American people, irrespective of age, sex, or other condition.” Mark Twain declared that baseball was “the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century.”
In 1919, Hugh Fullerton, one of the nation’s leading sportswriters, would write in the Atlanta Constitution that baseball “is the greatest single force working for Americanization. No other game appeals so much to the foreign born youngsters and nothing, not even the schools, teaches the American spirit so quickly, or inculcates the idea of sportsmanship or fair play thoroughly.”
Much later in the twentieth century, the novelist Philip Roth would write an autobiographical sketch entitled “My Baseball Years,” in which he described baseball as
this game that I loved with all my heart, not simply for the fun of playing it (fun was secondary, really), but for the mythic and aesthetic dimension it gave to an American boy’s life — particularly to one whose grandparents could hardly speak English. For someone whose roots in America were strong but only inches deep, and who had no experience, such as a Catholic child might, of an awesome hierarchy that was real and felt, baseball was a kind of secular church that reached into every class and region of the nations and bound millions upon millions of us together in common concerns, loyalties, rituals, enthusiasm, and antagonisms. Baseball made me understand what patriotism was about, at its best.
Another child of immigrants, A. Bartlett Giamatti, once president of Yale and later President of the National League, also extolled the Americanness of baseball. In a speech delivered before the Massachusetts Historical Society, Giamatti claimed that “baseball fits America so well because it embodies the interplay of individual and group that we love, and because it expresses our longing for the rule of law while licensing our resentment of law givers.”Giamatti speculated that baseball had become America’s national pastime because
we cherish as Americans a game wherein freedom and reunion are both possible. Baseball fulfills the promise America made itself to cherish the individual while recognizing the overarching claims of the group. It sends its players out in order to return again, allowing all the freedom to accomplish great things in a dangerous world. So baseball restates a version of America’s promises every time it is played. The playing of the game is a restatement of the promises that we can all be free, that we can all succeed.
Giamatti also stressed that at the heart of the game lies “the basic confrontation between two lone individuals. It is primitive in its starkness. A man on a hill prepares to throw a rock at a man slightly below him, not far away, who holds a club.” Moreover, Giamatti asserts, because players are “sufficiently physically separated on the field . . . the individual cannot hide from responsibility in a crowd, as in football or Congress.”For these reasons, Giamatti declares that “individual merit and self-reliance are the bed-rock of baseball.”
Cahan thus uses baseball to serve as a marker of Jake’s embrace of American individualism. The film Hester Street, which I’ll discuss tomorrow, includes a wonderful scene of Jake playing ball with his son in Central Park, just after lecturing his greenhorn wife, Gitl, and their greenhorn friend Bernstein, about what it means to be an American.