Sunday, September 27, 2009



Today I tuned in to watch the Red Sox-Yankees game. I don't really follow sports; if you read this blog with any regularity, you know the reasons why. But if I had to choose a sport to "follow," it would be baseball. I like the fact that it goes back so far in American history. It is uniquely American. And I like anything with a long, well-documented history because it lets you see developments over time. Baseball certainly has that; Americans have obsessed over it since at least 1880.

During the broadcast, there was an interesting moment. It had nothing to do with the game; I really could care less who wins and who loses. The camera fixed on two Yankees sitting in the dugout watching the game. I have no idea who they were. One was black, with a round face, a goatee, moustache and big, brown eyes. The other was white, blondish, shaven, with an angular, Nordic-looking face, piercing iron-colored eyes and high cheekbones. These two men wore the same uniform. They wore the same hats with the same insignia. They leaned over the dugout railing. Their jackets even touched. They appeared to mutter a word or two to each other in between blowing sunflower seeds onto the field. Each man looked around; their eyes briefly met a few times. Then the camera moved back to the game.

Here were two Americans, united to play the "all-American game." A hundred years ago, every player in baseball was a European descendant. Well, at least all the players in the "American and National Leagues." Back in those days it was OK to segregate the races: the "negroes" had their own league. Players' names bespoke Europe: Honus Wagner; George Sisler; Walter Johnson; Rogers Hornsby.

Now, barely half the players are European descendants. Baseball officially desegregated in 1947. Since then, new ethnicities and races have completely altered baseball's face. Players' names, too, tell us that "times have changed" in America. Yes, there are still Buchholzes, Smoltzes, Cobbs, Saberhagens and Bretts. But much more often there are Gonzalezes, Rodriguezes, Ramirezes and Martinezes. And most of the players with names like Johnson, Brown, Williams and Jackson are black. The American population--just like baseball--is fundamentally different than what it was a hundred years ago.

This one moment reminded me how perplexing it is to be "an American." Who are we? What are we? With every passing generation, our identity as a Nation changes, just as our population changes. The original residents are extinct (our ancestors eliminated them a long time ago). We are now a bewildering mishmash of fresh immigrants and the descendants of people who "used to live somewhere else, far far away." And not all came voluntarily.

Who is an American? Those two Yankees on the TV screen were both Americans. Yet they looked nothing like one another. In fact, they came from radically divergent cultural heritages. They both played America's "truly American sport." But what else united them but the game? In this sense, the image on TV told a misleading story: Although it seemed that black and white happily coexist--and even "wear the same hat" while struggling as peers to win a mutual contest--a brief look at social realities tells us that the opposite is usually true.

American life is a strange thing. We pull in so many different directions because we all hail from disparate cultural traditions. No matter how much government or private institutions attempt to inculcate "traditionally American values," it is really impossible to impose uniformity over a population as heterogeneous as ours. In the past, of course, that heterogeneity has proven a blessing.

But who knows what the future holds. The United States ventures now into an unprecedented era. For the first time, European descendants will fade into minority status. Once again, America will struggle to answer the question: "Who is an American?" What is an "all-American look?" With a population as far-flung as ours, who can even presume to answer these questions?

1 comment:

Nothing Profound said...

Oddly enough, my wife and I just rented and watched "The Jackie Robinson Story." Jackie played himself and the film, typical of the era it was made, was entertaining and very idealized. Nowadays, no doubt they would sprinkle the plot with sundry sordid details of his private life, intimating countless adulteries, drug and/or alcohol or gsmbling addictions and a host of other human frailties. I agree with you, of course, that harmony between the races and different ethnic groups in the US will probably never be more than an unrealized dream, which isn't necessarily a bad thing provided we're all not secretly plotting to slit each other's throats.