Our Game

OUR GAME takes its title from Walt Whitman’s declaration: “I see great things in baseball; it’s our game, the American game.” Despite passing reference to baseball’s popularity in Latin America— but none to its development in Japan—Alexander’s goal is a review of the game as played and revered in the United States for almost 150 years. He rejects the myth of the sport’s invention by Abner Doubleday, locating its origins in an evolution out of English rounders and cricket. Called “the New York game” because played there in the 1840’s by a team called the Knickerbockers, baseball spread rapidly after the Civil War. Alexander notes the birth of the first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, in 1866, and of the National League ten years later. He dates modern baseball from 1893, when rules changes made the game essentially what it is today.

OUR GAME recounts recurrent league wars and labor disputes. It is attentive to the evolution of balls, gloves, bats, and stadiums and to the rise and role of sportswriting and statistics in shaping and memorializing the sport. It reviews the exclusion of blacks from Organized Baseball, the fortunes of separate Negro leagues, and the eventual integration of the national pastime when Branch Rickey placed Jackie Robinson on the Brooklyn Dodgers roster in 1947. Alexander identifies George Wright, a shortstop for the early Red Stockings, as baseball’s first national star, and he lingers over other major figures, including Cy Young, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Joe DiMaggio, and Pete Rose. Rose’s banishment from baseball, for betting on the game, is seen as part of an unsavory tradition that includes the 1919 World Series bribery scandal and alcohol and drug abuse.

Alexander’s obligation to take us through every season with a very brief summary of pennant and Series results can make for numbing reading in a volume this concise. He is at his most engaging when tracing larger patterns, like the weakening of the reserve clause that long restricted player free agency, the fortunes of the farm systems, the expansion and realignment of leagues and divisions, or the growing role of radio and television. Alexander analyzes the animosities between players and owners that produced two strikes during the 1980’s, but, with OUR GAME, he himself has thrown a strike.