According to common belief, baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday, a nineteen-year-old West Point cadet, at Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. Few historians consider that more than a myth, though. Doubleday did in fact set down standardized rules, but the game had been played for decades before his involvement. It is mentioned, for instance, in Jane Austin’s novel Northanger Abbey, published after her death in 1816, and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes mentioned that he played the game in 1829, before his graduation from Harvard. The game’s mysterious origin is just one of the many bits of folklore that have grown up around it. The acceptance of the Doubleday story is a fitting symbol of the relatively young nation’s need for a prefabricated tradition. Though it is clearly a derivative of the English game of cricket, baseball has always been thought of as a metaphor for America.
In the 1840s and 1850s, baseball was popular throughout the New York area. It spread throughout both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War (1861–1865), which set the stage for the formation of the National League in 1876. Once it was realized that there was a profit to be made by exhibiting professional baseball games, other leagues formed: the American Association in 1881, and the Players’ League in 1990. National League managers worked either to bankrupt the other leagues or to absorb their teams by offering other contracts, leaving it briefly the only league by 1891. They remained unchallenged until 1900, when the American League formed, mostly in cities where National League teams had folded and left their fans embittered.
To limit competition between the two leagues and to ensure that they did not violate each other’s interests, the American League and the National League joined together through an agreement, creating the Major League Baseball Commission. As a result of this agreement, the team owners were able to control the game’s profits throughout most of the twentieth century. Although it was the players with whom the fans identified, whom they cheered in good times and jeered in bad times, the players themselves actually had little control over their lives. They were bought, sold, and traded at the whims of the teams’ owners. The two leagues only had eight teams each, and few other countries besides America were interested in the game, so professional ballplayers were very limited regarding where they could ply their trade.
Over the decades, the game’s popularity rose and fell, often in step with the world around it. The year 1919 brought the infamous Black Sox Scandal, with gamblers bribing players to lose the World Series, and it also brought the Volstead Act, which outlawed the sale of liquor. Baseball gained a reputation for crime just as bootlegging led to the rise of organized crime throughout the 1920s. During the 1930s, baseball was appreciated as a relatively inexpensive diversion during the Great Depression. In the 1940s, the country turned its attention to the war in Europe, and the game itself became less worthy of attention as its best players left to join the service. Baseball regained its popularity during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s with the advent of televised games.
Its iconic stature in the American culture makes baseball a fitting subject for Updike to approach with the cultural cynicism that pervaded the late 1960s. The baby boom generation, which consisted of those born in America’s triumphant years after World War II, was raised to be more inwardly directed than earlier generations: Not only were they free of the economic and military distractions that had engulfed earlier generations, but they were also the first generation of the new consumer culture. Advertisers drew the baby boomers’ attention to finding cures for their own problems. At the same time, in the colleges and universities, which were suddenly accessible to record numbers because of government programs to pay tuition for...
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