In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. David Vaught of Texas A&M University explores big-city baseball’s rural roots.
David Vaught is a professor of history and head of the Department of History at Texas A&M University where his fields of specialization are American rural history, labor, and the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. He has published a number of books, including 2013’s The Farmer’s Game: Baseball in Rural America. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis.
Dr. David Vaught – Rural Origins of Baseball
Long known as a city game for city people, baseball captures the essence of the American rural experience. Where else, I ask you, other than a major league ballpark does someone sitting in the middle of a row of 30 seats pass a $20 bill down through the many different hands to the hotdog man with the complete and total expectation that they will get back not only the hotdog but every last penny of change? That innate sense of trust and cooperation roots in our agrarian heritage. It epitomizes what Thomas Jefferson thought a nation of farmers would become.
Jefferson would have been less thrilled had he known that farmers themselves embraced baseball as a game of high stakes, not high virtue. Baseball became an expression of the way farmers perceived day-to-day reality. With the emergence of market-oriented agriculture in the early nineteenth century, that reality became increasingly defined by skill, competitiveness, and chance: skill, with regard to their ability to produce high-quality crops in prodigious amounts; competitiveness, in terms of their insatiable appetite for achievement in a world of change and unpredictability; and chance, in that for all their skill and competitiveness, a spell of bad weather or a run of bad luck in the marketplace could bring failure, misery, and frustration. Given that perspective on life, farmers preferred games that demanded skill, competitiveness, and chance—and baseball, with its intricate set of rules and rituals, action and suspense, opportunities for widespread gambling, and winner-take-all mentality offered them everything they wanted and more. The game tantalized them with the illusion that they could master their reality by simply courting Lady Luck or, when teams went so far as to fix games, by manipulating her. For that reason, baseball served as the farmers’ game for much of American history.