Baseball and Populism

Cultural historian Jacques Barzun's well-known observation, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” is a standard fixture of most histories of the United States’ pastime. Rural historian David Vaught notes that we hear the rest of the quotation far less often, that we should learn baseball by “watching first some high school or small town teams”(Barzun 159 ). Despite a founding mythology that places baseball's birth in rural Cooperstown, New York, and frequent references to the pastoral tradition that the game invokes, most historians insist that baseball was an urban game played and enjoyed in vacant lots and green spaces. David Vaught, a historian of both the rural United States and baseball, argues that if we move beyond examinations of professional big-city baseball and turn our gaze toward the countryside it becomes clear that rural people were equally enamored with the game. Baseball became farmers’ leisure activity of choice at precisely the same time that the Farmers’ Alliance and Populism became farmers’ favored political inclinations. Baseball and Populism conquered the countryside simultaneously, and they did so by creating a sense of stability in the increasingly volatile world of agriculture.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, a more recognizable form of baseball began to sweep the country. In 1845, the New York City Knickerbocker Base Ball Club established many of the standards of modern baseball, such as a diamond-shaped infield and foul lines. The new rules also outlawed the “soak” and insisted that runners be tagged at the bases rather than hit with the ball. After the Civil War, baseball received an added boost in popularity with the Cincinnati Red Stockings's 1869 barnstorming tour of baseball's traditional heartland. Trouncing local teams in the Northeast, the Midwest, and California, the Red Stockings introduced many Americans in both the city and the countryside to the now familiar flannel uniforms, knee-high socks, and cleats that have become commonplace for the major leagues. Cincinnati's undefeated record was also a testament to the skill and professionalism that could be cultivated among the big-city ball clubs. Professional baseball took hold in the United States’ cities, but rural baseball changed very little, and in some cases it actually declined in popularity during the period of the Red Stockings's campaign. In 1867, the Prairie Farmer, one of the Midwest's most popular farm journals, reported on the sad state of rural baseball. Several local ball clubs gathered at the Warren County Fair in Illinois for their traditional “grand match,” but fewer than a dozen spectators showed up for the game. It was clear to the Prairie Farmer observer that “the people around here are satiated with base-ball” (Prairie Farmer, September 28, 1867, 195 ).

It seemed like baseball in the countryside was all but dead in the 1870s as the game's popularity soared in the United States’ cities. By the mid-1880s, however, baseball rallied in the rural United States as farmers took up the game, not as spectators like their urban brethren but by taking to the field themselves. It is no coincidence that the 1880s and 1890s, the period of baseball's ascendancy on the farms and in the small towns of the rural United States, also played host to the rise of the Farmers’ Alliance and the People's Party. Baseball and the push for radical economic and political reform provided by both the Alliance and Populism were born out of the same social, cultural, and economic upheavals in the midst of the greatest transformation American agriculture had ever seen.

Cooperation and Populism offered long-term solutions to a volatile, unregulated, and unfair market for farm commodities. If farmers wanted a more immediate example of what regulation could do and a more reasonable assessment of their successes and failures, they found it on the baseball field. As David Vaught argues, “For young men mystified by the operations of the grain market and wary of what the future held . . . baseball offered excitement, respite, stability, diversion, mutuality, and gratification—all in powerful, albeit short-term, doses” (Vaught, “Our Players Are Mostly Farmers,” 19 ). Farmers latched on to the modern version of baseball precisely because it was so modern. The game's rules were reasonable; they were governed by rhythms of success and failure, runs and outs. Unlike the obtuse and arbitrary rules that governed the price of their harvests, farmer-players quickly naturalized the movements and standards of baseball. Baseball also provided a physical iteration of the Populist ethos of cooperation coupled with individualism. When a team played defense, each player brought a specific set of skills and had a precise role to play in his defensive position on the field, but ultimately he used his individual skills to advance the team's need to get three outs. Likewise, while playing offense, an individual batter did not always hit the ball as hard as he could and hope to score a home run. The batter's ultimate responsibility was to make sure his team chalked up runs, which often meant batting in others without the personal satisfaction of crossing home plate. The lesson of a sacrifice fly or bunt went hand in hand with the dictates of cooperative grain marketing, where the immediate gratification of the individual is deferred for long-term gratification of the many.

In Vaught's study of baseball in rural California, a newspaperman reported on the makeup of his local baseball team, saying “our players are mostly farmers” (Vaught, “Our Players Are Mostly Farmers,” 9

Michael Swinford

See also: Cooperative Commonwealth ; Gilded Age ; Historians of Populism ; Leisure ; Long-Haul/Short-Haul Discrimination ; People's Party ; Populism ; Robber Barons


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Barzun, Jacques. God's Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1954.

Postel, Charles. The Populist Vision. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Prairie Farmer, September 28, 1867.

Seymour, Harold. Baseball: The People's Game. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Vaught, David. “Abner Doubleday, Marc Bloch, and the Cultural Significance of Baseball in Rural America.” Agricultural History 85 (1): 1–20.

Vaught, David. “‘Our Players Are Mostly Farmers’: Baseball in Rural California, 1850 to 1890.” In Donald G. Kyle and Robert B. Fairbanks, eds. Baseball in America & America in Baseball. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008, pp. 8–31.