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Before Promoting Freedom in Iraq, Do So at Home
Published on Thursday, April 17, 2003 by the Miami Herald
Before Promoting Freedom in Iraq, Do So at Home
by Warren Goldstein

One day in 1980, in the midst of research in the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown, I spied the National League Minute Book sitting on a shelf and began leafing through it. In the back, there was a page titled ''Black List,'' naming a dozen or more players that the National League clubs had agreed not to hire. The players were known for drinking too much, consorting with gamblers, insubordination or talking union.

I was stunned. I had always assumed that the ''black list'' was metaphorical or covert.

For as much as I had wanted to discover the ways that baseball differed from the ''real'' business and political world of the late 19th Century, the evidence kept pushing me to see something else: the cartels, labor and racial relations, salary disputes and marketing battles of baseball a century earlier closely resembled the rest of the heyday of industrial capitalism. My idea that ballparks -- green diamonds in the rough of tenement-packed cities -- offered havens from the clutter and cacophony of late 19th Century life turned out to be all wrong. The oasis existed, and powerfully, but mainly in the realm of fantasy. There, Americans rhapsodized about baseball as a pristine arena where rules were fair and open, merit ruled and players played -- never worked -- for the honor of their team and the love of the game.

Last week the president of baseball's Hall of Fame, Dale Petroskey (a former press aide in the Reagan White House), canceled a 15th anniversary celebration of the best baseball movie ever made -- Bull Durham -- because he feared that actors Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins might express their anti-war views and help, as he put it in a letter, ''undermine the U.S. position, which ultimately could put our troops in even more danger.'' Petroskey's heavy-handed censorship has earned him deserved and widespread ridicule.

The sad truth, however, is that Major League Baseball has never been an institution that values freedom of speech, behavior or political expression. Petroskey is only the latest in a long line of baseball authoritarians.

Al Spalding, the 19th Century Hall of Fame pitcher turned owner-cum sporting-goods magnate, hired Pinkertons to check on his White Stockings' drinking habits. In the days of the reserve rule, owners had so much power that John Montgomery Ward, the Hall of Famer who organized the first players' union, likened ballplayers to ''chattels,'' or slaves.

Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, revered by some for restoring baseball in the wake of the ''Black Sox'' scandal, exercised the same dictatorial muscle to enforce the ''gentleman's agreement'' banning black players from the so-called national pastime.

Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood challenged the reserve rule in court in 1969 and paid with his career, as well as the comradeship of fellow players who abandoned him in the clutch rather than risk testifying on his behalf. With free agency, players at last earned the minimal rights of other employees to sell their services to the highest bidder, but baseball culture itself remained deeply conformist.

Baseball -- and the sports world in general -- mirrors American society too well. During times of international tension, our political leaders love to clamp down on dissent:

• During World War I, they sentenced Eugene Debs to prison for saying the obvious: that the war was a battle within the ``master classes.''

• In the 1940s and 1950s, under pressure from the House Un-American Activities Committee and helped by Petroskey's one-time boss, Ronald Reagan, Hollywood blacklisted uncooperative screenwriters and actors and clamped down on dissenters throughout the industry.

• Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon used the FBI to spy on civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War organizers, insisting that they were really communist dupes.

• People like to forget that Muhammad Ali, whom the contemporary media treat as an amiable teddy bear, had to fight his unconstitutional draft-evasion conviction all the way to the Supreme Court. Between the USA Patriot Act and secret arrests and detentions, our current attorney general, John Ashcroft, declares his disinterest in civil liberties.

• Now, according to President Bush, the United States plans to establish democracy in Iraq, a country with no democratic traditions or institutions.

I hope that the Hall of Fame will stand up for something more important than whether Pete Rose ought to be eligible for induction -- something like the First Amendment and the importance of democratic debate. A regime change in Cooperstown would be a good place to start.

Warren Goldstein chairs the University of Hartford's History Department.

Copyright 2003 Miami Herald


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