A Sport that Combines Stardom and Teamwork
Americans were shocked when a Japanese team won the 1984 Olympic Gold Medal for Baseball. Sports historians say the victory highlighted not only rapidly increasing skill in an imported game but some similarities in distinctively different Japanese and American societies that made baseball a harmonious fit for both.
John Thorn is an author, cultural commentator and the official historian of Major League Baseball. In a recent blog Thorn reflected on a new book about Masanori Murakami, a pitcher who signed with the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and was the first Japanese player in Major League Baseball. Thinking about achievements of Murakami and others who followed led Thorn to recall an essay by Merritt Clifton, “What Baseball Means to Japan and Humanity—Where the Twain Shall Meet.” Thorn says the essay is as insightful today as it was when it was written 30 years ago.
Clifton believed baseball fills a cultural role in Japan and America that other sports don’t. In distinguishing baseball’s essential difference from other sports, Clifton cited a 1977 doctoral thesis by a University of California sociologist Ken Hogarty, who maintained that the primary conflict in baseball represents both the tension between the individual and society and the harmony of teamwork. Immigrants to America came to prefer baseball to the European-style sports they’d known at home, cricket, rugby and rounders, which took less space and equipment, Clifton suggested, because many immigrants arrived in America after rebelling against some oppressive authority elsewhere.
In football, basketball, hockey, soccer, tennis and even chess, Clifton wrote, the model is war and the object is for competing sides to capture territory or treasure. Individualism is subordinate to the group. Clifton theorized that those sports survive because we “retain our tribal instincts, expressed as nationalism and political partisanship.”
On defense, baseball teammates need cooperation. But each player has to emerge briefly from his team and perform as an individual. The batter has only his own skill and speed to hit the ball and get on base. Americans already viewed individualism as separate from mere selfishness, Clifton observed. So the game’s balance of social and individual responsibility must have appealed to young men who wanted to make the most of their own abilities and belong in a new society.
Professional baseball took root in Japan in the 1930s, when other foreign imports were viewed with suspicion amid the tensions that would culminate in World War II, Clifton wrote. Japanese baseball promoters fostered a nationalistic attitude toward the game, which continued after the war as the sport grew. Clifton thought the prominent focus on the man at bat encouraged the game’s Japanese popularity because it let team players shine while making an individual contribution. In addition, he wrote it added to a growing idea of mobility that in Japan and America accompanied increasing industrialization. A player could achieve status based on his own skill.
The diffusion scholar Everett Rogers wrote that one condition for innovations to take hold is compatibility with existing values and beliefs. Another is the capacity for reinvention -- for adaptations that suit local circumstances. Americans and Japanese value teamwork and individual skill. And several writers have observed the game has evolved with differences specific to each country. Clifton cites an American historical tendency for rough play, and a Japanese pride in courtesy, which would suggest an apology if a pitcher hit a batter. A USA Today story recounts some observations American and Japanese players in both countries. An American pitcher on a Japanese team, for instance, warns American newcomers to respect extremely rigorous practice drills and not to assume larger stature conveys any superiority. Read Thorn’s piece here and Clifton’s essay here.