Book review: "The Empire Strikes Out" overstates baseball's role in U.S. foreign policy
A sportswriter should be careful when assessing the importance of sports within broader spheres such as politics or economics, and avoid the temptation to exaggerate.
In “The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold US Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad,” published this month, Robert Elias takes the opposite approach, condemning two centuries of American foreign policy while giving baseball a massively overstated role.
No wonder the book is unconvincing, ponderous, and often just plain silly. Missing is any subtlety about the complex history of America’s (and baseball’s) engagement with the world—a history that includes colonialism, yes, but also diplomacy, benign trade, and migration flows into and out.
Elias presents baseball as a kind of imperial Jedi mind trick, deployed by governments (and especially the U.S. government) to subdue whole populations. Thus we read that Japan and Cuba were “targets” of the “US baseball imperialism” that started in the nineteenth century. But while Japan managed to escape “being controlled by the sport, as had other targets of U.S. invasions,” in Cuba the politicians even used it as a form of “social control.”
In the Philippines, military-enforced baseball leagues helped pacify the conquered natives, while in South Korea the sport would become “a mania and a tool of government control.”
In addition to these exaggerations, the book entertains some truly strange ideas. Elias uncritically passes along the opinion of “some” who claim that baseball won the Civil War for the North because it was used to “create happier and healthier soldiers for the battlefield.” The Civil War, by the way, was “cloaked” in the rationale of preserving the Union, but really it was when America’s “first notions of full-blown empire may have emerged.”And consider this stunning passage about a later war: “Thus, to baseball’s true believers, Pearl Harbor was a cruel blow. When baseball wasn’t blaming Japanese weakness or treachery, it instead wondered whether baseball had failed in its ‘self-appointed mission to save the world and export the American dream.’”
So in response to Pearl Harbor, baseball wondered whether baseball had failed in baseball’s mission to save the world. What does that even mean? This would probably be more infuriating if it made any sense.
Then there is globalization, a process that Elias berates the United States and organized baseball for having the gall to participate in. The United States, you see, is a “corporate consumerist juggernaut” and is “robbing meaning from our lives.” It is also “a Darwinian society that doesn’t believe in Darwinism and an empire that’s weaker than Americans might think.”
He goes on: “Much of the world dislikes a United States, and most Americans don’t know or care.” Really? Did he ask them if they don’t know or care?
Elias demonstrates little understanding of how the global marketplace for people, ideas, goods and services actually works. With respect to baseball, he writes that a foreign player joining a Major League Baseball team is essentially the same as pillaging another country’s baseball talent. He never considers the possibility that such success stories have inspired many more kids in the home country, who otherwise wouldn’t have bothered, to take up the game.
Strained comparisons that link baseball and American militarism are generously sprinkled throughout the book. In another astonishing but typical sequence, Elias compares the deaths of Iraqis in the first Gulf War and an American massacre of a village in Vietnam with Major League Baseball’s willingness to “destroy the village as well” by launching “a war against its own players.” This is how the book explains the attempts to roll back free agency in the 1980s and 1990s.
Reading such nonsense is at first unsettling, but eventually it is just exhausting, especially after 300 pages of it.
The one thing to be said in the book’s favor is that it contains plenty of colorful characters and intriguing anecdotes from baseball’s history abroad. Had Elias simply told these stories and kept his political views out of the way, this might have been a good book. But he didn’t.