Every day this week—Major League Baseball’s opening stretch—we will feature one story on The Scroll about baseball. With today’s Wisconsin republican presidential primary, it just so happens that two of our preferred news subjects, baseball and Donald Trump, coincide, which is lucky for baseball because America’s former pastime will now be given the opportunity to be great again, or whatever.
In fact, Trump and baseball have had a number of unpleasant intersections in the nine-and-a-half months since the real estate developer, reality TV star, and former United States Football League owner announced his presidential campaign. He’s earned a number of endorsements from baseball players, including that of former Yankees Paul O’Neill and Johnny Damon, and righty Clay Buckholtz of the Red Sox. Naturally, former Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker, who was notoriously disgusted at the racial diversity of the neighborhoods surrounding Shea Stadium, en
One of Trump’s most prominent right-wing enthusiasts has even tied the developer’s hard line immigration and anti-trade stance to the state of the national pastime. During her March 11 endorsement of Trump, 91-year-old anti-feminist icon Phyllis Schlafly bemoaned that over a quarter of current Major League Baseball players were born outside the U.S. “Baseball owners are doing the same thing that big corporations do,” Schlafly alleged, “bring[ing] in foreign labor to take jobs that should go to Americans.” In her view, “it is time to cut off visas to foreign baseball players, and return our national pastime to Americans.”
Trump and baseball are in some respects a natural fit. The MLB’s federally mandated anti-trust exemption provides legal protection for the league’s insanely lucrative and allegedly anti-competitive
But baseball’s Trumpian convergences expose some of the inherent tensions in the sport’s history, and its place in the national psyche. Baseball is associated with an idyllic American past, and the memory of a monolithic national culture that predates the social upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s. A lot of Trump’s supporters seem to yearn for exactly that. Baseball is proudly stuck in the past: The sport has an exhaustive statistical record going back nearly a century and a half, and origins shrouded in a debunked yet widely believed mythology. There’s arguably no other sport in which questions of legacy, sportsmanship and honor are more hotly (or, some would allege, pointlessly) debated. Fun as it is to argue over Shoeless Joe Jackson’s Hall of Fame case, Schlafly’s connection of baseball’s supposedly purely American character to Trump’s isolationist rhetoric is a vivid reminder that the past can be a toxic source of inspiration.
Baseball remains compelling after 150 years in part because of its success in transcending its parochial trappings: some of the most exciting MLB players are from Cuba and Japan, and the sport’s best player has no patience for the game’s stultifying “unwritten rules.” As Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wrote, memory is the game’s fourth dimension, which means that it isn’t the sport’s only dimension. Baseball is better off without nostalgia for its pure and fictive ideal form, and Shlafly’s backward-facing nationalist fantasies are laughably divorced from the game as it currently exists.
Trump might have Schlafly and Rocker’s support. But MLB rosters are now 28% foreign-born and Rocker is now better known for his racism than for anything he ever did on a baseball diamond. In fact, the ex-hurler had been largely out of the headlines for a solid decade-and-a half before his endorsement of Trump. Rocker’s last MLB appearance was for Tampa in 2003, back when they were still called the Devil Rays, and coming off of the fifth of what would be a staggering six consecutive last-place finishes in the AL East.
In Rocker and Schlafly’s case, Trump provides an easy means for people associated with the ugliest and most regressive aspects of the sport and its history to seize one last, fleeting moment of pseudo-relevance. But baseball is hardly unique in this respect: a number of controversial athletic has-beens, including Hulk Hogan, Dennis Rodman, and Bob Knight are Trump enthusiasts, too.