For anthropology professor Stanton Green, baseball’s role in assimilating immigrants into America can be found in a 3” x 5” black and white snapshot. The scene features two young, first-generation Americans: Green’s father, crouched in a catcher’s stance, plays stickball on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, circa 1940, while Green’s mother watches from the sidewalk.
The photo is at the heart of Green’s research into the anthropology of baseball and his study of the sport’s intersection with American culture. This is no leisurely pastime for Green: He has presented papers at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and given a TED Talk on the topic.
The subject matter is ever-changing. The players of Europeans heritage—think Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg—have given way to Jackie Robinson to today’s influx of Latinos and Asians. Each wave brought baseball to dizzying heights while providing an evolving snapshot of America.
Baseball “has played a role in many of the historic landmarks of American history,” says Green. He cites Robinson and baseball as playing as big a role in the integration of American society “as any other social institution.” Most Commanders in Chief going back to George Washington played baseball. The first pitch is a presidential staple. The game is “deeply rooted in the American experience,” says Green.
Aside from its infusion in the American way of life, the game is also “an emotional lever” for many. After all, Green asks, who doesn’t remember their first baseball game? Even the game’s pattern—no clock, long periods of stasis jolted to life by surprise—mimics our day-to-day. A routine ground ball can turn into something else entirely. Just ask Bill Buckner.
Those who think that Green is basking in patriotic hyperbole might want to buy a plane ticket. Fly over the United States, he says, and you’ll see baseball diamonds dotting the landscape. The game is literally ingrained in the country.
TOP: The photo of Stanton Green’s father playing stickball in Manhattan in the 1940s
lies at the center of Green’s research on baseball and U.S. immigrants. Photo courtesy of Stanton Green.