Anders Koskinen, a Minnesotan and one of the legions of people striving to be opinion leaders these days, did something odd recently. He wrote what is essentially a book review on a tome published 12 years ago, which, though it enjoyed moderate success, was not exactly a bestseller.
The book was “But Didn’t We Have Fun?: An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-1870,” by Peter Morris. Koskinen is what some would call a baseball nerd, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research. How many people in the stands, thrilling to the action on an average major league game day, even know such a society exists?
Still, in his recent review/essay, entitled “The Loss of American Civic Pride,” Koskinen points to the decline of town team baseball — especially compared to its heyday — as an important reason for the lack of unity in America today. Hence, though I don’t have a particular interest in the history of baseball and have no intention of reading Morris’ book, I did take notice. Aren’t most people worried about the growing political, social, religious, etc. divisions within our country? Wouldn’t most of us repair those divisions if we could only see how?
It is possible, of course, that today’s bifurcation among us is overblown. After all, as soon as Washington retired, the political parties he warned us against came out from the shadows and quickly asserted dominance in national governance. The viciousness, malice, and mendacity politicians and their supporters employed in the early days of the Republic never cease to astonish me, eroding my sense of the peoples of those time as part of an honor culture, of placing the spotlessness of their character above all else.
Or consider the Civil War. You can’t get more fractious than that.
Personally, I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, too young to be drafted for Vietnam but old enough to recall the level of discomfort in society over that war and the counter-cultural movement that not just opposed it but called into question so much of the status quo and authority in general. Those were difficult times, contentious times.
Yet, today seems worse.
Reading Koskinen’s essay on town team baseball as a source of civic pride and unity leaves me unconvinced that such a minor aspect of culture could really hold a society together but I do suspect it was one source of such, even an important source. My father told me of his father’s and possibly his grandfather’s participation on a town team and their games against nearby communities.
(I say “possibly” because, as usual, when my elders were telling me important family stories of immigration, the Great Depression, a couple of world wars, and just the touching moments of a past mother’s love or a grandfather’s passing, I was busily trying to get back to the important task of watching reruns of Bewitched on TV.)
Thus, perhaps the way back to a reasonably unified country (some disagreement is necessary to advance society) is via a number of relatively small developments, each providing some common ground.
To that end, I would propose high school sports and activities. We’ve all heard the stories of the big game back in ’56 when one small town’s high school team lost to their rivals due to a horrible call by the referee or, alternately, their victory out of sheer pluck and hard work. In one of my former school districts, a state championship — announced live on the radio — was met with the wailing of every emergency siren in town. And nobody thought it was a disaster because nobody was in town anyway. They were all at the game.
That civic pride in the accomplishments of our young people has ebbed in recent decades. Whether due to the multiplying of available activities (which has now reached a level some believe is actually reducing competitiveness because there are fewer spots than there are young people to fill them), the general “busyness” of our lives, or the social isolation incumbent upon modern life, less than everyone follows any activity. Attendance is often down and the importance ascribed to any program or sport has declined.
But this is not inexorable, not irreversible. We could, as a community, rally around every sport, every activity whether it be robotics, show choir, football, or hockey and feel again the joint, even vicarious, joy of whipping whoever is the rival town in that sport. We could all embrace the public school team, the private school team, the club team, as one. And we could nullify the discordance such rivalries sometimes created by joining with those other teams and fans in that ubiquitous opening ceremony of all such events, the common singing of the national anthem.
Would doing so, as a community, single handedly heal the national divisions? Probably not. But it might prove a very good start.