The other night, I found myself watching the Nagoya Chunichi Dragons play the Gwangju Kia Tigers. I also kept an eye on the World Baseball Classic qualifiers that just wrapped in Sydney. I followed news of the Gurriel brothers defecting from Cuba last week, and wondered what the Cubs’ chances were for signing Lourdes.
At this point in the waning days of the major-league offseason, some of the only baseball news to cling to concerns the international game. I think there’s something refreshing about that, a time to break from the insular American perspective on the sport as we chase after the crack of the bat and that unmistakable sound of ball hitting glove.
Baseball on an international stage in fact has roots in Chicago. In 1888, that particular smack of baseball meeting leather didn’t exist yet (the baseball gloves worn were similar to the fingerless bicycle gloves of today), but that didn’t stop Albert Goodwill Spalding from seeking to establish the game abroad and canonize it as an all-American pastime played by upstanding gentlemen.
Spalding, then-owner of the Chicago White Stockings, who were soon to be re-named the Colts and then, at last, the Cubs, plotted a global tour of baseball that would see his own White Stockings and a team of American all-stars acting as missionaries for the sport. With the world newly opened up to them by imperialism and the industrial age, the “Chicagos” and the “All-Americas” played exhibitions in New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Italy, France, and the British Isles, bookended by barnstorming tours across the US.
They weren’t necessarily the first to showcase baseball in these countries, but their visits surpassed anything seen before in pageantry and publicity. The Americans were greeted by flotillas, parades, brass bands, and dignitaries, and though the trip lost money overall, the tourists stayed at the finest hotels wherever they landed. For the media-savvy Spalding, crafting a narrative of his men as conquering heroes showing lesser nations the way to sporting nirvana was of top priority.
It’s a complex exercise, evaluating the legacy of this tour. The tidy line you’d like to draw says that Al Spalding spread baseball across the globe (Point A), and now we scout players across the globe (Point B).
And it is true that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have made international talent one of the central points in their player development strategy. The Cubs were one of the earlier teams to exploit the current international signing structure, trading for additional bonus pool money and still outspending their inflated allotment, fully prepared to take the tax penalty and future restrictions that would be imposed on them. That aggression netted them top prospects as part of international free agent splurges in 2013 and 2015.
And yet, it’s hard to tell the simple story running from Point A to Point B. None of the Cubs’ recent signees hail from France, Egypt, or even Australia. Only Jen-Ho Tseng, whom the Cubs signed out of Taiwan in 2013, comes from a continent Spalding visited, so it seems that his legacy perhaps lies not in spreading the game, but in something else. But what?
The truth is that baseball was not always an instant hit on Spalding’s voyage, and as you might expect from a nineteenth-century circumnavigation, the globetrotting wasn’t all champagne receptions and adoring crowds. The players spent months at sea battling heatstroke and nausea, crafting pranks and placing bets on anything imaginable to relieve the boredom. Once on land and once the welcome parties had died down, their level of play varied, particularly depending on how long they’d had to recover from the aforementioned champagne receptions.
The conquering heroes were not quite the gentleman ambassadors Spalding had advertised them to be; confronted by the majesty of Egypt’s monuments, the men took turns throwing baseballs at the Sphinx’s right eye.
But Spalding always had a knack for liberally applying gloss to the substandard in order to suit his personal mission. For all the romantic promises to grow and popularize baseball abroad, the entire trip was, at its heart, a vanity project for his sporting goods empire and for America itself.
Spalding had an obsessive need for American mythology when it came to baseball. He resented any origin stories that suggested baseball was derived from the British rounders or cricket games. To Spalding, baseball and America existed in a sort of symbiosis, perhaps a feedback loop.
If crowds were unconvinced by the merits of baseball, especially in non-English-speaking countries, Spalding could write that off with xenophobic speculation concerning their inferior physical and intellectual aptitude. When the American players found themselves committing faux-pas while navigating the old world decorum of Europe, it only served as affirmation of American trailblazing and individuality as defining qualities of not only the country, but of baseball too.
Maybe the real legacy of that world tour is the solidifying of baseball as an emblem of American exceptionalism, and maybe Spalding sold that idea too well. John Montgomery Ward, who participated in the around-the-world journey, was a critical figure in protesting baseball’s labor practices. In an 1889 open letter, Ward complained that “players have been bought, sold and exchanged as though they were sheep instead of American citizens.”
Over a hundred years later, that legacy is still very much a work in progress. Major-league teams’ foreign academies are still compared to sugar plantations. As recently as 2010, Time Magazine reported on the grim conditions of the Cubs’ old Dominican academy in particular, which was observed as resembling a prison (a new, modern facility, the biggest of any major-league team, has since been constructed with considerably more care).
2016 brings with it negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, and with one of the issues on the table being the possibility of an international draft, the global nature of modern baseball will take center stage once again. Its complicated legacy is one worth talking about, because the fact is that it’s far from resolved.
Lead photo courtesy Allen Henry—USA Today Sports.