June 20, 2023

(Another) Sociological Celebration of Baseball

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Three years ago, Todd Schoepflin wrote about his love of baseball and its sociological significance. As a father of young players, he noted its absence during the pandemic-related shutdown of 2020. Because of its interdependence, the way it helps us understand the roles of others, and how it illustrates how and why rules can be bent, baseball helps us learn a lot about social systems and social interactions.

In the years since, I have been able to observe my nephews play, my brother-in-law coach, and most recently, my teenage nephew umpire games for younger kids. Building on Todd’s 2020 observations, baseball can teach us about identity, emotional labor, power, status, and social structure.

Identity

Who we are is largely social; not just how others think about us, but how we think of ourselves. My nephew plays for his high school baseball team, as well as with fall and summer teams; baseball is a big part of how he sees himself and has become one of his central sources for friends. He considers his teammates as among his closest school friends, perhaps because of their shared interests and large amount of time spent together practicing, playing, and traveling to games.

His social media, a key way in which people construct a public self, features pictures of him in uniform and highlights his skills and stats. This is not accidental; his coach instructed players to carefully curate their social media feeds for potential college recruitment. He was told not to post and to immediately delete any posts that might indicate a lack of maturity or judgment. Most people receive no guidance on creating a social media presence, so this seemed like a good place to start, and it encouraged him to  think about the identity he wishes to project.

Emotional Labor

My brother-in-law, father to the players mentioned in this post, coaches my younger nephew’s team in a league of 9-12-year-olds. Aside from the basics of creating a lineup, assigning field positions, and providing technical tips to the players, his position includes a great deal of work helping the young boys on the team manage their emotions.

Some kids need regular reminding to stay mentally engaged. Others take the game so seriously that a strikeout or a missed play can lead to a player cursing at himself and have trouble moving on. I repeatedly witnessed my brother-in-law taking a kid aside to tell them there will be more at bats, and more plays to make. This seems a particularly good metaphor for the ups and downs life offers, and how emotional labor can be a hidden part of both paid and unpaid work.

Power and Status

My high-school aged nephew (mentioned above) recently got a part-time job as a little league umpire, a potentially great job for someone who loves baseball. When I was his age, I had jobs (babysitter, daycare camp aide, sales clerk) that did not align with my interests or career aspirations, so I appreciate that he gets to earn money doing something he enjoys. Maybe he will never have to take a job just for the money—lucky him—and feel the sting of being a low-status worker at the mercy of customers, employers, and toddlers.

Being an umpire carries a degree of power within the context of the game. He is there to enforce the rules. For the players, the umpire might feel like an unfair arbiter of the rules at times, and a source of feelings of helplessness in some cases.

This power is regularly challenged by parents, so much so, that some communities are having a hard time finding people willing to umpire. The pay for little league games is minimal, and while good for a high-school kid, probably not worth the aggravation for someone with a full-time job and other responsibilities.

An umpire might have some temporary power, but their status doesn’t necessarily match. Wearing a mask, chest protector, and shirt that says “umpire” might hide my nephew’s youth, but the high-status parents of many of the kids makes them comfortable challenging authority.

As Annette Lareau’s now classic study highlights, affluent parents often question the decisions of adults they interact with, modeling a sense of entitlement for their children. I wanted to help him prepare for this possibility by practicing how to react to parent challenges or boos from the crowd. “Don’t be afraid to eject someone from the game,” I told him. In other words, use your power and do your best to ignore their status.

Social Structure

While the umpire uses their judgment to call balls and strikes and determine whether a runner is safe or out, they don’t get to make the rules of the game itself. Players can’t steal second base in the league this year, after officials decided catchers couldn’t throw the ball to effectively to second, leading to blow-outs. The game can only last two hours, and if one team is ahead by more than a certain number of runs after several innings of play, the “mercy” rule must be applied and the game ends.

As with league rules, we are governed by a set of rules generally negotiated by those in positions of power. Rules can be changed, but not without the approval of league officials. A common set of rules hypothetically creates an agreement about how to proceed with each game and minimize conflict, but of course how the rules are applied might be a matter of debate.

For my nephews and other kids who enjoy the game, it is a great way to understand the connections between individual and collective action. They can learn how to manage emotions in difficult situations, and navigate relationships with those in positions of power…and hopefully have fun at the same time!

Comments

The game has a two-hour time limit and must follow the "mercy" rule if one team leads after multiple innings of play by more than a specific amount of runs.

Baseball has supported and reflected many areas of American society, from culture to economics and technical breakthroughs, from the Civil War to Civil Rights and everywhere in between and beyond.

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