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The World of Baseball — and of Tim Lincecum

Submitted by on November 12, 2010 – 11:15 pm 5 Comments |  

The world map of major cricket-playing countries bears a close resemblance to the historical map of British imperial power. Does the map of baseball similarly follow the extension of American power abroad? A quick glance at the first map posted above shows that baseball’s domain is wide indeed, encompassing many countries that have hardly been touched by American might. But if one just looks at the dark-shaded “major baseball countries,” the story seems different. Although the formal possessions of the United States in the Caribbean have been limited to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the rest of the region was considered to fall within the U.S. sphere of influence. American troops were periodically sent to a number of Caribbean countries, occupying the Dominican Republic, for example, from 1916 until 1924. The story is somewhat similar in East Asia, another major baseball zone. The United States occupied Japan for roughly decade after the Second World War, and still maintains large military bases in South Korea and Japan. One might therefore assume that the global spread of baseball is linked to the historical extension of American power abroad.

Such an assumption, however, would be incorrect. Baseball came to Japan, for example, as early as the 1870s, introduced by American missionaries and teachers. It was very popular well before WWII. Baseball diffused to Korea and Taiwan in the early 1900s when they were under Japanese rule. In East Asia, the map of baseball thus reflects the historical role of the Japanese Empire, not that of the United States. The game’s American roots, however, were not forgotten; North Korea banned baseball in the 1950s as the “sport of American imperialism.” Baseball returned to North Korea in the 1990s — by way of China. After the game was adopted in China, North Korean authorities decided that it was not so tainted after all.

Baseball came to the Caribbean through migration and cultural exchange. It was evidently introduced to Cuba in 1860 by Cubans returning from sojourns in the United States. According to Wikipedia, baseball’s quickly growing popularity came at the expense of the “patriotic” sport of bullfighting, unnerving Spanish colonial authorities. By subsequently banning baseball, they only ensured its domination, as the game “became symbolic of freedom and egalitarianism to the Cuban people.” Cuban migrants subsequently took the sport to the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean locales. In Venezuela, however, baseball was introduced in the early 20th century by Americans working in the oil industry. In contemporary Latin America, baseball is closely associated with the Spanish-speaking Caribbean region. In Colombia, it is played much more in the heavily Afro-Colombian northern lowlands than in the Andean core of the country. Even in Mexico, a disproportionate number of professional baseball teams are located on or near the Gulf of Mexico.

Baseball’s lack of an imperial legacy is also apparent in the areas where it failed to spread. The U.S. military occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, yet the country isn’t even a member of the International Baseball Federation. The Philippines was under full US colonial rule for almost a half-century, and retained large U.S. military bases until 1991, yet Filipinos never really took to the game. The country does have a baseball league, but the sport is not widely played or followed. Basketball vastly overshadows it.

But if Filipinos care little for baseball, their attention was turned to the sport in late October and early November 2010. Philippine newspapers and television stations focused on one player in the World Series: San Francisco Giant’s pitching ace Tim Lincecum. Lincecum is certainly newsworthy. Beyond his throwing prowess, he attracts attention in the U.S. media for his breezy personality, colorful language, and extraordinary athleticism: Lincecum is called “the freak” mainly because of his uncanny ability to get so much power out of such a slight frame. With his long hair, misfit image, and arrest-record for marijuana, Lincecum makes an ideal sports hero for quirky San Francisco. But Philippine journalists care little for all of that; they are drawn to Lincecum simply because of his Filipino ancestry. Lincecum’s mother is Filipina-American, the daughter of poor immigrants who came to the United States as farm laborers. Filipino reporters have been disappointed that Lincecum does not stress his roots in their country, but they hold him up as someone for Filipinos to emulate. The Philippine Sports Commission will soon be inviting Tim Lincecum to visit “his grandparents’ country.”

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  • Ryan Lord

    While this is an interesting map, I would like to know where the information comes from, it seems to have some weaknesses. Obviously the membership in the IBFA is fairly easy to find and put into map form, but this division of "major" and "secondary" seems odd to me. If someone asked me "What are the major sports in the UK?" I would answer "Football, cricket and rugby", or possibly by a slightly different definition, simply, "Football". While if someone asked me "What are the secondary sports in the UK?" I would answer “Cricket and Rugby" in my list of secondary sports I certainly wouldn't include baseball.

    So it seems that the weakness in definitions is coming from the use of the word secondary. The use of the word major makes sense. In this case it means one of the most popular, but not necessarily the single most popular sport in a given country, which would fit both the U.S and Cuba, as the map shows.

    Secondary, on the other hand, gives us problems. For example below is a quote from the Wikipedia article Baseball in the United Kingdom, unfortunately the quoted section doesn't have a source, however as a person living in the UK I think it accurately reflects the status of the sport:

    "Today, there are more than 40 baseball teams, 875 adult and Junior (Under 18) players… The Junior Great British National Team consists of 15 players which recently competed in the European Championships."

    875 players out of a population of 61 million is a pretty slim base. I think you would find the same level of participation throughout Europe. Although I'm certainly no expert and perhaps the Greeks really do love their baseball, I don't know.

    Interestingly however I discovered that my own town of Harrogate has its own baseball pitch and team, the Harrogate Tigers. Not only that but we are 2009 Northern Conference Champions AND 2009 National Champions AAA. Impressive, but I suspect that has more to do with major American military presence in the area than any particular local interest in the sport.

    But please now contrast the UK's participation with South Africa's. From the Baseball South Africa website I managed to find mention of 20 teams through their affiliate links, which is probably an underestimate of the level of participation in the country. However I think it is obvious that in both the United Kingdom and South Africa the difference in participation is marginal. Basically they are tertiary sports and putting them in separate categories is either a sign of extremely fine grained distinctions, or some kind of data error. So I believe this map gives a misleading impression of the popularity of baseball around the world.

    I hope this doesn't sound too critical, Geocurrents is by far my favourite blog and I always find your posts insightful and interesting. Thank you.

  • inkyschwartz

    Looking at the major players of baseball gives me hope that one day the World Series will involve more than 2 countries playing. Though the small differences in how the game is played around the world and mostly complete lack of interest in opening the game will keep that from ever happening here in the US.


  • Martin W. Lewis

    Thanks to Ryan Lord for the perceptive comments — I will edit the map to reflect his objections. In the "secondary" category I included all countries where baseball is NOT a major sport, yet which have participated in baseball competitions in the Olympics or in the baseball World Cup. But Britain seems to have reached its high point during the first baseball World Cup of 1938, and the baseball world cup is, at any rate, of minimal importance. So Ryan is right — and I do appreciate such critical and informed commentary. And thanks as well to David for pointing out that the World Series is not a world series!

  • Geo Sherwin

    Love to see a map on where MLB players come from (worldwide and within the United States). My physical geographic thesis would be that most players come from countries with little to no winter and that within the United States most players come from warmer climates. I realize there would be exceptions due to culture, etc. but you get the idea.

  • AlexUlacio

    Phillipines were at the beggining of twentieth century the main rival of Japan for Asian supremacy and Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Charlie Gehringer visited Philippines in 1934, they won some gold medals at baseball in the Far East Games and they won the first Asian Championship in 1954. So they really took the game for a while, it just vanished.