Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Baseball and Life during Peacetime

Read the first part of this series here.

World War I had been called the Great War and The War to End All Wars, but it was neither great nor did it end war. Instead, it set the world up for the worst war in the history of mankind, one in which unspeakable acts were committed in the name of ideology.

No one knew it at the time, and things began to return to life as usual, baseball included. Only it wasn't so usual. Following the Black Sox scandal of 1919 (the Reds did not win because of it - they were a good team that could have won regardless), baseball needed a hero who could lead the game into a new decade and leave the past behind. The dead ball era was over as the world became alive again; line drives replaced bullets and home runs replaced bombs. Mustard went on hotdogs instead of eyes. Babe Ruth replaced General Pershing as America's hero. Attendance rose by 50% from the 10's, and America fell in love with baseball all over again.

The world seemed to have come to terms with itself. Peace and prosperity appeared to be reality. Booze was banned in America but it just made the parties better as they moved underground. It was all a facade, of course. That Austrian corporal with the German Iron Cross, First Class, was contemplating entering politics. He was thirty-something years old and mad at the world - the world being run by "scoundrel Jews," of course. His mindset wasn't unique, however, as the Bavarian rightwing clung to the "stabbed in the back" mythos. Conservatives despised the new democratic republic and the individual freedoms it brought; they longed for a return to the monarchy, the good old days. And there was the defeated Army with nothing to do, minds destroyed by the horrors of the war they had just waged, morale destroyed by the loss and the stipulations of the armistice. Militias sprung up everywhere; the disgruntled Army helped equip them for fear of the rise of socialism. Berlin was briefly occupied by one of these rightwing brigades in March 1920 until a general strike by the trade unions restored the republic. At the same time, a coup overthrew a socialist government in Munich, installing a rightwing regime. This was the climate in Bavaria, one of angry conservatives armed to the teeth, a climate that Iron Cross, First Class found home.

That was far away from the ballparks of America. While the United States lost about 117,000 troops, Americans never really felt the full effects of the war because it didn't happen here. I suppose it made it easier to get back to living life. Germany had lost 2 million soldiers and 2.5 million civilians while ravaging cities and countryside alike. You have to imagine what it was like, to see your homes and villages destroyed, to see bombed out bridges and burnt up forests, to see your childhood memories demolished and wonder if your country could ever be whole again, if you could ever be you again. Germany's population at the start of the war was 67 million; there was not a German who didn't know dozens of dead by the end of it.

I think the whole world was in denial. Americans certainly were, getting fake rich and falling under the spell of consumerism. That a game could grow so big and start making so much money was testament to that. But it was always more than a game, wasn't it? It was that pastime that had found its way from Valley Forge to the Civil War to history's worst war, and it was solace and unity and summer and the proverbial return to innocence, if only for a couple of hours a day. While the Giants and the Yankees took turns winning World Series in that decadent decade and using the Middlewestern teams as their own AAAA farm clubs, the haves in the real world were having and having some more and the baseball loving POTUS was promising a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage and then there were no chickens or pots or cars or garages.

The haves were having and having some more everywhere. That's how communism rose. It's how the German Workers Party rose. As fate would have it, the Army ordered Iron Cross, First Class to attend one of the latter's meetings to investigate. A crank economist who had developed a religious devotion to the idea that speculative capital had caused Germany's economic trouble, calling it "interest slavery," spoke at one of these meetings, where the first seeds of evil of something called National Socialism were sown. The founder, a locksmith by trade, had set up a "Committee of Independent Workmen" to counter the growing popularity of Marxism in the trade unions. Peas in a pod. Both were formed out of contempt for the middle class and the establishment. Both blamed the middle class and the establishment for their troubles and scorned them for their lack of understanding of the social problems of the lower class.

This is populism.

With the German variety came an intense hatred for the post-war democratic republic that had been established and the people that were running it. This new German Workers Party was full of misfits who had failed at life, failed to see their own flaws, and blamed everyone else for their problems. They did have a point - the social ills were real and they were often ignored. The haves were having and having some more and then some more after that and many people pretended this wasn't happening or didn't care because they had theirs. But the freaks in the German Workers Party probably couldn't have made it anywhere - a fat, gay Army captain, a crazy locksmith, a failed playwright whose works had only been performed by patients in a mental hospital, a crank economist, and an untalented painter with an Iron Cross, First Class had found each other in the wrong place at the wrong time and the whole world suffered for it.

Baseball advertising was as old as the Major Leagues, going back to tobacco cards, but it took on a life of its own in the twenties. Babe Ruth sold soda, candy, cigarettes, and guns. Lou Gehrig sold batteries and breakfast cereals. Jimmie Foxx sold bats and lubricants. Owners were coming up with new ways to make money and enticing fans to come to games. But baseball was just going along with a new craze. As Edward Bernays was telling Americans to buy soap because it was 99% pure and eat bacon for breakfast because it was patriotic and women to smoke because it would give them freedom, that Iron Cross, First Class, was also mastering the art of propaganda.

To be continued...

(Incidentally, Bernays despised democracy, too, preferring "enlightened despotism." Peas in pods.)