The Diverse Paths of Cultural Diffusion – Baseball Edition

H/T Pierre Maura,

Le Monde has a very interesting article regarding the trajectory of diffusion of baseball around the world and the national social contexts that made baseball attractive (or unattractive) outside of the United States. The article is based on an interview with Peter Marquis who just completed a thesis on the subject.

So, for instance, Marquis explained the fact that baseball never took root in France because of the popularity of other sports, such as soccer (or rugby as well I would add), because of the persistent anti-Americanism, and because American immigrants in France tend to be intellectuals and artists. Whatever baseball teams there are in France were more the product of immigration from Quebec.

On the other hand, Italy and the Netherlands have solid baseball teams. Why is that? In the case of Italy, American occupation after WWII is the main explanation for the popularity of baseball in the post-War era, reinforced by the presence of well-known and popular Italian-American players (Joe Di Maggio) and large immigration. This popularity is no longer the case anymore. For the Netherlands, it has more to do with colonialism and the proximity with cricket-playing British teams. It is in the Dutch Antilles that one can trace the roots of this.

One would think that American occupation is also the main explanation for the strong presence of baseball in Japan. Actually, baseball was introduced there in the 19th Century, at the beginning of the Meiji Era. The Japanese reformers used baseball to open their country to the world but they also saw cultural similarities between baseball and samurai skills and spirit.

And then there is Cuba. Is it military presence as well? Not so. Baseball takes root in 1860 thanks to Cuban exchange students who came back to Cuba as well as American sailors. In addition, baseball was played in opposition to bullfighting, perceived as the symbol of Spanish colonization. Decolonization movements used baseball as a symbol of equality and freedom. As a result, Cuban baseball was always open to black players, as opposed to the US where desegregation only occurred in 1947. So, some African American players from the Negro Leagues would migrate to Cuba to play there, in the national leagues. As Marquis notes, in the 1950s, the Cincinnati Reds even had a branch in Havana, named the Sugar Kings. All this came to an end with the Castrist revolution. This was the end of professional leagues and a return to amateur leagues. At the same time, in the context of the Cold War, Cuban baseball was also used as a provocation: beat the US at their own game.

What this all shows is that whether or not a foreign sport is adopted or rejected has a lot to do with national culture, international cultural relations. As with any type of diffusion, adopting societies might also transform the sport to their own society and change a few rules (as is the case for Japanese baseball). In any events, cultural debate determines whether the sport gets adopted (and in what form) or rejected.

Marquis emphasizes the importance of the media in these cultural discussions. Any nation wants a strong national team especially if that team can distinguish itself in a foreign sport. So, there is no singular trajectory of cultural diffusion from the originating society to the recipient society. Each cultural practice gets translated, adapted or rejected based on a variety of social and cultural factors.

9 thoughts on “The Diverse Paths of Cultural Diffusion – Baseball Edition

  1. Cool entry. I noticed NPR had a few stories recently on cultural diffusion in high school football, one of which I thought was racist in the typical liberal sense (“Young Polynesians Make A Life Out Of Football”

    Yesterday, NPR aired this story, “Exchange Students Tackle Football, English In Oregon”

    As for baseball, after Hideo Nomo made big waves back in the mid ’90s, I thought American baseball would keep taking Japan’s best players, eventually rendering Japanese baseball a watered down version of its former self (I suppose the same thing could happen in other countries). I don’t know how much MLB getting Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Irabu and other Japanese stars has hurt the game in Japan.

    That’s what killed the Negro Baseball League, which was a form of pride for African American communities prior to Jackie Robinson’s integration into MLB. As noted in your post of Cuba, the Negro Baseball League was also culturally different from MLB, but obviously, it is no more.

    • @dmayeda,

      I use these kinds of example when I ask my students whether there are such things as positive stereotypes. Is it a positive stereotype when we say “blacks are good at (name sport of your choice)”.

      The answer being, no, because the implicit part is that they’re good at athletics but suck at intellectual stuff. All body, no mind, which is rooted in the old evolutionary colonial ideology.

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  3. I would be interested to know if the economic implications of the spread of baseball are as important as the cultural implications. The amount of equipment necessary for a game of baseball as opposed to, say, soccer, has likely had some bearing on its diffusion throughout the world.

    Take, for example, this year’s Little League World Series, and the nations represented there. Of all of the nations that played in it, with the exception of a few South American countries, none are really poor.

    The only African nation at this year’s LLWS was South Africa. By comparison with its neighbors, it is a wealthy country. South Korea, Japan and China were the only SE Asian countries there while most of Europe was represented.

    • @scoff, That’s an interesting point and I don’t really know.

      However, when you look at the countries that adopted baseball, Cuba certainly did not count as wealthy when it did adopt it.

      Also, India and cricket and polo!

      Money is definitely a global issue when it comes to professional sports… and even non-professional… look at the size of Olympic delegations.

      • @SocProf,

        Thanks for the reply. I wasn’t really expecting you to have a ready answer. I just thought it was an interesting idea.

        While I’m here I want to leave a link to an article I just read. It ought to interest you as much as it did me. That’s assuming you haven’t already seen it.

        Titled “The Real Reason American Women Are So Unhappy,” it explores the factors that make American women rate 31st in the world on Dutch professor (Erasmus University in Rotterdam) Ruut Veenhoven’s World Database of Happiness.

        The link is:

        I used to see your posts on Corrente, and when you left I followed your link to this blog. I don’t comment much, but I come here regularly to read. While I’m not a sociologist myself, it doesn’t stop me from being keenly interested in, and mostly whole-heartedly agreeing with, what you have to say.

        • @scoff, thanks for the links (I need to chew on that for a while) and the comments.

          I’m glad you said that because I do not write this blog for sociologist exclusively (that would be boring for me!).

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