In his classic American novel of 1925 The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald crafts the character Meyer Wolfsheim, a Jewish gangster who wears human molars as cufflinks. He is one of the title character’s “gonnegtions” who also happened to have fixed the 1919 World Series and, in doing so, in Fitzgerald’s worlds, “played with the faith” of the American people.
To be sure, Fitzgerald’s rather negative portrayal of the Jewish character is not a proud moment in American literary history, fueling and participating in the rampant anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment raging in the 1920s.
The literary moment is, nonetheless, revealing in the way it highlights anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant tradition in “classic” American culture alive today in America and fomented by Donald Trump with deadly effects, as we saw in the shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 and in El Paso last summer.
It is also revealing for the way it portrays the centrality of baseball as an American institution that somehow embodies the faith of the American people.
Fitzgerald’s portrayal of a crisis of faith in America linked to baseball is, it should seem obvious, strikingly relevant today. The Houston Astros, of course, were just busted through a Major League Baseball investigation for stealing signs in the 2017. Red Sox manager Alex Cora was recently fired for stealing signs as well.
We might fruitfully analyze and understand this contemporary crisis of faith in baseball, however, as really part and parcel of, perhaps motivated by, a larger crisis of faith in our political institutions, in our democracy.
While Fitzgerald created a rather charged anti-Semitic situation by having a Jewish figure play with the nation’s faith, in our contemporary moment we have in fact an anti-Semitic, profoundly racist and sexist president, Donald Trump, destroying America’s faith perhaps in both baseball and democracy.
The language of winning has been Trump’s hallmark. Win at any cost. And if you are not with him, you are against him, accounting for his vengeful streak.
Unlike other American presidents who typically assume a conciliatory tone, assuring the nation post-election that they will faithfully represent all Americans, not just those who voted for them, Trump adopted no such pose, instead notoriously playing to and placating the “United Base of America.”
He cannot, for example, celebrate a free press in America or recognize its vital role in sustaining a democratic culture. He denounces a free press because it reports the truth about his behavior, and he terms his critics “losers.” The quest for Trump is not to uphold democracy, but to eliminate stalwart institutions of democracy that threaten to undermine his popularity and power by fulfilling their roles of vigilance.
Now this win-at-all-cost mentality has seeped into baseball, again, perhaps reflecting or influenced by this attitude and behavior validated, indeed sanctioned, by the occupant of the nation’s highest office.
A game, a national pastime, that has arguably embodied the democratic spirit, now transmits and is being played according to the same lawless authoritarian principles as those the current American president espouses and governs by.
Both democracy and baseball require an acceptance and even embrace of losing. They both require and, at their best, foster an honoring of, a respect and love for, the game itself.
Conservative writer and baseball fanatic George Will explained this relationship between baseball and democracy in a 2014 interview this way:
“Baseball seems to me to be the proper game for a democracy because it’s the game of a half-loaf, no one gets everything that they want and there is an emotional amount of losing in it,” Will said. “Every team goes to spring training knowing it is going to win 60 games, knowing that it is going to lose 60 games, and they play a whole season to sort out the middle 42. If you win 10 out of 20 games you are by definition mediocre. If you win 11 out of 20 games, you win around 89 games and you have a good chance to play in October.
“It’s a game that involves a kind of maturity, a kind of emotional equipoise by its fans to understand when you go to the ballpark you can’t have your happiness depend on winning because like I said, the best team is going to lose 60 times a year. That’s why it’s the experience of the ballpark itself, it’s the experience of being in this spontaneous three-hour community of strangers who are brought together as a kind of amiable tribe for a home game at the ball park that is the reward itself more than just winning.”
Major League Baseball has responded to its crisis of faith by meting out justice to those involved in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal.
And we can all remember when baseball fans themselves meted out their own judgment of Trump during the World Series in Washington, D.C. last October, chanting “Lock him up!”
Perhaps it will be baseball through which we being to restore and revive a reverence for democracy in America.
The Republican Party continues to circle the wagons and defend, even partake in, Trump’s abusive behavior toward and destruction of American democracy.
Like Trump, the GOP simply wants to win, even if it means letting foreign powers influence our country, even it means letting Trump’s oligarchic family enrich itself while bleeding Americans and razing democratic institutions.
Maybe it will be the cultural institution of baseball and our love of game that can help us restore our national faith in our sacred institutions of democracy and come to our senses about Trump as a collective nation.
Maybe the ball park can, indeed, be the field where we re-cultivate the American dream of democracy.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.