Armed American forces have fought in 85 out of the 194 countries in the world (excluding the United States itself) or 44 percent of the total. Through the course of this amazing history, filled as it is with heroic liberations and a few tragic blunders, we Americans have had one undeniable achievement — we have exported the game of baseball around much of the world.
The Romans built gladiatorial arenas throughout their empire. The Brits introduced the sports of rugby and cricket to the one-quarter of the globe their empire occupied. The deployment of baseball-loving Americans serving in the US military around the world has spread our national pastime far and wide. And the spread of “American Baseball Imperialism” got off to a very early start.
Abner Doubleday, the legendary “inventor” of baseball, served in the First Regiment of Artillery in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American war from 1846 to 1848. Perhaps he played a pickup game or two while in Mexico?
American soldiers have taken baseball with them on campaigns to some of the remotest corners of the earth. In the spring of 1919, the Polar Bear brigade was deployed by President Woodrow Wilson to Archangel in northern Russia where they also played baseball.
A visitor to the Battleship Texas near Houston will find a poignant reminder of the cost of baseball imperialism. In a display case there is a baseball, an old glove and a photo from a game played on April 15, 1936, on a Pacific island between the crew members of the Texas and the ill-fated Arizona that was sunk by the Japanese Dec. 7, 1941.
By the time World War II broke out baseball was firmly ingrained in the national consciousness. Many famous players such as Stan Musial and Hank Greenberg volunteered to serve their country in the armed services. Ted Williams, or affectionately known as “Teddy Ballgame” in baseball circles, trained pilots as a Marine aviator in World War II. Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, joined the U.S. Army Air Force in 1943. His Red Sox brother Dom served in the U.S. Navy.
In Operation Torch, the 1942 invasion of North Africa, American troops would use challenge and countersign: ‘Brooklyn?’/‘Dodgers.’ ‘Brooklyn?’/‘Dodgers.’” Later sentries would bark the password challenge “Three?” and would be answered with the countersign: “Strikes!”
Some of the more fortunate American prisoners of war in German camps even had an opportunity to play some baseball while in captivity. Who can forget Steve McQueen throwing his baseball against the wall while stuck in the “cooler” in the film, “The Great Escape?”
After the victory against Nazism was finally won, Americans would celebrate by playing baseball in occupied Europe. In the final moments of Steven Spielberg’s HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers,” the paratroopers of Easy Company relax by playing a game of baseball in Zell am See, Austria. Major Dick Winters, of the 101st Airborne, had ordered the construction of a baseball diamond in this alpine paradise.
Americans even used baseball to exorcise the demons of Nazism in the very belly of the beast — building a baseball stadium in the Hitler Youth Stadium at Nuremberg. The site of so many Nazi rallies was transformed into “Soldier’s Field” and the European Theatre of Operations (ETO) World Series, featuring many major leaguers in uniform, was organized there in September 1945.
Over and over again, countries that have been occupied by American forces have turned into baseball playing countries. In 1898 soon after Admiral Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay and just weeks after the arrival of American troops, the first baseball was played in the Philippines. In 1956, Bobby Balcena, of the Cincinnati Redlegs, became the first Filipino to play in the majors. Today the Filipinos have a league of their own featuring teams such as the Manila Sharks.
Baseball was first introduced to Japan in 1872 by Horace Wilson, an American educator in Tokyo. The American occupation of Japan, which followed World War II, helped to vastly spread the popularity of the game. Ichiro Suzuki initiated a flood of Japanese talent into major league baseball.
Baseball first came to Cuba in the 1860s with the arrival of American sailors making port calls and Cuban college students returning from studies in America.
The young Fidel Castro was a gifted athlete who sought a career in baseball. In 1949, the lanky Cuban was offered a contract by the New York Giants, which he declined. Just how might Cuban-American relations have differed if Castro had opted to join the show?
Major League baseball is expected to start playing spring training in Cuba in the Spring of 2016.
Jackie Robinson famously broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947. In 2012, Donald Lutz, an outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds, broke another barrier, becoming the first German-developed player to play in the major leagues. Lutz has an American GI dad and a German mom. The diamond that Major Dick Winters of Easy Company built in Austria in 1945 is paying off baseball dividends in the 21st century.
How many years will we need to wait before we see an Iraqi outfielder or an Afghan pitcher in the majors? It may not be as long as we think. Baseball has clearly become a global sport thanks to the presence of the American forces around the world.
Christopher Kelly is co-author of “America Invades: How We’ve Invaded or Been Militarily Involved with Almost Every Country on Earth.” He lives in Seattle and London and is a Mariner fan.