Baseball: The All-Native-American Game

Choctaw and Lakota stick-ball players-- predecessors to the modern game of baseball? Perhaps! Source:

Ah, baseball season has arrived, and I couldn’t be happier. I haven’t watched many major league games on TV yet, but just seeing kids warm up in the park, catching those wild-eyed too-early-to-tell predictions on the radio, thinking about all those men in pinstripes, makes me feel like fizz in a freshly cracked can of beer. Much like my love for old-timey country music, I constantly feel this pressure to explain why I, one who so often rallies against the American mainstream, would be so in love with America’s national past time.

For while football, with its great commercial possibilities, has risen to the top spot of late, the original sport chosen to symbolize the American soul was baseball. It came to define everything this great nation held dear: the national anthem, hot dogs, racial segregation, etc.

It is also a classic display of America’s complete self-obsessiveness in that the championship series of baseball is called the World Series even though almost all the teams are American (and that one from Canada). Pretty small conception of what constitutes the “world”, don’t you think? Of course, that doesn’t mean American franchises don’t rely on people of color to generate their profits. While players such as Albert Pujols, Mariano Rivera, David Ortiz, Jose Reyes are all amazing in their own right, it says a lot that the only way for them to compete at a high level is to come work for American companies. Baseball may no longer be a sport of American-born citizens but it certainly is a healthy industry for many.

Though there are only three tribally-enrolled Native players in the MLB, that is still more professional Native players than there are in the NBA and NFL, combined. Those three players are one of the big reasons I love to love baseball. They include Kyle Lohse, starting pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and of the Wintun Nomlaki tribe of Northern California; Joba Chamberlain pitcher for the New York Yankees and of the Ho-Chunk tribe; and lastly the baseball man of my heart, Jacoby Ellsbury center fielder for the Boston Red Sox and of the Navajo Colorado River tribe. All three Native MLB players have been hugely valuable for their teams. Ellsbury had a fantastic year last season and Lohse opened this season with an eight inning no-hitter. These players may not just be creating a new tradition of Native baseball, some believe they may actually be continuing a tradition started long ago.

Baseball has a strange origin story that is not surprisingly (when one considers it is the mirror of America) linked to the Civil War, the event that fomented America’s consolidated sovereign power. For a long time and for no reason the man who fired the first shot at Ft. Sumner, Abner Doubleday, has also been credited with creating the game of baseball. Doubleday never even laid claim to this himself and it is widely believed that the game was played well before his invented invention. Many historians have traced baseball back to English stick and ball games that were brought over the pond, though hard-headed Americans have insisted that baseball has nothing to do with those European variations.

According to LeAnne Howe, author of Miko Kings:An Indian Baseball Story, the game may be more indigenous to America than most Americans realize. In her historical novel, she looks back to stick-and-ball games played by the Choctaws long before Abner Doubleday was around. Using this tribal history as her foundation, the book centers on the Miko Kings team of Ada, Oklahoma in the year 1907– the same year Oklahoma became a state. They are gearing up for a showdown with their archenemies the Seventh Cavalrymen for the Twin Territories Pennant, while also bracing themselves for the incorporation of Indian Territory into the Union and the privatization of much Choctaw land. Like a good baseball game, the drama centers around a cast of quirky characters, from the wild-armed pitcher to the amateur quantum physicist Ezol, the team’s biggest follower.  Told through the eyes of Ezol, a female survivor of boarding schools and the tribe’s visionary historian, and Lena Coulter, a contemporary Choctaw writer cut off from her people, the book becomes an attempt to write back in an erased history and re-invent the ways history can be told or made.

It can be an instructive book not only as a glimpse at how the greatest game on Earth was played at the turn of the century but also as a reminder that the things that seem the most “American” sometimes only seem that way due to processes of seizure and erasure. Or if we want to stop thinking about American colonialism for a night, we can as Crash Davis says in Bull Durham, “Relax! Let’s have some fun out here! This game’s fun, OK? Fun goddamnit.”


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