Saturday, February 10, 2007

Book Review

National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer

By Stephan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist

This is not your usual book about football. Most soccer books that can be found in the U.S. are either lousy ghost-written autobiographies, “season with a team” narratives that rip off John Feinstein’s Season on the Brink, or books that are blatant copies of Football against the Enemy. This, however, is something different: an economic history and analysis of soccer and baseball that asks why the United States plays baseball and the rest of the world plays the beautiful game. In spite of some minor faults, National Pastime is a must read for American followers of world football.

The book begins by asking the central question of the title, that essentially boils down to asking why the U.S. plays baseball instead of soccer. The authors lay out their careful argument by explaining that because of the U.S.’s different role in relation to the rest of the world compared to Britain (essentially that the U.S. was only a colonizer after the Spanish-American War, much later than the British) as well as the different economic goals of the game (soccer was always considered as an entity closely tied to community, while baseball was intended strictly as a business) meant that baseball never really spread beyond the U.S. borders (Japan and the Caribbean being an exception) while soccer spread across the globe. If these conclusions are not groundbreaking (many authors have laid them out before), they are well explained in clear, crisp writing.

It is particularly the result of this different economic development, the authors argue, that lead to the relatively healthy state of baseball over the past century (a sport that has continued to grow and make money) while the ability of soccer to make money has, until recent decades, been questioned. The rise of satellite television and more full international competitions (like the Champion’s League) has ensured that at least European football can now make people very, very rich, and the worldwide popularity of the sport now has baseball envious as the Americans try to break into their own new markets. Soccer, by contrast, has almost nothing left to conquer, save the United States itself.

It spite of the book being essentially an economic and political history of soccer and baseball, it truly excels as a general history of the administration of the two sports. I learned quite a bit from the impressive research of the authors, particularly from their chapters on soccer in the 19th century, a topic of which I was almost totally ignorant. By explaining how many of the traditions of soccer were started more than 150 years ago (and explaining, surprisingly to me, how much the FA borrowed from National League baseball here in the states) I learned a great deal more about how and why soccer as a sport and entity acts the way it does.

Finally, for newcomers to soccer (and I myself was one only a short time ago) the book does a very good job of laying out basic concepts of the sport that are alien to many Americans, including transfers, promotion and relegation, and cup tournaments. Thus this book is very good even for those just learning about the sport.

The book is not without its flaws. In truth, the authors seem much more comfortable talking of baseball than soccer, and their final chapter, where they make recommendations for the games, seems to me to be far-fetched at best and laughable at worst. Still, this is a very fine, carefully researched, and thoughtfully argued book that is useful for anyone, and Americans in particular, who want to learn about the beautiful game. I give it my highest recommendation.

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