A long underestimated component of American culture, sports have long played an important role in American society, and they have also served as an integrative force that has helped immigrants to assimilate. It may be significant that the game of baseball, which has long been regarded as the most quintessentially American sport, has also become the team sport in which immigrants have become most prominent.
The involvement of immigrants in sports in the United States might best be understood by focusing on the country’s most popular team sports–baseball, football, and basketball.
Philadelphia Athletics baseball team in 1902. The Colombian-born second baseman Luis Castro, sitting at far left, was the first Hispanic known to play major league baseball.
The first people to play baseball regularly were laborers in metropolitan areas such as New York City and Philadelphia. The game found particular acceptance among the Irish and Italian immigrants who were flooding into the United States during the nineteenth century. Much as Civil War troops had done, members of these communities used baseball as a way to get away from work pressures.
What few people could have anticipated was that baseball games among different teams would grow into popular spectator events. Many of the earliest teams were formed on ethnic lines and were supported by fans from the same ethnic groups. However, as the quality of play improved and teams became professional, their rosters became more ethnically diverse as their managers selected players on the basis of their playing ability, rather than their ethnicity. This development broadened the fan bases of teams in their host cities.
Baseball can be seen as the sport that developed the idea of spectator sports in America, and it developed on the backs of blue-collar immigrant workers. By the late nineteenth century and the establishment of the National League, these players were being paid for their efforts. By the time that the American League had formed and Major League Baseball’s World Series was inaugurated in 1903, the sport showed that a new avenue existed for immigrants to succeed in America. Throughout much of the twentieth century, Major League Baseball was dominated by native-born American players, but many of the game’s stars were second- and third-generation members of immigrant families.
Among American sports, baseball has probably seen the biggest influx of immigrants.
Cuba was the biggest source of Hispanic players in Major League Baseball through the mid-twentieth century, but by the end of the century players from the
By the late twentieth century, baseball was being played throughout the world; however, there were only three regions in which the game was being played at its highest level: in the United States; in Latin America, especially in the Caribbean basin; and in Japan and Korea. Baseball had long held a high level of popularity in Japan, but there were few ties between American and Japanese baseball, apart from occasional goodwill tours by individual teams. Consequently, Americans had little knowledge of the caliber of Japanese baseball and tended to assume it was second-rate in comparison to American baseball.
That attitude began changing during the mid-1990’s, after pitcher Hideo Nomo became the first Japanese baseball player to enter the American major leagues on a permanent basis in 1995. Nomo’s successful career led to many more signings of Japanese and Korean pitchers. The next change in attitude came in 2001, when outfielder Ichiro Suzuki became the first Japanese position player (one who is not a pitcher) to sign with an American club. Winning both rookie of the year and most valuable player honors during his first season, Suzuki was an instant sensation. By 2009, more than forty Japanese players had played in Major League Baseball, and a dozen Korean players were on major league rosters.
As baseball gained in popularity, it spread out to other parts of the country from the major northeastern cities–the same pattern that American football would later follow. Football was also like baseball in another way, as it, too, evolved from a European game, rugby football. American football first became popular as a college sport during the late nineteenth century, which meant that many of its early players were privileged white students. However, the later popularity of the game would help it to grow beyond its narrow beginnings.
Professional football emerged during the early twentieth century. Formation of what would become the
By the early twenty-first century, the modern game of football had yet to see a wave of immigrant influence similar to those in baseball and basketball. The major immigrant influence on football teams was usually at the placekicker position because many college teams recruited soccer players from Europe and other parts of the world for their exceptional kicking skills. Otherwise, the general scarcity of immigrant players in football was at least partly due to the failure of American football to catch on in other parts of the world. Between 1991 and 2007, the
American football has, however, attracted the interest of one seemingly unlikely immigrant group:
In 1891, a doctor in Massachusetts named James Naismith looking for activities to keep his students physically in shape during the winter months invented the game of basketball. Much like football, most of the first players of this new sport were native-born white students. However, as the sport grew in popularity and moved into the professional realm, it attracted players of all ethnicities, particularly African Americans. Eventually, the game would embrace an ethnic diversity that would set it apart from other American team sports.
During the late twentieth century, professional basketball in the United States began taking on an international flavor. In contrast to baseball and football, basketball has become a truly international game. This is due in part to the introduction of the game to the Olympics during the early twentieth century and in part to the fact that game requires fewer players, less playing space, and less specialized equipment. In this regard, it compares to soccer, which is essentially a more two-dimensional version of basketball played on a larger field.
By the late twentieth century, professional leagues playing essentially the same version of basketball played in the United States were operating in virtually every region of the world, and international rivalries were being fiercely contested in the Olympic Games. As the caliber of basketball being played in other countries improved, increasing numbers of foreign players were recruited by American college teams. Many of these foreign players began being drafted by National Basketball Association (NBA) teams. By the late 1990’s, NBA teams were drafting foreign players directly from their home countries, and number one draft picks were used on players from China, Australia, Italy, and Nigeria. By 2009, more than 300 foreign players had played in the NBA, and during some seasons, more than 75 foreign players were in the league–a figure equivalent to about 20 percent of all players. Meanwhile, foreign players were influencing the American game, helping it return to its roots by reemphasizing team play.
Professional sports in America have encouraged athletes to flourish in circumstances that they might otherwise have never have seen. Foreign athletes often come to the United States seeking opportunities for better lives. While most may remain tied to their home countries and never become American citizens, they do become part of American culture and help build bridges between the United States and other nations. As other sports rise to prominence in the United States, more ties are established and cultivated.
Bale, John, and T. Dejonghe. “Sports Geography: An Overview.” Belgeo 2 (2008): 157-166. Brief but comprehensive survey of sports throughout the world. Bale, John, and Joseph Maguire, eds. The Global Sports Arena: Athletic Talent Migration in an Interdependent World. London: Frank Cass, 1994. Broad overview of international sports with particular attention to athletes who move among different countries. Cronin, Mike, and John Bale. Sport and Postcolonialism. Oxford, England: Berg, 2003. Examination of political issues relating to sports in the modern world. Goldblatt, David. The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008. Comprehensive and often entertaining history of world soccer, with considerable attention given to the game in the United States, where the game has long been important to immigrant communities. Nelson, Murry. “Sports History as a Vehicle for Social and Cultural Understanding in American History.” The Social Studies 96, no. 3 (2005): 118-125. Interesting essay that finds connections between sports and broader cultural issues. Sage, George. Power and Ideology in American Sport. 2d ed. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 1998. Broad survey of social and cultural issues in American sports, with attention to the involvement of ethnic and immigrant communities.