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Elias shows how baseball exported 'American Way'

"The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad" (The New Press, 418 pages, $27.95), by Robert Elias:

Contrary to popular opinion in the U.S., the young Fidel Castro wasn't one of Cuba's best pitchers and was never offered contracts by American scouts. In fact, U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy once suggested that his lack of a big-league arm was a key reason Castro came to hate the U.S.

"An aspiring pitching ace spurned," McCarthy said, "can be a dangerous man with a long memory."

Robert Elias, author of "The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad," exhaustively documents how baseball can be a dangerous sport — even though Castro himself remains an avid fan.

Elias, who teaches law and politics at the University of San Francisco, shows how the game has been used to bully overseas culture as much as Washington's foreign policy sometimes does, from its unabashed cheerleading of U.S. military incursions to its propaganda value, expansionist, free-market business model and promotion as a way of pacifying U.S. protectorates in Asia and the Caribbean.

Among dozens of examples: How Washington-backed Contras attacked truckloads of native hardwoods headed to Nicaraguan baseball bat factories so the Sandinistas couldn't use the game to boost morale, and how, when it looked like the U.S. and Mexico might go to war in 1921, President Warren G. Harding sent big leaguers on a goodwill tour south of the border.

Elias has written both fiction and nonfiction about baseball and his love for the game shines through. But he also doesn't hold back (or maybe steps up to the plate?), indicting America's pastime for aligning itself with political conservatives and the military, and becoming a tool for globalization.

He tells a compelling story made more vivid by thorough research and authoritative writing, even if some of his conclusions seem a bit over the top.

Baseball fans will love the martial anecdotes throughout the book. During the War of 1812, a game among American prisoners ended in tragedy when a long hit prompted players to enlarge a hole in a wall to retrieve the ball, and English authorities, thinking they were trying to escape, killed seven of them.

Union and Confederate soldiers tossed a ball back and forth across Civil War front lines. Lights the Chicago Cubs planned to erect at Wrigley Field for the 1942 season were donated to the war effort, helping ensure the team would not play night games there until 1988. And soldiers from the 116th Infantry Regiment Yankees won the "World Series" of U.S. European Theater Operations forces during World War II.

As the sport gained popularity, American firms organized teams overseas to discourage labor unrest and distract employees from vices like booze and prostitutes. Some places weren't so opposed to "baseball colonization," however, since the game evolved and flourished — even becoming part of the national identity in Cuba, Japan and the Dominican Republic.

Also, some readers may not be comfortable with the notion that the U.S. is an empire. One of the book's themes is that baseball has promoted the American dream around the globe, something many may applaud, not decry.

Still, Elias revisits many ugly episodes, such as the Baseball Hall of Fame's decision to cancel a 2003 celebration marking the 25th anniversary of film classic "Bull Durham" after stars Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins publicly opposed the war in Iraq.

Indeed, Elias explains how the Hall of Fame fed a myth about the uniquely American origins of baseball.

How the sport came into being is unclear, but it likely grew out of the British game Rounders. Former pro baseball player turned sporting-goods mogul Albert Spalding set out to establish a fully American origin for it, however, and convened a commission that found that baseball was invented in 1839 by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Elias writes that the story is impossible since Doubleday was a cadet living at West Point, not Cooperstown, that year. But the shrine to baseball was formally dedicated in Cooperstown in 1939 — marking the place and 100th anniversary of Doubleday's dubious invention of the sport.