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(Joni Dufour / McGill Institute for the Study of Canada)

Eakin fellow Robert Elias delivers lecture on baseball in hockey’s shadow

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On Nov. 29, Robert Elias gave the Fall 2018 Eakin lecture, the summary of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada’s (MISC) Eakin Visiting Fellow’s research, titled “Sports and Canadian Values: Baseball in Hockey’s Shadow” at the McGill Faculty Club. Elias, who was visiting from the University of San Francisco for Fall 2018, has written multiple books on baseball including The Empire Strikes Out and Baseball and the American Dream: Race, Class, Gender, and the National Pastime.

Before coming to McGill, Elias researched baseball’s role in American life and politics, including its use as a way to sell the American Dream around the world. Elias currently coordinates the Legal Studies program at the University of San Francisco, and has lectured on baseball to audiences including the Society for American Baseball Research.

“I had done a lot of work on sports and politics, […] particularly baseball and politics in the US,” Elias said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “Although I had done work with baseball in the Caribbean, Korea, and Japan, I really hadn’t looked much at Canada.”

Elias presented his findings in a lecture that focussed on the hidden history of baseball in Canada, which has been overshadowed by hockey. Elias pointed out that Canadians have played crucial roles in the development of the game that we know today. Babe Ruth, one of the game’s all-time greats, owes his career to Canadian priest Martin Boutilier, who introduced the Sultan of Swat to baseball. Canadian Tip O’Neill won the first-ever Triple Crown, a seldom achieved statistic handed out to players who manage to lead their league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in all in the same season.  Baseball was even Canada’s main sport for the first four decades of the twentieth century. Most significantly, the first recorded game of baseball did not take place in Cooperstown, New York, as the legend goes; instead, ballplayers first gathered in Beachville, Ontario in 1838.

The parallels between baseball and Canadian culture were of particular interest to Elias. During his presentation, Elias played a George Carlin stand-up comedy routine in which the performer contrasted the aggressive game of football with the more peaceful nature of baseball. Team collaboration is crucial to baseball, and the sport is a paragon of diversity and multiculturalism—values which Canadian culture aspires to embody.

However, hockey dominates Canada’s sporting scene, though Elias argued that it does not reflect Canadian values to the extent that baseball does.

“Baseball actually fits with Canadian culture in many ways that I think are being neglected,” Elias said. “The main other sport to look at in Canada is hockey [….] There has been a lot of criticism in recent years with what’s going on in hockey. It’s become increasingly violent [….] There is an increase in hockey goons, and there’s some sexual abuse [.…] Even some hardened supporters of hockey have said, ‘Maybe, we need to pull [hockey] back to be more in line with Canadian values.’”

Elias was quick to debunk the myth of hockey’s invention in Canada and by extension the sport’s centrality to the country’s culture. While it is the case that ice hockey was first played in Canada, it was based off of field hockey which originated in the United Kingdom.

“A lot of people claim that hockey was invented here, but it really wasn’t. It was actually invented in Britain,” Elias said. “That may not seem like a big deal, except that that’s one of the claims that a lot of supporters of hockey use to say, ‘It’s our game and that’s why it ought to be dominant’.”

Elias also believes that baseball’s relative obscurity in Canada is, in part, a political issue.

“There are certainly political issues that come up as far as how resources are allocated, that could determine the extent to which one sport is dominant over another.,” Elias said. “That would be true [in Canada] for hockey and baseball too.”

To conclude his lecture, Elias hit close to home. Donning an Expos hat, he spoke optimistically about a return to Montreal for Nos Amours. From a financial perspective, Elias believes that a well-located stadium could help bring the team back to life.

“There are all the ingredients for more baseball at the highest level […] in Canada,” Elias said. “The good news is there’s a lot of momentum to bring a team back to Montreal [….] I think that would be a great development.”

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