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Sports and Politics: America’s Pastimes

The Jewish Alliance examines baseball’s reflection of American identity in a new exhibit

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Today, national political figures regularly spar with professional athletes who use their public profiles to protest discrimination, police brutality and other issues. But the upcoming exhibit at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American (on display through December 15), reveals that contests over politics and American identity have permeated professional athletics for much longer than the last few news cycles.

“Since the nineteenth century, baseball has been an exhilarating metaphor for America, a land of so much promise and opportunity,” says Dr. Josh Perelman, co-curator of the exhibit. “And for minority communities in this country, the sport has long served as a path to learning and understanding American values, representing a shared American identity and sometimes highlighting our differences. It is, in short, a mirror of America.”

The exhibit itself manages to reflect not only the triumphs of baseball, but also the exclusion that is inseparable from American history. All of us will recognize the stories of Jackie Robinson, Hank Greenberg and other trailblazers who won a place for their communities in the national narrative through their athletic achievements. But the exhibit also captures how all the Americans involved in the game – vendors, team owners, scouts, broadcasters, journalists and novelists – helped shape what it means to be American.

Originally on display at the National Museum of Jewish American History in Philadelphia, the exhibit specifically explores the American-Jewish relationship as a tool for understanding how immigrant and minority communities viewed the game. As the Jewish Daily Forward put it in 1903, “Let your boy play baseball and play it well... Let us not so raise the children that they should grow up foreigners in their own birthplace.”

“It’s about how Jews and other minority groups became Americanized through the sport of baseball,” says Lawrence Katz, director of Jewish life and learning at the Jewish Alliance, and about how racism and sexism have impacted how baseball has developed. As the national pastime, baseball has long been far more than just a game to Americans. Chasing Dreams tells the story of why that matters.