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Friday Book: Selling out the big game

ACCORDING TO the authorised version, 1998 was baseball's heroic season. All year, two mighty sluggers chased the record, set by Roger Maris in 1961, of 61 home runs in a season. Better still, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa seemed to incarnate the way that the US national game symbolises the American Dream.

Sosa in particular - an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, a black man, and a pious Catholic - was irresistible for preachers of the myth that baseball is the "field of dreams". To them, it is the level playing- field on which generations of immigrant boys with stout hearts and sharp reflexes have helped their fellows to begin a long, tough ascent into full acceptance in the "Melting Pot".

Baseball, traditionally, was as much the working-class game in America as football was in Durham and Lanark pit villages. A few years ago, it began to be taken over by conservative intellectuals as an icon of patriotism. The patrician George Will announced that baseball demanded "mental and moral discipline" - and that one of the more modest claims made for the game's ideological meaning by partisans of Reagan Republicanism.

Dean Chadwin's brilliant book is, among other things, a sustained Bronx cheer aimed at this conservative myth. He points out crisply that many of baseball's greatest heroes were alcoholics, adulterers or racists - sometimes all three. "If nobody on the 1998 Yankees cheated on their wives or girlfriends when they were on the road," as he puts it, "it would've been the first time in franchise history."

Chadwin cites the 1938 Yankee hero who told a reporter that, as a part- time policeman, he kept in trim by "cracking niggers over the head" during the off season. He points out that baseball's record in matters of racism is mediocre, and its claim that background did not matter, so long as you could play ball, highly dubious.

The vaunted Yankees, whose white emblem on a navy ground is innocently worn by so many boys and girls of every racial background around the world, have been historically worse than most. Even today, few black faces are to be seen at Yankee Stadium, except among concession workers.

Chadwin's book is not about baseball history, though. His real originality lies in pointing out how the immigrant's game has been corrupted by big business, big politics and big media. Today's Yankees are dominated by a trinity perfectly representing these three worlds.

The owner, George Steinbrenner ("The Boss"), is the son of a shipping mogul from Cleveland. So far from being dedicated to game or club, it is generally assumed that it will only be a matter of months before he finds a buyer and sells out. His chief efforts are devoted to persuading the city of New York - that is, its taxpayers - to pay for a new stadium for the Yankees in Manhattan.

Sitting in his home in Florida, he believes that fans don't want to go to the Yankee stadium in the Bronx because it is a poverty-stricken and largely black part of the city. True, the stadium and the urinals stink, the beer is lousy and the sandwiches are unmentionable. Steinbrenner could put that right. But it would cost money.

Big media in the world of baseball is represented by Rupert Murdoch. He is said never to have watched a baseball game before he bought the Los Angeles Dodgers, but Murdoch owns the national rights to broadcast major-league baseball, as well as local broadcasting rights to at least 22 of the 30 major clubs.

Big politics, for the Yankees, is mayor Rudy Giuliani. He wants to help Steinbrenner build his new stadium where it will attract white suburbanites (who have the money to buy boxes at almost pounds 30 a game. In part, this fits with Giuliani's compulsion to "clean up" New York, sweeping the poor and minorities out of sight along with girlie shows and street crime. In part, it is plain old-fashioned politics: an appeal to a suburban, Republican constituency with money and clout.

What do they know of baseball, who only baseball know? Chadwin debunks corporate baseball's triumphalism, pointing out that, even in the record- breaking year of '98, attendance was soggy. He also shows that wealthy clubs like the Yankees stay strong by poaching, not by developing, players, and questions how long people will want to watch wealthy favourites crushing struggling rivals.

His cheerful polemic is a telling portrait of millennial America, where an alliance of billionaire-controlled media, tame journalists and politicians desperate for both money and support from the media giants, have created a lopsided paradise. It is great for the corporate class, but not so wonderful for the people who have supplied baseball, with both its wonderfully talented players and its long-suffering fans.

Is this only a worry for Americans? You have only to murmur the two words "Manchester United" to understand what the masters of the sporting universe have in mind for our game - and all games.