Larry Granillo: In Soviet Russia, Baseball Plays You

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The Cold War. An odd time when men defied all odds and invented space travel, when the way in which you eat your buttered bread could escalate into mutually assured destruction, and Sylvester Stallone could bring about world peace by being pummelled to within an inch of his life. Who doesn’t miss those days?

It was also a time in which the Soviet Union was very, very confused.

From 1935 (which is before the Cold War, of course, but still close enough to be interesting):

"Not the least interesting of recent dispatches from Russia is the announcement that the great American game of baseball is beginning to take hold in the land of the Soviets.

Already a national baseball league has been founded. Nine provincial cities have organized teams, and eight more are being organized in Moscow. A “baseball department” has been established in the supreme physical culture department, and the game is being introduced into the Red army.”

And then in 1946, under the headline “Will Russia See Threat in Baseball?”:

"Russia charges that the teaching of baseball to Germans by American occupation forces is a form of military instruction, H.I. Phillips writes in The Kansas City Star. Soviet officials, puzzled by the game, make daily studies of reports of GI world series at Frankfurt."

By 1952, the Soviets had finally figured out a way to spin it.

"Baseball is merely an English game notable only for its resemblance to a sport invented in Russia centuries ago. So the Russians say.

That observation, with denunciations of the Western world and its history, feature the new edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, of which the first seven volumes have arrived in this country.”

But things change quickly in Soviet Russia. From 1957(and written by the same H.I. Phillips mentioned above):

"Soviet Russia is introducing baseball and golf in its sports setup for youth. This can be the biggest help to world peace in years. Get the Russians onto the sandlots and into the ball parks and bleachers and they will wish to veto nothing but a few umpires.

The whole global picture could be changed if Moscow really goes for baseball. … We might have a world of understanding and goodwill today if years ago the Russians had known an Ivan (Babe) Ruthsky, a Feodor Cobb, or a Gregory (“Honus”) Wagnervish. Who can say the world would not be happier today if Joe Stalin had now and then recited “Casey at the Bat”. What a sense of relief the globe would feel if it got news that Khrushchev on his third Vodka had sung “Take me oot to the ball game”, and that Bulganin and Molotov were busy with a five-year frankfurter and roll program.”

Things got a little quiet for a decade, but, in 1970, it seemed like little progress had been made.

"Baseball, a game normally ignored here, has finally come to Russia, the sports newspaper "Soviet-Sky Sport" reported today.

But the rare attention to the American national game signaled no new channel of understanding with the United States. On the contrary, the game is identified as Cuban and brought by Cuban students to Odessa.”

We should have known that it would be Fidel Castro who would bring baseball to Russia (for the third time, is it?). It’s just a bit of a shame that the AP reporter in 1970 wasn’t as imaginative as Mr. Phillips had been 13 years before. Not that it mattered. Three years later, the Soviets were trying to re-write history again.

"The Yuris and Vasilys along Moscow’s Gorky Street never heard of Babe Ruth, but the Russians really did invent baseball, or "beizbol," as they call it. It says so on page 60 of the the "Antriklopedia Sportvania" (Sports Encyclopedia) at the Lenin Library. The claim was confirmed by a leading member of the Soviet Committee on Sports.

The ancestor of baseball, as well as English cricket, is a sport named “lapta” played by Russian peasants back in the Middle Ages.”

The prospect of baseball being added to the Olympics in 1992 made the Soviet Union take notice again in the 1980s. They gave it a shot, but it didn’t seem to take.

"Baseball came to Russia Tuesday.

But even before the first inning was over, the Soviet verdict was in on the great American pastime: “Boring,” “incomprehensible” and “not interesting.”

But when did that ever stop the Russians from trying to take credit for the sport? Less than a year later, in 1987:

"The sports writer Sergei Shachin, citing cultural historians, insists that baseball descended from an ancient Russian game called "lapta", brought by Russian emigres to California, about two centuries before the Dodgers and the Giants.

"Baseball is the younger brother of lapta," Shachin explained to the eight million readers of Izvestia. "This old, spirited game was taken to America by the first Russian settlers, and has now returned to us in a different form and with a strange, foreign name."

And don’t think the fall of the Soviet Union has caused these stories to disappear. From 2003:

"Until about 10 years ago, the Russians did not know the difference between a baseball and, as one coach put it, a bobsled. Youth baseball was nonexistent. Children here traditionally play hockey in the winter, soccer in the summer and basketball in between.

But now, there are more than 30 youth league teams for boys ages 8-16 in Moscow. And the numbers are growing around Russia and in the republics of the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, the Baltics, Belarus and Georgia, which all had the teams but not the money to send youngsters to the championships. The far east of Russia, with its proximity to Japan, also has the teams, but, alas, not the money.”

Five years later, with the IOC removing baseball from the medal sports in the Olympics, Russian baseball took another turn:

"Baseball’s exclusion from the Olympic programme after Beijing could make the game extinct in Russia just as it was starting to flourish.

"I really fear that baseball will soon die as a sport in this country," Russian baseball federation vice-president Dmitry Kiselev told Reuters in an interview.

"I think if the Soviet system had lasted another five years, then we would probably see baseball on a different level than it is today," he added, drawing a parallel with the rise of ice hockey in this country some 60 years ago."

And so it goes.

You can probably expect another “Russia invented the game of baseball” article in the next year or two, at the most. We’ll be on the lookout for it.

Larry Granillo is a writer at Baseball Prospectus and the author of the Wezen-Ball and Tater Trot Tracker blogs. From his daily home run logs to researching the date of Ferris Bueller’s visit to Wrigley Field to cataloging the complete wins & losses record of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the rest of the Peanuts gang, it’s clear that Larry can go a little crazy sometimes.


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