January 3, 2007

Exit Saddam, Enter Baseball: A Look At Baseball In Iraq

Beyond being a game of historical significance, to this writer, baseball symbolizes freedom. One immediately conjures an image of Jackie Robinson donning a major league baseball uniform to defy segregation in the 1950’s. America, for all of its glory has an evil past which is uncomfortable for many to talk about. But baseball’s full potential was realized when the game was integrated. Men like Robinson fought against stereotypes, ignorance, and bigotry to play America’s Pastime.

There is a photograph of Jackie Robinson meeting with King Faisal II of Iraq. This picture was taken in 1952 after a game at Ebbets Field. The youthful King Faisal II was a baseball fan and the meeting was more than historical, it was a portent to the future.

Under Saddam Hussein, baseball and all things western were antagonistic to Saddam’s regime. One played baseball at the risk of interrogation, prison, or even torture. In a blog called Iraq4ever while discussing women’s softball in Iraq after the fall of Saddam, the author states: “The Iraqi national baseball and softball federation was established after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Hussein considered baseball a product of U.S. imperialism.”

One doesn’t need to look further than a few mouse clicks on the internet to discover that baseball has taken root in Iraq since the U.S. invasion. American soldiers have pitched in to help Iraqi children learn the game. Ismail Khalil, a Baghdad shop owner, formed the Iraqi Baseball and Softball Federation; and, according to a September, 2005 article in U.S.A. Today, “Ismael, a longtime baseball enthusiast, has worked for years to establish the sport in Iraq. In 1994, he submitted a request to the Iraqi Olympic Committee to establish a baseball team to compete against other countries. Committee members rejected the idea, saying it was "too American," he says. He spent three days in a Baghdad jail for even proposing the idea, he says.”

One must imagine the difficulty or organizing a game, much less practicing on a regular basis in Iraq today. As a parent of young children, this writer finds it stressful at times to juggle work, and chauffeuring my own children to and from their sporting events without having to worry (as Iraqis do) about suicide bombers, death squads, and “drive by” shootings. To play baseball, an American import, in any town, city, or country field in Iraq is to take your life into your hands. Many young boys and girls, men and women have been doing just that since 2003.

It is interesting to note that while Carlos Delgado, a millionaire being paid to play a game while others were risking death for doing the same, disappeared during the national anthem in protest against the war in Iraq (while a member of the Toronto Blue Jays in July, 2004). He did so while many in the country where the war he protested raged were picking up donated bats, gloves, and baseballs just to have fun at the risk of getting shot. There’s a certain amount of irony in that.

In 1952, Jackie Robinson, a citizen in a country which once practiced institutionalized slavery, sat with a King after a baseball game. Years earlier, Robinson wasn’t allowed on the field. Because of his bravery, and the boldness of a baseball franchise, he was the first African American to break the color barrier in major league baseball. In that regard, baseball became a symbol of liberty, of freedom, for all those who seek it.

Today, long after King Faisal II was assasinated in 1958, and after the removal of the brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, young Iraqis everywhere in Baghdad and across Iraq are taking up the sport. Even in 2004 when Carlos Delgado was in the clubhouse during the national anthem in protest, young people thousands of miles away in war-torn Iraq were trying to emulate him. Whether you were for or against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, as was Delgado's right to protest, these young people trying to play Delgado's game likely would be unable if Saddam was still in power.

In Robinson’s America in the 1950’s with lynchings and church burnings being a common threat, and segregation the law, many young minorites yearned to play major league baseball and Jackie Robinson lead the way. Iraq today is battle ground, and baseball is spreading, taking hold among a new generation of infielders, outfielders, pitchers, and home-run kings. Baseball is the greatest of games, and it symbolizes freedom.


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Swubird said...

Mr. Grudge:

Long time no see.

Very nice, well written article. I'd say it's worthy of publication. Baseball is a great sport. I didn't know they played it in Iraq, but I've read a lot about Saddam and I know what you mean abut how quick he was on the draw.

HAve a nice day.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Swubird,
Thanks for the kind words. At the risk of being immodest, this article was indeed published...online...at Gotham Baseball.com when they first started their website. Since then, they have moved on to bigger and better things (Good for them, they are a fine group of baseball writers) and they have no need for a blogger anymore. I changed my format and I have no interest in writing about baseball, just watching it and going to the games. But, I was proud of this piece, and this one shaped the way I write for my blog no mater what i am writing about. Once again, I appreciate your comments and kind words. When things calm down for me, I will be rolling again with Mr. Grudge, and hopefully the Midnight Wanderers.