This past spring, I took a class called “America and the National Pastime,” more colloquially known as “History of Baseball.” It consisted of 12 weeks of glorious history, tracing baseball back to its origins — no, not the ones that involved Abner Doubleday — and culminated in an absolute opus of a 45-page research paper called “Scapegoat and Society: An Analysis of Ritual Blaming Practices in Major League Baseball.”
The paper tied together my religion major with my love for baseball, and rather than let it disintegrate atop the stack of collegiate papers, I figured I’d share it, one chapter at a time.
The entire paper can be read here, courtesy of Scribd. But for now, the Preface. Chapter 1 (The Origins of the Scapegoat) will come tomorrow.
We exist in a society that loves to deflect blame onto others. Inside and outside the sports world, we constantly operate under the assumption that erroneously deflecting culpability will somehow absolve ourselves of all guilt. This selfish mentality allows us to rest easy, to sleep at night knowing our problems have been passed onto others. “It is someone else’s problem now,” we think, thereby rationalizing a decidedly irrational situation. But what about those onto whom we have passed the blame? What about scapegoating, the ubiquitous practice of singling out a singular individual onto whom all our problems are placed? When frantically attempting to rid ourselves of guilt, we often forget about those we have wronged in the process.
The practice of scapegoating can be traced back to Biblical texts, to the Old Testament and the book of Leviticus. Religious scholars like René Girard have written extensively about the scapegoat and its connections to human behavior. But somewhere along the line, notions of the scapegoat superseded their religious or psychological origins and transitioned into the everyday sports lexicon. Scapegoating is no longer about righting our moral wrongs through religious means; it has transformed into righting the wrongs of those on our favorite sports teams whom we feel have personally let us down. Longtime Boston manager Terry Francona was fired in early October because the spotlight fell on the expendable scapegoat, held responsible by both the Red Sox fan base and front office for the team’s 9.5-game collapse late in the season that cost Boston the American League Wild Card. Players will get blamed on an micro level, for blowing a late-inning lead or for committing a crucial error, but these all occur in single games, and Boston blew a lead over the course of an entire month. Someone had to be labeled the scapegoat for the team’s failure to hold a lead. Terry Francona, I wrote in my Oct. 4 column for the Tufts Daily, was the unfortunate rule, not the exception.
When the team suffers a loss, especially at a key point in the season, one person is often blamed even though other players – or the whole team, for that matter – could easily be held just as culpable.
Scapegoating is a curious practice, one that can ultimately be explained by human nature. For, as Sir James Frazer wrote, “Because it is possible to shift a load of wood, stones, or what not, from our own back to the back of another, the savage fancies that it is equally possible to shift the burden of his pains and sorrows to another, who will suffer them in his stead.”
To that end, scapegoating is also ritualistic, and is deeply engrained in our daily behavior. As long as societies have existed, so too has ritual blaming, for we rarely face our own faults but readily pass blame onto others. By taking the responsibility of blame for bad things occurring to a group, a “scapegoat can make it possible for the group to continue to function.” We would rather shoulder the burden onto an innocent soul than accept that we wronged. And in a culture so obsessed with sports as in America, athletes and coaches often undertake the brunt of our relatively meaningless anger. After all, it is only a game, right? Perhaps, but in the case of many, scapegoating has defined lives and ruined careers, all because of one mistake.
In this paper, I will attempt to link such blaming practices to four of baseball history’s most famous scapegoats, all of whom have had their lives defined by one specific play in which they cost their respective teams an important victory. Fred Merkle’s “Boner” in the early twentieth century cast a humble youngster aside as baseball’s original scapegoat. Fred Snodgrass committed a common error in dropping a fly ball, but the mistake helped the Red Sox win the 1912 World Series and haunted him until his death. Bill Buckner committed perhaps the most famous error in history, an E-3 that forced the Hall of Fame-caliber first baseman to shoulder the burden of an entire Red Sox nation for 18 years. Steve Bartman, he of the turtleneck, headphones and glasses, represents the ultimate outsider after getting blamed for continuing the Chicago Cubs’ long-lasting curse just years ago by doing what all fans in his situation would have done.
All four men, despite their other various accomplishments, will forever be associated with their blunders, an unfortunate reality that nonetheless provides ample case studies for analyzing the causes and effects of scapegoating practices within Major League Baseball. For if the sport is labeled America’s National Pastime, blaming has apparently developed into a close second.