Sports are like religious rituals: they reflect and instill cultural beliefs and practices. For example, the 24-second shot clock in basketball clearly reflects the fast pace of our era. So what about the slide in baseball? How does it resonate with contemporary American culture?
I think sliding reflects American ambivalence about social authority. Baseball players dress up in formal clothes, as if they're going to church or court—and then they throw themselves in the dirt.
That's the tension at the heart of both baseball and American society: respect vs. disdain for authority. Respect the rules, but kill the ump. Get dressed up, but throw yourself in the mud. Sliding is controlled social rebellion.
This social symbolism becomes more obvious when you think about the formality of the baseball uniform: white pants, a belt, a shirt with buttons all the way up the front. The impracticality of this uniform, and its extreme formality by comparison with most other sports uniforms, throws into relief baseball's social meaning.
|Flickr, Ewen and Donabel.|
Most other sports won't even permit you to wear a belt (draw strings hold up pants just fine, actually better than most belts), yet baseball requires a belt. And as Paul Lukas noted on ESPN, "Once you stop and think about it...a button-front format doesn't make much sense for a sports uniform. For starters, a button-up shirt is more awkward to move around in, plus it's more formal, less sporty. That's why you wear a button-front shirt to work and some sort of pullover (T-shirt, sweatshirt, tank top, whatever) at home and on the weekend." Lukas also notes that button-up designs lead to weird problems like billowing and unaligned lettering on the front of jerseys, yet despite these problems and the viability of good alternatives, such as pull-overs, zippers, or laces, the major leagues have almost always used buttoned jerseys since the 19th century.
I would add that the persistence of formal uniforms and sliding in baseball can't be due to mere tradition. Over the years, baseball has made plenty of innovations, from the advent of batting helmets and night games to adjusting the pitcher's mound height and so on; yet the baseball uniform never lost its basic formality, and players never stopped sliding. If getting dirty in nice clothes hadn't felt right—if it hadn't continued to resonate with American ambivalence about authority—sliding probably would have been phased out a long time ago.
Instead, sliding in a uniform still feels so right that it's hard to imagine baseball without it. As Rickey Henderson of the Oakland Athletics once said, "If my uniform doesn't get dirty, I haven't done anything in the baseball game" (quoted in Diamonds Forever, W.P. Kinsella editor, p. 121).
In fact, the slide was a novelty when first introduced in the mid-1800s and many people opposed it, arguing that players should be allowed to overrun every base rather than sliding. This is how the crowd reacted to one of the first recorded slides, during an 1859 game in Portland, Maine: "the feat fairly astonished the natives, who at first roared with laughter, but Chandler scored the run, and they then woke up to the fact that a large, new and valuable 'wrinkle' had been handed out to them" (quoted in Peter Morris's excellent book, A Game of Inches: The Stories That Shaped Baseball, p. 265).
This early phase in baseball history reminds us that there are alternative ways to reach the bases without sliding, just as basketball could be played without a shot clock. Not every sports rule or practice has social significance, but it seems fair to say sliding does.
Related Posts about Baseball:All posts about baseball, including posts on the foul ball, the catch and sharing, feeling good in crowds, and basketball vs. baseball.
All posts about Field of Dreams (and baseball), including posts on ALS, moonlight, and Jackie Robinson.
10-Second Video of a Little League Player Stealing 2nd Base While the Pitcher's Not Looking: