Thomas F. Carter. The Quality of Home Runs: The Passion, Politics, and Language of Cuban Baseball. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. 239 pp. $79.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-4253-3; $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-4276-2.
Reviewed by Gregg P. Bocketti (Transylvania University)
Published on H-Caribbean (September, 2009)
Commissioned by Audra Abbe Diptee (Carleton University)
Arguments of Identity and of Power in Cuban Baseball
Remaining significantly underexamined despite growing scholarly interest, understanding of Caribbean and Latin American sport has obtained a useful and welcome contribution from Thomas F. Carter in the form of his The Quality of Home Runs. In the book, based primarily on close ethnographic fieldwork the author conducted in Havana in the late-1990s, Carter shows that Cubans use baseball to argue over both Cuba and cubanidad (Cubanness), neither of which can be considered homogenous nor fixed. Thus Cuba “floats,” existing not only on the island but away from it as well, serving as an idea and touchstone for islanders and for migrants and their descendants. Similarly, while historical and contemporary, urban and rural, and native and migrant Cubans share a language (calidad, lucha) about what constitutes the Cuban and what ought to constitute Cuban baseball, that shared language, far from closing down debate, merely establishes space for meaningful argument. Rarely resolved, such arguments, which seem to be about balls and strikes, runners out or safe, or a manager’s decision to replace a pitcher, help shape relationships of power and of identity, reminding us of the potential significance of sport in Cuba and beyond.
Unsurprisingly, much of the literature heretofore produced on Cuban sport has centered on the role of the revolutionary state in developing (or underdeveloping) baseball on the island (see, for example, S. I. Price’s Pitching around Fidel  or Milton Jamail’s Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball ). While Carter, too, attends to the importance of the relationship between the Cuban state and Cuban baseball, he resists portraying the state as somehow above or apart from society, instead presenting it as a series of relationships that must be constantly engaged in the service of maintaining power. Carter can thus offer a more nuanced and more complex approach than many. On the one hand, he shows that baseball structure and baseball arguments have served to reinforce the dominance of Fidelista leaders, who staked their claim to Cubanness early on by embracing and molding the sport. On the other hand, however, Carter argues that Cuban baseball, from the Cuban national team to children playing informally, is truly participatory, counting on players, managers, journalists, and spectators both on and away from the island. For Carter, this means that power’s relationship must be continually renewed and negotiated, lest the connections between official actors and the community be severed, which could jeopardize the former’s claims to leadership not only of baseball but also of Cuba.
While the reader sometimes wishes for more exposition about the specific relations between and roles of these various actors within the baseball community, Carter offers something more than a standard institutional study (for such, see Roberto González Echevarría’s Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball ). Indeed, the strongest parts of the work concern actors often ignored, and, as the author notes, often misrepresented: spectators. Carter stresses that Cuban fans, far from passive, are active and vital participants in the creation of the Cuban baseball spectacle. In two excellent chapters, “Fans, Rivalries, and the Play of Cuba” and “Talking a Good Game,” Carter examines the culture and the language of Cuban spectators, drawing on historic and contemporary examples to demonstrate that it is Cuban baseball fans who create the environment of the games (lo ambiente); who debate “the quality of home runs”; in short, who give Cuban baseball its meaning. That meaning, he stresses, has to do not only with state power but also with what it means to be Cuban, and it is spectators, more than state actors, journalists, or players themselves, who argue about and define cubanidad. As they assert a preference for this or that team, one player over another, or for a particular playing style, Carter shows, they are also expressing a preference for particular social and cultural identities for Cuba and Cubans. These identities have deep historical roots, but they are constantly debated and negotiated in modern Cuba, so that, for example, whiteness, urbanity, and masculinity continue to be clearly preferred by the fans Carter examines. Class status, for its part, for a time emphasized less than it had been by the first generations of baseball enthusiasts, has reemerged as an area of contention during Cuba’s “Special Period.”
Carter’s presentation of Cuban spectators as active and passionate participants in the making of the sporting spectacle will be familiar to students of Caribbean and Latin American sport, and Carter reminds the reader that we must reinsert Cuba into the regional and global context from which discourse surrounding the revolution and its aftermath have so often removed it. Given this vital awareness, it is surprising that Carter does not do more to draw attention to Cuba’s regional context and to comparative experiences in the Caribbean and Latin America, which might have enriched his argument. This might include consideration of Janet Lever’s work on Brazilian fans, which, while dated, is the work most nearly related to Carter’s in terms of its close, sustained attention to spectatorship (especially Soccer Madness: Brazil’s Passion for the World’s Most Popular Sport ). Closer to Cuba, some of the best work yet produced on modern sport has been dedicated to examination of West Indian cricket, which shares many characteristics with the community Carter describes, from the significance of sport in shaping masculinity, to the importance of spectatorship, to the prominence of sport in arguments about national identity. Unfortunately, Caribbean cricket culture receives little attention in The Quality of Home Runs.
Still, from time to time Carter does draw attention to studies of such experiences, citing, for example, Eduardo Archetti’s important work on Argentine soccer; and his fuller engagement with theoretical contributions, from Umberto Eco to Norbert Elias, situates his work as a touchstone for future studies of sport not simply in the Caribbean and Latin America but beyond. In the opposite direction, while Carter’s focus is on broad concepts of identity, nationality, and state power, and though he draws evidence not only from his fieldwork in Cuba but also from various historical periods and from various locations, the author accomplishes his examination of Cuban baseball without losing sight of the people--players, politicians, fans, and others--who enter into the field of play to argue over the island’s past, present, and future and what it means to be Cuban. From Martín Dihigo, the quintessential baseball migrant, to Cotorro, one among the vital regular spectators at Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano, to a player whose fraught experience in a regional youth game demonstrates Cubans’ complex notions of playing and personal calidad, Carter consistently impresses on the reader that it is personality and individuality, rather than impersonal fixity, that form and reform Cubans’ notions of baseball, of the island, and of their political, social, and cultural selves.
: The Passion, Politics, and Language of Cuban Baseball (Duke, 2008)
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Gregg P. Bocketti. Review of Carter, Thomas F., The Quality of Home Runs: The Passion, Politics, and Language of Cuban Baseball.
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