Yet the first baseball game organized on French soil actually took place on March 8, 1889 during the Universal Exhibition. Promoter Albert Spalding (yes, he of sporting goods fame) and two American baseball teams traveled around the world to put on baseball exhibitions; one of the French games took place near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. One might say, then, that the doughboys, both white and black, enabled baseball to be appreciated -- along with jazz ! -- on a far wider scale by the French public than before. Nevertheless, previous to the AEF there were at least two French baseball players in the Majors: Ed Gagnier, born in 1882 in Paris, who apparently played shortstop in 1914 and 1915, and Claude Gouzzie, who had one at-bat for the 1903 St. Louis Browns.
The first French team, the chicly named 'Ranelagh Baseball Club', was founded in 1913 in Paris, while the French Fédération de Baseball was founded in 1924 - the year that the Olympic Games were held in Paris. A league was even established in 1926 - the mandatory step to officialize a sport under the French system. (By the way, the reader might want to know more about the reason(s) baseball has now been eliminated from the Summer Olympics, at least for 2012. A contingent of Major League Baseball and international officials are reportedly lobbying the International Olympic Committee hard for a return in 2016.)
Of course, interest in baseball grew substantially after World War II, when troops (and their children !) on the many American military bases throughout France would gather for serious jousts on Saturdays and Sundays. Mme Amerloque recalls going to a base near Chateauroux in central France in the '50s and staring with a small child's wonder at les américains playing a strange game, governed by almost incomprehensible rules, which required a bizarre baton and oversize, misshapen gloves.
There were two ways for the American expatriate in France during the 1960s through much of the 1980s to follow the US Major League Baseball season - and all American professional sports, for that matter.
The first was to consult the sports pages of the International Herald Tribune. If one didn't have enough centimes to hand, one could hustle over to the IHT building on the rue de Berri, just off the Champs-Elysees, and read the pages displayed two by two in purpose-built windows. The second was to stay up very late, and, if the atmospheric conditions were suitable, tune into medium wave and locate an Armed Forces Network (also called the AFRTS) station broadcasting from a SHAPE base in Belgium - or, more usually, from a frontline base beyond the Rhine, in what was then West Germany.
Baseball blasted off here in France during the 1980s. For example, Japanese teams, playing in well-organized leagues, took over the Bagatelle playing field in the Bois de Boulogne on Sunday afternoons from April to October. Officials from the Consulate would come out to open the season with due ceremony; after all, each team's uniforms (and sometimes a goodly part of its sporting equipment) was heavily subsidized by one or another Japanese organization, from local restaurant to international keiretsu. French players organized leagues throughout France; somewhere along the line the slumbering Fédération de Baseball morphed into the Fédération Française de Baseball et Softball. In 1992 Sports Illustrated published a comprehensive article detailing the impressive growth of baseball in France.
Satellite and cable TV in the latter part of the 1990s made it easier to watch US football and baseball. Canal+, the first cable subscription channel, showed summaries of World Series games. More recently the Sports+ channel – available on cable – has shown important games such as the All-Star Game and the World Series.
In the autumn of 2007 a new TV station called NASN (short for North American Sports Network) became available through several cable and satellite providers. From April through October, the network broadcasts American League and National League games as well as the playoffs and World Series games – in their entirety!
Recently the NASN became ESPN America, with basically the same coverage - and sports reporters - as NASN. Last month Amerloque was quite pleased to follow the World Baseball Classic, which saw the victory of the Japanese team - their second win in a row, the first having come in the WBC inaugural event in 2006.
Philosophically speaking, of course, Japan's back-to-back victories come as little surprise to Amerloque. The vast majority of field and indoor team sports currently played involve moving a ball, or other marker such as a puck, into some sort of goal. The team is focused on moving the marker to the scoring area, whether goalpost, net, or cage. In baseball, however, the team is focused on moving an individual - not an inanimate object but a real live human being - to score. For countries such as Japan and South Korea, which pride themselves on group harmony, baseball (introduced by the American military) is a game which reflects the values of their society. It is a logical extension of their cultures, in which individual wants and needs are sacrificed somewhat for the benefit of the group at large.
Amerloque has attended baseball games in France from time to time. Not only are there French players, but Venezuelans, Cubans, Koreans, Dominicans, Canadians, Panamanians, Japanese, Americans and, of course, Italians. The game is particularly well developed in Italy: apparently American soldiers working in burial details at the cemetery in Anzio, after the battles in 1944, would recruit local youths to help out - and taught them to play baseball on their breaks.
What's missing, of course, from every game played on French soil, is the players' chatter, crowd background noise and organ music. There is no seventh inning stretch, either. Finally, real hot dogs - especially footlong chili dogs - are unfortunately absent as well. Mme Amerloque usually prepares a few hotdogs and some fixins' ahead of time: real buns can be found in Paris if one looks hard enough, but genuine Oscar Mayer franks are unavailable here, to Amerloque's knowledge. The Amerloque family uses a small blue Camping Gaz device to bring water to a boil and cook the wieners and heat the chili on the spot.
No longer does the Parisian-American find Dick Roraback's unforgettable opus 'Crack of a Bat' published in the IHT on opening day of the US baseball season, as it was for many, many years. The New York Times has swallowed the old IHT hook, line, and sinker, and its masthead makes no bones about it ('The Global Edition of the New York Times') - in spite of management's pious bleating to the contrary immediately after the heavy-handed takeover several years ago.
Dick Roraback, who passed away in 1998, was Sports Editor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris from 1957 to 1972. He reportedly penned his poem when seated at the storied Café de la Paix, over near the American Express office on the rue Scribe, near the Palais Garnier which houses the Opéra de Paris.
THE CRACK OF A BAT
Away on this side of the ocean
When the chestnuts are hinting of green
And the first of the café commandos
Are moving outside for a fine
And the sound of spring beats a bolero
As Paree sheds her coat and her hat
The sound that is missed more than any
Is the sound of the crack of a bat.
There’s an animal kind of feeling
There’s a stirring down at Vincennes Zoo
And the kid down the hall’s getting restless
Taking stairs like a young kangaroo
Now the dandy is walking his poodle
And the concierge sunning her cat
But the heart’s with the Cubs and the Tigers
And the sound of the crack of a bat.
In the park on the corner run schoolboys
With a couple of cartons for props
Kicking goals à la Fontaine or Kopa
While a little guy chikies for cops
“Goal for us,” “No it’s not,” “You’re a liar,”
Then the classical shrieks of a spat
But it’s not like a rhubarb at home plate
Or the sound of the crack of a bat.
Here the stadia thrill to the scrumdowns
And the soccer fans flock to the games
And the chic punt the nags out at Longchamp
Where the women are dames and not dames
But it’s different at Forbes and at Griffith
The homes of the Buc and the Nat
Where the hotdog and peanut share laurels
With the sound of the crack of a bat.
No, a Yank can’t describe to a Frenchman
The rasp of an umpire’s call
The continuing charms of statistics
Changing hist’ry with each strike and ball
Nor the self-conscious jog of the slugger
Rounding third with the tip of his hat
Nor the half-smothered grace of a hook slide
Nor the sound of the crack of a bat.
Now, the golfer is buffing his niblick
And the tennis buff’s tightening his strings
And the fisherman’s flexing his flyrod
Like a thousand and one other springs
Oh, the sports on both sides of the ocean
Have a great deal in common, at that
But the thing that’s not HERE
At this time of the year
Is the sound of the crack of a bat.
Today is opening day in the USA, and readers of these lines can bank on several things this year: after reading 'Crack of a Bat' to a few close American and French friends invited over for the occasion, Amerloque will invite them to watch a game on ESPN America on TV. During the seventh inning stretch, Mme Amerloque will bring out and serve her astoundingly tasty hotdogs. Ice-cold root beer and Dr Pepper will be offered as well, but in all these years Amerloque has never seen a French person drink more than a (very) few polite sips. Yet more testimony to cultural differences !