Helping Baseball Take Root in Russia
Most people believe baseball to be an American sport. In the late 1950's, however, a Soviet periodical maintained that before Abnor Doubleday invented the great American pastime, Russian immigrants introduced the game of lapta to Americans and Canadians alike. Many years later, they argued, it was reintroduced back to its native country, under the foreign name of "baseball" . Whether this is true or not is up for debate, but what can be deduced is that Russia has had a more invested relationship with the sport of baseball than we might think.
Russia has had an extensive baseball history over the course of the sport's existence. In the early 18th century, Russia had nearly full control over baseball production in the United States. Practically all baseballs at the time were made from the horsehide of a specific breed of Tatar horse, indigenous to Russia, and exported to the States for use in ball production . After WWII, the U.S. Army and Navy adopted a plan to outfit 1,000 Russian teams with baseball equipment and uniforms. Through their baseball endorsement, they hoped to foster a comradeship with citizens and sportsmen. At the time, a man was quoted for saying, "The rulers of Russia are not to be confused with the people of Russia. We must treat the rulers with fairness and firmness, but we must treat the people as fellow human beings and friends".  Due to the rise of the Cold War, however, their endeavors were cut short, and baseball was temporarily abandoned until the period of Glasnost made conditions more favorable.
Although the sport had been adopted multiple times in Russia by various individuals, it only received official support in the 1980's. Just before the International Olympic Committee added baseball to the list of Olympic sports, the Soviet Union declared baseball an official Soviet sport. From that point on, there has been a steady, growing interest in the game from Russian citizens and sportsmen. Today, within the city of St. Petersburg, the sport of baseball is supported by three main organizations: the St. Petersburg Baseball Federation (NGO, http://spbbaseball.com), the North Stars St. Petersburg Baseball Club (NGO), and the Vyborzhanin Sports School (an after-school sports program funded by the St. Petersburg city government) .
In April of 2011, representatives of these three organizations traveled to the United States to observe the institutions, training methods, and organizational constructs of the baseball industry there. The U.S. Department of State sponsored the trip under the auspices of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission. The U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Institute of International Education in Washington, D.C., organized meetings, master classes, and other program events. Throughout their tour, the Russian baseball professionals visited the organizations of Major League Baseball (http://mlb.mlb.com), Little League Baseball (http://www.littleleague.org), and the Academy of Cal Ripken (http://www.ripkenbaseball.com), dedicated to one of the famed heroes of American baseball history.
Now that they have seen American-style baseball in person, the program participants are now ready and excited to "take the field" for St. Petersburg baseball development. The benefit of the program for most of the Russian coaches was to take a step back and to observe the sport from an outsider's perspective. In this sense, participants were able to detect baseball's social effects, its sources of funding, and the appropriate methods by which to guarantee its growth and survival.
A few of the participants' primary take-away lessons:
- Baseball in the United States would not have developed if not for volunteers: The participants admitted the most surprising thing they learned about baseball in the U.S. is that it thrives off of the work of volunteers. On top of this, parents of baseball players comprise a large percentage of that volunteer population. Many parents of young baseball players used to play the game when they were young, and therefore attach great significance to its development and survival. Moreover, parents often work as coaches for young sportsmen - this was a huge surprise for the Russian delegation, and is something they hope to implement in St. Petersburg.
- The climate in the U.S. inspires baseball professionals to create more enduring fields and build indoor facilities: The Russian participants found that the regions of the U.S. where the program took place have similar climates to St. Petersburg: players can only train and play outside in late spring, summer, and early fall. For the rest of the year, teams have to practice inside. One might think that spacious facilities would be needed. However, the participants saw rather small facilities that could accommodate several dozens of players at one time. They took into account different ways of hanging nets and placing baseball training equipment in order to fit more people into a smaller indoor facility. As for the baseball fields and stadiums, the participants noticed that American professionals tend to choose artificial ground. Though more expensive, the materials are more durable than natural earth, and will prove their worth through endurance.
- Baseball in the U.S. has to compete with other kinds of sports: It was a surprise for the Russian participants to learn that baseball in the U.S. - the sports symbol of the country - has to compete with American football, basketball, and even soccer. American baseball professionals noted that it is easier to give children a basketball or a football and let them play; as for baseball, coaching is required. In Russia, the situation is very similar: the most popular sport is soccer because it is affordable and comparatively easy to play. It is very difficult to attract children to baseball when other sports seem more accessible. The participants had a chance to discuss these issues with their American counterparts and took away a host of ideas.
- Baseball teams of different levels in the U.S. get funding from businesses: The participants learned that baseball in the United States is usually funded by private sponsors. For Russian baseball professionals who have lived in a country where the sports sphere is often funded by the government (despite the development of a market economy), it was an interesting lesson. They learned that they can invite local businesses to support baseball teams, in turn providing the businesses with advertisement space in stadiums and on players' T-shirts.
- Baseball in the U.S. plays an important social function: The Russian baseball professionals were introduced to the Children First Movement in Baltimore, which attracts children from families at risk, and provides those children with baseball opportunity and education. By promoting the images of famous American baseball players like Cal Ripkin, the organization creates positive role models for children who may be in need of better guidance. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, less attention has been paid to youth involvement in sports. Based on this, and based on the high cost of sports equipment, many children are unengaged in sports activities, have nothing to do after school, and have the potential to become children at risk. With an organization modeled after the Children First Movement, the Russian participants want to use baseball as a partial solution to this problem.
Ideas have already sprouted in the minds of the program participants. One of the coaches remarked that, "literally several days after returning from the U.S., I started to translate the materials we were presented on the program. Moreover, all of the coaches who participated in the program have already included training exercises they learned about in the U.S. in their training sessions for kids... Having analyzed the development of various Russian baseball teams and leagues, I understood that we will be able to bring baseball to a new level in St. Petersburg with thorough work and the knowledge we received in the U.S." American baseball infrastructure is on the forefront of Russian coaches' agendas. One coach hoped to, "conduct training sessions in the American manner, i.e. in a "free" atmosphere", while another confirmed, "The American model is a priority for me". By teaming with and learning from partner organizations in the United States, the Russian baseball enthusiasts have widened their perspective and maximized their potential for securing baseball's future on Russia's own turf.
So, all we can say now is PLAY BALL!
 Josh Chetwynd, Baseball in Europe: A Country by Country History (McFarland, 2008), 133.
For more photos of the baseball participants’ trip to the United States, click here: http://www.flickr.com.