This article was published in the Fall 2015 Baseball Research Journal.
The 13-year-old third baseman from Colorado, who identified his race as Hispanic American, didn’t look far from home when he named his favorite player, who also happened to be his favorite athlete and his hero: Colorado Rockies’ Carlos Gonzalez. A 14-year-old Minnesotan, who proclaimed his primary position on his select baseball squad as third base, looked to an outfielder who plays for a California team as his hero, favorite athlete and favorite ballplayer: Mike Trout. This teen listed his race as Caucasian. And the 10-year-old left fielder from Missouri, who listed his race as African American, chose Wilber “Bullet” Rogan as his favorite baseball player and fellow Negro Leaguer Satchel Paige as his hero.
Although they played different positions, were different ages, and hailed from different states, the three select baseball players had one thing in common: Each boy chose a hero who shared his racial or ethnic identity. Children and the people they emulate have been the focus of previous research, predominantly in the early twentieth century with a renewed interest on children’s attitudes toward those they admire. Viewers of the annual Little League World Series witness such interest anecdotally. Television broadcasts of that series typically include brief interviews with participants, where they state their names, the positions they play, and their favorite players. What these players never reveal is why they made their choices. This study delves into who select youth baseball players choose as their favorite player, favorite athlete, and hero in an attempt to discover patterns in the choices youngsters make.
Heroes provide children with role models, while giving them a way to understand their places in society.1To fully understand the influence that heroes—and subsequently role models—have over their subordinates, one must first understand that heroes and hero-worship are concepts that have endured throughout history.
Scottish philosopher, writer, essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle contended that it was impossible to stamp out reverence for great men. Hero-worship endures, according to Carlyle, while man endures.2 Heroes have been defined as those who serve as models for personal conduct3 and those who influence through aspirations and actions.4 Heroes represent the ideal of what admirers would like to become, focusing especially on qualities they would like to develop.5
Michael Sullivan and Anre Venter sought to understand how and why people use the term “hero.” While attempting to determine the parameters for the term’s use, they first sought to define it. “For some, heroes are both a creation of and a service to society at large.”6 Based on the literature, they discovered that, on one level, heroes share the characteristic of being individuals placed in a public role because of some feat they performed or quality they possess. They reported a second theme among definitions of hero: the function the hero, or heroic figure, plays for those who view him or her as one. Focusing merely on the attributes and characteristics of those identified as heroic isn’t enough. Attention must also be placed on the role that individuals have when determining whether to deem someone as a hero, or heroic. For their research, the authors defined heroes as people who “possess a skill, trait, or position that inspires an individual to imitate or strive to attain goals.”7
Heroes shape a person’s self-concept and the literature is ripe with the outcomes of possessing a hero: gaining persistence when facing adversity and promoting long-term career planning. “The focus is not merely on the attributes of the heroic figure but also takes into account the role that individuals have in whether they accept a figure’s hero status.”8
The impact that heroes have on their admirers can be significant, and Sullivan and Venter found that those identified as a hero have the same effect on their admirers’ self-concept as their loved ones.9
Sullivan and Venter, while citing their investigation of the popular press, contend that although the concept of hero remains prevalent in society today, it is unclear what meaning the word conveys. “The term hero is commonly understood to be an individual who is viewed positively; but across context, the specific distinctions of who is a hero and what is heroic have differed.”10
A study of 241 French 10- and 15-year-olds and 227 Spanish youths of the same age found that the younger participants preferred heroes with collectivist qualities while the older preferred them with individualized qualities.11 The study noted that French female participants chose proximal—family and community-based— heroes more often than expected by chance, while French male participants chose this type of heroic figure less than expected. The male participants, however, chose distal heroic figures—art-science, political, film-television-video, religious, music, sport and modeling—more often than expected by chance.
Traits of exterior (outward appearance) of an athlete are worship facilitators for adolescents when choosing idols.12A study of 1,636 students attending 13 Taiwanese high schools found that those chosen as favorite idols were more often male (65 percent) than female. In addition, 67 percent chose actors, singers or athletes as their favorite idols, while 10 percent chose family, friends, or teachers. Finally, the study revealed that most participants—regardless of gender—chose a male media star as their favorites. The conclusion was that female participants saw male media stars as a safe and convenient romantic attachment, while identification attachment resulted in male participants choosing idols who were male.
The pretext that hero choices would be confined within the boundaries of gender and the natural selection of public figures, according to the literature, cannot be generalized. Of note were studies that explored a more personal approach to hero selection and compared gender differences in hero selection.13,14
A study of 111 boys, ages 11 to 21, suggests that because of a narrowing of time and space around boys, they see the life experiences of teachers and parents as too dated to be relevant for them. Likewise, according to the study, the gilded lifestyles of celebrities, including athletes, are thought to be alien. “This phenomenon forces boys to weigh up the positive and negative examples given by local, ‘older brother’ role models to the exclusion of more traditional figures.” Participants had little desire to follow in their father’s footsteps, thus opting away from the “historical” route to manhood.15 They also saw those who found fame and fortune, as portrayed by the media, as “glossily distant to be useful role models.”16 This mindset results in the participants looking to “older brother” figures who lived where they lived and “whose positive and negative experiences in a world that boys can recognize provide trusted clues towards the next steps they themselves might, or might not, take.”17
Shayla Holub, Marie Tisak, and David Mullins explored the gender differences in the choices children make as their heroes, the attributes of those chosen, and the characteristics shared by typical heroes. They discovered that while the majority of the girls in their study chose heroes personally known to them, boys chose personal and public figures equally often. Most boys chose male heroes, while the selections made by girls were mixed. Of note, however, the authors reported that both boys and girls collectively chose private heroes—family members, friends, teachers—more than they chose public figures.18
Gender is not the only factor that affects a youngster’s choice of hero. Racial identity is also a factor. Sports have become so racialized in the United States that affinity for a sport also means an affinity for a race.19 Thus, a youngster who favors basketball is also likely to favor and to focus on the African Americans who play it. That is, basketball belongs to African Americans.20 Baseball, on the other hand, belongs to Caucasians, as do its heroes.21 Coaches, school officials, and authority figures reinforce these stereotypes, as do parents.22,23
Mass media also serve a major role in stereotyping sports and its heroes. While the “whiteness” of baseball is celebrated in mass media such as movies (i.e. the films Bull Durham, The Rookie, and Major League, in which the only black character practices voodoo), mass media also reinforce and commercialize the “blackness” of basketball and its heroes. Reebok and other athletic apparel companies have built basketball players such as LeBron James, Allen Iverson, and Michael Jordan into icons and more. NBA player Vince Carter was made larger than life by a soft drink company that pitted Carter, a Toronto Raptor, against another kind of raptor—a computerized velociraptor.24 Such commercial images make not only heroes of those NBA players,25 but they also become cultural currency for African American youth, because “emulation of those players was important for membership in peer groups.”26 However, such hero worship makes African American youth feel as if they are part of a cultural “in-group.”27
While much has been written generally about heroes and hero worship, children’s hero conceptions are not commonly the focus of research studies. “Parents, teachers and researchers have had growing concern that an increase in superhero cartoons for young children has negatively influenced the play and behavior of this age group.”28Public figures don’t always serve as positive role models. “It is important to find out why children value these characters as heroes in order to better assess the influence these figures have on children.”29
Based on findings in the literature and previous research on select baseball players, the authors addressed five research questions:
- RQ #1: Are select ballplayers more likely to choose a favorite MLB player of their own race?
- RQ #2: Are select ballplayers more likely to choose a hero of their own race?
- RQ #3: Do more youth players choose proximal (private) heroes more than distal (public figures)?
- RQ #4: Are select players of one race more likely to choose a ballplayer or parent as a hero?
- RQ #5: Are younger players more likely than older players to cite a parent as a hero and less likely to cite a ballplayer as a hero?
Youth select baseball players who competed in a national tournament held in June 2014 in Council Bluffs, Iowa, were the subjects of this study. Protocol stipulated by the University of Nebraska required that the researchers first approach a player’s parent or guardian about the study to receive verbal consent to approach the players. With parental or guardian consent secured, the researchers then explained their survey and its focus to potential participants.
Players who agreed to participate were asked to complete a 10-question survey. The initial five questions were biographical in nature, focusing on their age, state of residence, position most frequently played, time in years playing select baseball, and race. The second five questions focused on their preferences: whether they had a hero and, if so, who that was; whether they had a favorite athlete (of any sport) and, if so, who that was; whether they had a favorite baseball player and, if so, who that was. Additionally, participants were asked the reason for their choice of favorite player, along with their favorite sport and the sport at which they thought they were best. Participants were asked to answer the questions without parental input, but the researchers provided explanations for the questions when asked. In some situations, the researchers read the questions to participants and recorded their responses for them. The researchers opted for a more basic definition of hero than used by Sullivan and Venter: “A hero is someone you look up to.”30
Of the 396 players, ages 7 to 17, who completed the survey, 306 (78 percent) identified themselves as Caucasian, 25 (6.5 percent) African American, 42 (11 percent) Hispanic American, 9 (2.3 percent) Asian American, 5 (1.3 percent) Native American, and 6 (1.5 percent) Middle Eastern. The teams were from 23 states, with Colorado and Texas being the most represented states (103 players and 66 players respectively).
Of the 396 players, 277 participants indicated they had a hero. Almost half (134) chose a baseball player, while more than one third (96) chose a parent. Likewise, 347 of the respondents cited a favorite baseball player, and 140 of them named both a hero and a favorite baseball player, with 77 choosing the same baseball player as both.
In addressing the five research questions, the authors found the following:
- RQ #1: Are select ballplayers more likely to choose a favorite MLB player of their race?
The 10-year-old center fielder from Colorado, who identified himself as Caucasian, chose Todd Helton as his favorite player, while the 11-year-old first baseman from New Mexico, who identified himself as Hispanic American, selected Boston designated hitter David Ortiz. Their choices replicated study results that players’ choices of favorite players followed racial lines (see Table 1). Select players were significantly more likely to choose an MLB player of their own race than a player of a different race (X2 (8, N=329)=21.56, p<.01). Of the 271 white players, 148 named Caucasian MLB players as their favorites, while 10 of the 21 African American players selected MLB players of their race. Of the 37 Hispanic select players who chose a favorite MLB counterpart, 16 named an MLB Hispanic players. All results were significantly higher than expected by chance. The MLB players mentioned most often as favorite players were Mike Trout, Derek Jeter, Troy Tulowitzki, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia. (Jeter, who is biracial, was considered as African American for this study.)
Table 1: Race and Favorite Player
N = 329, X2 = 21.56, p < .01
- RQ #2: Are select ballplayers more likely to choose a hero of their race?
When asked to name his hero, the 12-year-old Texan, who identified himself as African American, chose Jackie Robinson. As with RQ 1, select players’ choices of heroes were race-based (see Table 2). Caucasian players were significantly more likely to choose a hero that was Caucasian, and the same racial pattern occurred for hero selections by African American youths and Hispanic youths (X2 (8, N = 159) = 17.70, p < .05).
Table 2: Race and Hero
Note: Although 277 respondents named a hero, race of the hero could be verified in 159 cases. An example for when race could not be determined would be when the player named a relative. X2 = 17.70, p < .05
- RQ #3: Do more players choose proximal (private) heroes more than distal (public figures)?
While the 12-year-old third baseman from Texas chose Robinson as his hero, his teammate chose his father. For heroes, select ballplayers in this study chose most often, in the following order: Jackie Robinson, their parents, Andrew McCutchen, and Mike Trout. About 59 percent (164) selected distal heroes, who were primarily athletes and entertainers, with the majority (140) selecting a baseballplayer, while 41 percent (113) of the 277 respondents identified a family member or friend (proximal) as their hero. These results would seem to contradict the findings from the previously mentioned study by Walker in which participants leaned away from selecting public figures and their fathers as heroes, and opted toward a big brother figure.31
- RQ #4: Are select players of one race more likely to choose a ballplayer or parent as a hero?
While ballplayers and parents were the most commonly cited heroes, there were no racial differences among those selections. According to a chi-square analysis, Caucasian players were just as likely as African Americans, Hispanics, and players of other races to choose a parent or ballplayer as heroes. These results reinforce those found by Gash and Rodriguez (2009) that indicated boys of similar age were more likely to choose distal heroic figures.32
- RQ #5: Are younger players more likely than older players to cite a parent as a hero and less likely to cite a ballplayer as a hero?
For convenience in tabulation, respondents were broken into three age groups: 7 to 11, 12 to 14, and 15 to 17 years of age. Those three age brackets correspond to grade school, junior high school and high school, respectively (American School System, n.d.). A chisquare showed no significant difference in the selections by age groups (see Table 3). Despite that overall finding, most of those of junior high and high school age selected a ballplayer as their hero—as did the 13-year-old first baseman from Wisconsin who named Carlos Gomez as his hero.
Table 3: Age and Hero Selection
|7 to 11||45||45|
|12 to 14||55||91|
|15 to 17||1||4|
X2 (2, N = 241) = 4.48, p = .106
The authors note that while their survey sought to determine whether participants chose their favorite players because of team allegiance, they did not gauge whether regional influences were prevalent in their participants’ choices. This means the first baseman from Wisconsin could have chosen Gomez because he played for the Milwaukee Brewers at the time the survey was taken or the 13-year Colorado third baseman chose Gonzalez because he favors the Colorado Rockies.
Fifteen years ago, conservative Canadian journalist Ted Byfield lamented society’s need for heroes as essential to one’s psychology, as food and shelter are essential to one’s physiology: “And if passing events do not produce heroes, we invent them, sometimes out of the most unpromising material.”33
A study that involved in-depth interviews with 10 African American non-baseball players revealed that baseball does not provide the amount of role models—due partially to a lack of action in the sport—that basketball and football can.34Applying social role theory—which states that people, including youth, behave in ways that replicate the roles they are expected to play in society—youngsters tend to get involved with sports through the influence of their role models. “If baseball does not have enough marketable athletes to entice the young African American community, its popularity will take a backseat to sports that provide such.”35Of the 25 African American players in this current study, 21 had a favorite player; and 10 selected an African American MLB player. In addition, 10 African Americans in this current study chose a baseballplayer as their hero. Thus, African American youth players, like Caucasians and Hispanic Americans in the study, found no shortage of baseball players to call heroes. The young players in this study felt that baseball takes a backseat to no other sport.
Baseball players figured dominantly in the hero worship by those age 12 and older, reflecting previous findings. Although the previously cited research featured youths from France and Spain, and Taiwan respectively, their results mirrored the responses given by select baseball players—male participants were more likely to choose public heroes than private ones.36That is, 59 percent of the respondents in this study selected distal figures rather than family or friends as heroes, and the bulk of those heroes were baseball players. With that in mind, baseball organizations that are trying to interest youths in playing might enhance the allure of the game by focusing on baseball “heroes” who also might be potential heroes to those in a youth’s peer group or family. This study provides evidence that certain heroes have wide popularity, like McCutchen and Trout. Role modeling is nothing new, but selecting the specific role models to resonate with specific groups has the potential to broaden the base of youth interest in the game.
Yi-Hsiu Lin and Chien-Hsin Lin provide evidence for using heroes to broaden a sport’s appeal when they noted that youths have a tendency to select exterior traits in their heroes and they say that is due, in part, to the youths’ relatively low cognitive functioning.37 This lower cognitive functioning causes youths to be more susceptible to commercial and materialistic messaging. As Hugh Gash and Pilar Rodriguez point out, digital media and television play an important role in the construction of young people’s heroes.38
Exploring the role of media in hero worship is beyond the purview of this study. However, the findings here indicate that older players tend to favor heroes who are outside their immediate social circle— although there was no statistically significant difference between the age groups—while grade-school-aged players were as likely to name a parent as their hero as they were to name a public figure.
Youths’ selection and emulation of heroes raises other concerns, as reflected in the literature. Hero worship can have negative connotations, as implied by a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That survey of youngsters and how they viewed their favorite athletes found the following: 74 percent of survey participants said it was common for a professional athlete to yell at a referee; 62 percent agreed that “trash talking” opponents was the norm; and 46 percent said it was common for athletes to take cheap shots at their opponents.39“Too often, the dark side of athletes—the steroid use, hard partying lifestyle and poor sportsmanship—overshadows an athlete’s ability to play the game,” Kay Ireland wrote. Then Ireland, citing the survey results, encouraged parents to consider the benefits and impact of the influence that athletes can have on their children and their lives. Survey results also indicated that the youthful respondents considered the same behaviors—yelling at a referee, trash talking and taking cheap shots—as normal while playing sports with their friends. “A spoiled-athlete mentality,” she wrote, “may teach children that it’s OK to yell and fight to get what they want.”40
The results of this current study, however, may provide some consolation to parents and coaches who fear that youngsters are ill-equipped to select appropriate roles modes. Four of the five most often mentioned favorite players (Trout, Jeter, Tulowitzki, and Pedroia) and those MLB players who received most mentions as heroes (Robinson, McCutchen, and Trout) have not been publicly accused of criminal activity, use of performance-enhancing drugs, or otherwise questionable behavior. The results of this study, the authors contend, indicate that young baseball players choose wisely when selecting their heroes and favorite players.
CONSIDERATIONS AND FUTURE RESEARCH
Whether athletes are suitable to serve as role models falls beyond the scope of this study. What remains pertinent is determining what criterion youngsters, in this case select baseball players, use when making their choices. The authors asked participants to state the reason behind their selections for their favorite players—most prevalent was that their selections played on their favorite team—but did not ask for rationales for their choices as heroes. Those rationales would provide parents and coaches with information about why young ballplayers chose certain individuals as heroes and the role those heroes play in the players’ ambitions and plans in continuing to play baseball. Such information also has implications for marketing baseball and baseball-related consumption to young players.
A larger sample of players, particularly African Americans and Hispanic Americans, is needed to qualify the findings in this study. A larger sample of minority players could also help us understand how hero worship might shed light on the paucity of African Americans in the highest levels of competition in the game and on the growing number of Hispanics playing baseball.
- Related link: The Fall 2013 edition of SABR's Baseball Research Journal featured previous work by these authors on whether fans attending minor league baseball games paid enough attention to the action on the field to know the scores of those games (they did).
KEVIN WARNEKE, who earned in doctoral degree in leadership studies from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has worked as journalist, magazine editor, public relations administrator, fundraiser and non-profit executive. He has taught journalism, public relations and development courses at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for the past 25 years.
JOHN SHOREY is a professor of history and political science at Iowa Western Community College. Along with his survey courses in history and government, Shorey developed a course on “Baseball and American Culture” that he has taught at Iowa Western since 1998. Shorey has conducted research on various baseball topics, and has presented his research at the NINE’s Conference in Phoenix, the annual symposium on Baseball and American Culture at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and at Indiana State’s Conference on Baseball in Literature and Culture.
DAVE OGDEN is professor in the School of Communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Before coming to UNO in 2001, he was an associate professor at Wayne State College. His work can be found in "NINE: The Journal of Baseball History and Culture," the "Journal of Leisure Research," the "Journal of Black Studies," "Journal of Sport Behavior" and "Great Plains Research Journal." He is co-editor of the books, "Reconstructing Fame: Sport Race and Evolving Reputations, Fame to Infamy: Race, Sport, and the Fall from Grace," and "A Locker Room of Her Own," all published by the University Press of Mississippi. Ogden received his Ph.D. in 1999 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
- 1. Shayla Holub, Marie Tisak, and David Mullins, “Gender Differences in Children’s Hero Attributions: Personal Hero Choices and Evaluations of Typical Male and Female Heroes.” Sex Roles 58 (2008), 567–78.
- 2. Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (London, England: Chapman and Hall, 1869).
- 3. Dixon Wecter, The Hero in America: A Chronicle of Hero Worship (New York, New York: Schribners, 1941).
- 4. Katie Pretzinger, “The American Hero: Yesterday and Today.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, 4 (1976), 36–40.
- 5. John Caughey, Imaginary Social Worlds: A Cultural Approach (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1984).
- 6. Michael Sullivan and Anre Venter, “Defining Heroes Through Deductive and Inductive Investigations,” The Journal of Social Psychology, 150 (2010), 472.
- 7. Ibid, 473.
- 8. Ibid, 472.
- 9. Michael Sullivan and Anre Venter, “The Hero Within: Inclusion of Heroes Into the Self,” Self and Identity, 4 (2005), 101–11.
- 10. Sullivan and Venter, “Defining Heroes Through Deductive and Inductive Investigations,” 471.
- 11. Hugh Gash and Pilar Rodriquez, “Young People’s Heroes in France and Spain,” The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 12 (2009), 246–57.
- 12. Yi-Hsiu Lin and Chien-Hsin Lin, “Impetus for Worship: An Exploratory Study of Adolescents’ Idol Adoration Behaviors,” Adolesence, 42 (2007), 575–88.
- 13. Barbara Walker, “No More Heroes Any More: The ‘Older Brother’ as Role Model,” Cambridge Journal of Education, 37 (2007), 503–18.
- 14. Holub, Marie Tisak, and David Mullins, “Gender Differences in Children’s Hero Attributions: Personal Hero Choices and Evaluations of Typical Male and Female Heroes,” Sex Roles, 58 (2008), 567–78.
- 15. Walker, “No More Heroes Any More: The ‘Older Brother’ as Role Model,” 503.
- 16. Ibid, 515.
- 17. Ibid, 515.
- 18. Shayla Holub, Marie Tisak, and David Mullins, “Gender Differences in Children’s Hero Attributions: Personal Hero Choices and Evaluations of Typical Male and Female Heroes.” Sex Roles, 58 (2008), 567–78.
- 19. Ronald Hall, “The Bell Curve: Implications for the Performance of Black/White Athletes,” Social Science Journal, 39 (2002), 113–18.
- 20. Ibid.
- 21. David Ogden, “The Welcome Theory: An Approach to Studying African-American Youth Interest and Involvement in Baseball,” Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture, 12 (2004), 114–22.
- 22. Othello Harris,”Race, Sport, and Social Support,” Sociology of Sport Journal, 11 (1994), 40–50.
- 23. Steven Philipp, “Are We Welcome? African American Racial Acceptance in Leisure Activities and the Importance Given to Children’s Leisure,” Journal of Leisure Research, 31(1999), 385–403.
- 24. J. Steenhuysen, “Breaking a new spot for ‘Gatorade Fierce,” Business Times. Retrieved September 21, 2004 from http://adtimes.nstp.com.my/ archive.
- 25. Brian Wilson and Robert Sparks, “It’s Gotta Be the Shoes:” Youth, Race and Sneaker Commercials,” Sociology of Sport Journal, 13 (1996), 398–427.
- 26. Ogden, “The Welcome Theory: An Approach to Studying African-American Youth Interest and Involvement in Baseball,” 118.
- 27. Ketra Armstrong, “African-American Students’ Responses to Race as a Source Cue in Persuasive Sport Communications,” Journal of Sport Management, 14 (2000), 223.
- 28. Holub, Tisak, and Mullins, “Gender Differences in Children’s Hero Attributions: Personal Hero Choices and Evaluations of Typical Male and Female Heroes,” 576.
- 29. Ibid, 576.
- 30. Michael Sullivan and Anre Venter, (2010).
- 31. Walker, “No More Heroes Any More: The ‘Older Brother’ as Role Model.”
- 32. Gash and Rodriquez, “Young People’s Heroes in France and Spain.”
- 33. Ted Byfield, “Why the Heroes We Manufacture These Days are of Such a Very Low Grade,” Newsmagazine, 27 (2000), 68.
- 34. Michael Mudrick, “The Decline in Baseball Participation Amongst African American Youth,” Digital Commons, retrieved Feb. 10, 2015, http://digitalcommons.uconn.edu/gs_theses/82.
- 35. Ibid.
- 36. Gash and Rodriquez, “Young People’s Heroes in France and Spain.”
- 37. Lin and Lin, “Impetus for Worship: An Exploratory Study of Adolescents’ Idol Adoration Behaviors.”
- 38. Gash and Rodriquez, “Young People’s Heroes in France and Spain.”
- 39. Kay Ireland, (2014). The pros and cons of the influence of sports athletes on kids, Livestrong.com., retrieved January 5, 2015, www.livestrong.com/article/371876-the-pros-cons-of-the-influence-ofsport....
- 40. Ibid.