*Once upon a time Alexis de Tocqueville, conducting a study of the United States, concluded that understanding baseball was critical to understanding the culture of American society at large. How could he come to such a conclusion?
1. American society celebrates individualism. The country was founded (and pushed westward settlement) based on the idea that everyone should be able to do what they want and surrounding influences should be minimized. Baseball reflects this heritage of American society in a unique way because it is a sport in which teams compete but performance is basically individualized.
2. Michael Mandelbaum wrote that baseball epitomizes a society based in agriculture where time is not a factor. This explains the absence of a clock which allows for games to continue past the proscribed nine innings.
3. Baseball is also the longest tenured professional team sport which has afforded it a privileged status as being exempt from anti-trust statutes.
Not coincidentally all three of these justifications of de Tocqueville’s remarks are strongly tied to baseball’s start in the 19th century. Which is probably why all three work against baseball retaining/regaining (depending on your point of view) its position as the premier sport in the United States in the 21st century.
Both in the way the United States interacts with other countries in the world and in the way we operate our society, strict individualism no longer applies. Because the United States is the leading country in the world in so many ways, what we do has a ripple effect. And because we have so many various interests around the world, what other countries do affect us as well. In addition within American society we have developed a system of government programs that help people from just about every segment of society so that no one is achieving strictly on their own merits. The farmer who benefits from subsidies, the corporation that benefits from tax breaks, the student with federal student loans all contribute to the decrease of individualism within American society. Baseball as an individualized sport loses its resonance with a population that sees itself as more tied into a group.
Mandelbaum’s book traces the origins of the three major American team sports (baseball, football, and basketball) to the version of American society they were founded in. Baseball was from pre-industrialized America where time was not a factor. Football and basketball are from industrial and post industrial eras respectively; time is a factor in both. So while baseball has no clock, football and basketball do and this is all the more important in present day America. Society has become much more complex and people are faced with more tasks for their jobs, and more options for their leisure time. The end result is that people are generally busier than they were in pre-industrial America, and people perceive themselves as even busier than they are. It isn’t surprising then that basketball and football are more popular than baseball in our society.
This is normally where baseball enthusiasts point out the total attendance and revenue figures for their sport. And while it cannot be denied that baseball does bring in lots of money from the multitudes of fans that go to the ballpark each summer, it also cannot be denied that football brings in the most revenue in American sports. Basketball brings in comparable revenue to baseball in half the games and with largely the same schedule format (multiple games each week in prime-time and one or two afternoon games on the weekend). So while baseball is financially profitable, it has lost its dominance in the American sports landscape.
Baseball is the only sport that enjoys exemption from being called a monopoly by the federal government. This is again due to the era of its origin. Professional baseball began in the late 19th century just as the government was becoming interested in making sure business practices were fair. And although baseball was certainly a business, it wasn’t a highly profitable business at that time which allowed it to masquerade as merely a leisure activity. As it grew, it continued that masquerade so that ultimately Congress ruled that anti-trust laws didn’t apply to the game of baseball.
This special exemption for baseball has stopped it from having to face real competition. Because they don’t enjoy the same exemption, the NBA (NBL, ABA, and CBA) and NFL (AAFL, AFL, USFL, and XFL) have, throughout their history had to adapt and incorporate changes to appeal to the changing appetite of their fans. Up until recently (the wildcard playoff team was added in 1994, and interleague was started in 1997 – both after the ascendance of football as the most popular spectator sport in the country) MLB has not undergone the same kinds of changes. Baseball’s anti-trust exemption has made it complacent and unresponsive to its fan base.
I like baseball and while I don’t see a scenario in which it surpasses football in the minds of American sports consumers, I would like to see it embrace change and modernize. I’m not sure how that is possible in some ways because the game is individualistic and that’s that. Nevertheless someone, somewhere should be brainstorming ways to re-energize interest in what claims to be our national pastime.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org