Why Baseball Is America’s Game
Wednesday - April 12, 2006
With the opening of the Major League Baseball season, it’s time to reaffirm that this simple ball-and-bat game is still our national pastime.
Sure, football does better on TV and, believe it or not, stock car racing draws the most fans. But baseball remains our national game. Not because of its influence on popular culture, or because it’s at the top of most childhood fantasies, but because no sport better reflects American cultural, political and economic principles than baseball.
As Americans, we love the opportunity for self-gratification. We believe that through hard work we can stand above the crowd. At the same time, Americans want to be part of something larger. Whether it’s our nation, state, city or, as is common in Hawaii, our neighborhoods as reflected in our high schools, we need to belong. No sport more than baseball allows an athlete to compete as an individual while being a valuable member of the team.
At the plate, the hitter is on his own. In football, it’s 11 against 11. Basketball is five on five. In baseball, it’s one against nine. Americans love the underdog.
Succeed and the batsman alone receives adulation. The success for one is a key to victory for the many - kind of like a perverse example of Reaganomics. This is different from other sports.
No matter what Jerry Rice did on the football field he could never be totally separated from the guy who threw the ball and those who provided the blocking. Yes, Rice gets his face on SportCenter, but so do Joe Montana, Bill Walsh and maybe the defender who slipped to allow the opening for the receiver to be successful.
In baseball it’s simpler. On the highlights we hear, “He hit the crap out of that one!” and no one mentions the manager who placed him in that position.
Another area where baseball is reflective of the nation is in its inclusion. The rising cost of attending football, basketball and hockey games means that many fans have been priced out of attendance. While the $3 bleacher seats may have gone the way of the wool uniforms, families can still afford a baseball game. This makes the game inclusive where other sports are becoming exclusive.
Like America, baseball does have its division of class, box seats vs. bleachers, for instance, but the stew exists. Not the expounded melting pot theory, where everyone blends together to form one indistinguishable mass, which is actually communism, but a stew where the parts are separate but come together for a common theme. Life is better with variety. We need to celebrate the potato and appreciate the beef.
Baseball is a regional game. Because of local broadcasts of a 162-game schedule, fans have little interest in the happenings of teams from far-flung areas. It’s simple grassroots politics. We vote for more offices locally than nationally because those closest to us have a greater impact on our immediate lives. What happens to the Twins is of much greater concern to the folks of Minnesota than what happens to the Yankees.
From a historical perspective, fans of the NBA could argue that basketball deserves the title of national pastime for no other reason than the game was actually invented in the U.S. Unlike baseball and football, we know exactly when and where the game came about and who invented it. Though some have pointed to the Aztec game of Tlachtli as the origins of the game, it’s much easier to imagine that when Dr. James Naismith was looking for a fun, healthy activity for the children in his care, he made no thought of the game where combatants bounced hard rubber balls off their hips, arms and legs and into a stone ring mounted high on a wall. One thing for certain that didn’t carry over from Tlachtli to basketball is the prize for the losers: death.
But where basketball was created in Springfield, Mass., and NASCAR was invented by moonshiners, baseball, with its uncertain heritage, has chronicled the history of the nation for 160 years. In the late 19th century, Cap Anson spoke for most Americans when he said blacks had no place in the game and that he refused to play with anyone of color. In the Roaring ‘20s, baseball followed the free spirit of the times, throwing away its Victorian shackles, while Babe Ruth destroyed forever the idea of baseball played only within the stadium. In World War II, Rosie the Riveter did more than just build planes - she played baseball to enthusiastic crowds. Jackie Robinson helped usher in the civil rights era. Curt Flood fought to overturn the reserve clause which brought about free agency in the “Me” decade, and like the growth of computers and the Internet, salaries exploded in the 1990s.
For all its strengths and for all its weaknesses, baseball reflects who we are. It may not be the most exciting game, but it’s ours.
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