Years ago, when I was a sophomore at a new high school, I visited the Toastmasters club one afternoon and was immediately assigned to make a speech. Terrified, I reduced the possibilities for a topic to the one subject I'd actually thought about in my young life—baseball. And feeling a need to say something provocative—and possibly even original—about baseball, I decided to make a case for why it was doomed. I have no idea what my arguments were: all I can remember is standing at the front of the classroom shaking while the club's upperclassmen studied me like a bug on a pin. I persuaded no one. But I was right. Baseball was doomed. It was then—and continues to be. The proof is that our nation's finest minds have been writing off baseball ever since.
I spotted the latest exercise in Sunday's New York Times. "Is the Game Over?—How baseball lost its place in American culture" announced the headline to the lead article in the Sunday Review section. The author, Jonathan Mahler, acknowledges up front that he's making a tricky case, as Major League Baseball profits, over the past 20 years, "have grown from roughly $1 billion to nearly $8 billion." He goes on, "The game, in other words, has never been healthier. So why does it feel so irrelevant?"
Mahler resists the temptation to cite him by name, but he has in mind the standing baseball enjoyed in the mid-50s, when the cultural historian Jacques Barzun famously wrote, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game—and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams."
Barzun went on to say some fancy things about baseball. For instance: "Baseball is Greek in being national, heroic, and broken up in the rivalries of city-states. How sad that Europe knows nothing like it!" I would say that soccer fans in Manchester, Barcelona, and most other major European cities have a very good idea of what Barzun was talking about, but maybe back then it was different. At any rate, Mahler, though he doesn't mention Barzun, tries to make a similar point. "Before the 1950s, baseball had 16 franchises in 10 cities, not one of them west or south of St. Louis," he writes. But expansion erased those frontiers. "You might think that spreading baseball across the country would be good for the game, and in some ways it was: more franchises equaled more spectators," Mahler reasons. "In the process, though, a lot of teams wound up in cities without deep roots in the game."
Which is to be regretted why? A tree doesn't have deep roots until after you plant it. Does Mahler think Major League Baseball cut its own throat by expanding to Los Angeles, Houston, San Diego? Mahler doesn't say expansion was bad—but it was "problematic." It turned baseball into "a largely regional sport," which is also not bad, since "local TV deals are where the money is." The problem, as Mahler sees it, is that at World Series time, when baseball is supposed to take the "national stage," there is no national stage—unless, he stipulates, "the Yankees or the Red Sox are involved." And perhaps not even then: an east-coast eye might discern modest upticks in the national TV audience whenever the Yanks or BoSox participate in the fall classic, but in the main that audience over the past 40-some years has suffered relentless decline.
Attendance is another matter. When I made my Toastmasters club speech, the hometown team, the Cardinals, were wrapping up a season, 1956, in which they drew slightly over one million paying customers. Had I known then that in 1967, in a new stadium, they'd draw over two million, and that from 2004 on they'd easily exceed three, I'd have kept my mouth shut.
And as we said above, MLB profits have more than grown apace.
So Mahler's case against baseball boils down to culture and emotion. America has given its heart to faster, more rough-and-tumble sports like—well, like football of course. But perhaps it was ever thus! He allows: "It's fair to wonder how golden baseball's golden age really was—and how much our perception of that era is just a function of baby-boomer nostalgia. After all, when Roger Maris hit his 61st home run on Oct. 1, 1961, Yankee Stadium wasn't even half full."
Yet he thinks the so-called golden era was the 50s and 60s with its half-full ball parks. Back then I thought it was the 20s and 30s, when Grover Cleveland Alexander was silencing the Yankees' Murderers Row and the Gashouse Gang was running wild. Maybe I was troubled by how easy it was to buy a Cardinals ticket. Or maybe I was just sulking because it had been such a long time since they'd won a pennant.
At least whatever I had to say back then I said in earnest. When you read Mahler's essay, ask yourself if his heart is in it. It reads like an assignment dutifully carried out to fret a little about baseball as the playoffs begin. Back in the 50s and 60s the assignment would have been to wax poetic—now it's to view with concern. And Mahler ends on such a strange note that I wonder what case he thought he was making:
"Maybe a new generation of fans won't grow up thinking the game represents something more than it is," he writes. "Maybe baseball can just be baseball. Yes, it's quiet and slow, but if you hang in there, through all of the pitching changes and batting-glove adjustments, you might get caught up in the drama."
He's championing baseball as a source of connoisseurship! It's not for everybody, mind you, but neither is an astringent single-malt whisky.
Is this a joke? Do the fans in blue Cubs T-shirts I see loping along Irving Park Road after games—drunken revelers, balmy sweethearts, dads with kids on their shoulders—realize what elitists they are? Is Mahler's point that the World Series doesn't get big numbers on TV these days, but you know what!—neither does modern dance?