What is your favorite sport to watch?” The Gallup Poll first posed this survey question in 1937. At the time, and for decades thereafter, baseball was preeminent. In 1948, 39% of those Americans polled named baseball as their favorite sport, far more than football (17%) and basketball (10%). The margin was narrower in 1960—34% for baseball against 21% for football—and completely reversed by 1972, when 38% preferred football and 19% baseball. By 2017, Gallup’s most recent survey that included the question, baseball had fallen to 9%, placing it third behind football (37%) and basketball (11%), and barely ahead of soccer (7%).
This is a startling decline for the “national pastime,” a term journalists were applying to baseball as long ago as 1856. American exceptionalism is about many things, but disdain for soccer—a sport where competitors pretend they lack arms and hands while running back and forth to secure an insurmountable one-to-nothing lead—is one of its salient and proudest features. That baseball is, in the land of its birth, scarcely more popular than soccer indicates not only how far baseball has fallen but that it could decline even farther. The New Yorker reported this year that baseball executives are “terrified of losing younger fans and worry that the sport is at risk of becoming the next horse racing or boxing”—niche competitions that haven’t had a mass audience since men wore fedoras.
Evidence apart from public opinion surveys shows a pastime becoming an afterthought. From 2015 to 2019, attendance at major league baseball (MLB) games declined by 7.1%. Television viewership for the World Series, baseball’s showcase, fell from 44.2 million per game in 1978 to 9.8 million in 2020. Ratings for local broadcasts, thought to be the baseball industry’s last line of defense, are in decline. And neither the sport nor its fans have time on their side. In 2016, the average viewer of nationally televised MLB games was 57 years old, up from 52 in 2000. Just 7% of these viewers were under the age of 18.
Baseball’s physical demands can be seen in the long list of players whose careers have been interrupted or ended by injuries. But, also notably cerebral, it has been central to the leisure of the theory class. Political commentator George F. Will has written two books on baseball and several columns on the difficulties the sport has posed for his favorite team, the Chicago Cubs. A. Bartlett Giamatti, a scholar of Renaissance literature, left the presidency of Yale University to become president of the National League in 1986, three years before he was named baseball commissioner. Jacques Barzun, a prolific historian of ideas and culture who taught for 47 years at Columbia University, wrote the most famous endorsement in the sport’s history. “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” Barzun asserted in God’s Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words (1954). The sentence is now on a plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
By 1993, when Barzun was 85, he delivered a revised opinion. “I’ve gotten so disgusted with baseball, I don’t follow it anymore,” he said. “I just see the headlines and turn my head in shame from what we have done with our most interesting, best game, and healthiest pastime.” These words do not appear on any of Cooperstown’s walls.
In 2021 we can restate Barzun’s earlier advice: whoever wants to know something about the world we have made had better reflect on the ways that baseball and America have each changed over the past 70 years. Baseball’s plight can be seen in the fact that its smartest observers agree that it has a serious problem…but disagree on what that problem is. Baseball is “broken,” according to sportswriter Jayson Stark, because teams with small markets and payrolls cannot afford to retain star players, who end up migrating to wealthy teams in the biggest cities.
For baseball executive Theo Epstein, the central issue is that there are too many strikeouts, which now occur in about 25% of plate appearances. In other words, the career strikeout rate for two of baseball’s most dominant pitchers, Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan, is now the MLB average. Because more and more plate appearances conclude with a strikeout, walk, or home run, fewer and fewer of them entail any fielding or base-running. “This is a game designed to be played by nine men,” Epstein says, “not two.”
For another leading sportswriter, Tom Verducci, the “most pressing issue” is that as ballplayers become bigger and stronger they suffer more injuries, reducing the number of games in which fans can see the best stars on the field. Joe Posnanski, author of The Soul of Baseball (2007), thinks baseball’s worst problem is “tanking”: the strategic choice by many of the 30 MLB teams to be competitive next year, or the one after that, but not in the current season. If “teams in 10 or 15 cities don’t care how many games they lose because they’re pointing to the future,” he wrote, “I just don’t think it’s sustainable.”
It’s ominous that there is such a vigorous, multi-sided debate about why this sport is screwed up, but hopeful that there could be baseball solutions to these baseball problems. Increased revenue sharing among franchises, moving the pitching mound further from home plate, incentives and disincentives to end tanking, a shorter season to reduce injuries—these and other changes have been widely discussed.
Some may be tried, some might even work…and baseball could remain in decline. This is the warning of social psychologist Rich Luker, whose public opinion surveys have tracked Americans’ attitudes about sports since 1994. There is no baseball solution, he cautions, if baseball’s problem resembles the one that saw Blockbuster Video stores or Borders bookstores flourish but then disappear. If consumer tastes, abetted by new technology, have changed in fundamental ways, tweaking a product that is no longer widely desired is futile. There’s very little the horse racing industry could have done to recast its sport, or to address the fact that its appeal today is slight compared to what it was a century ago.
Let us consider, first, the ways baseball has changed. Without choosing which of its problems is most serious, we can say that baseball’s various challenges have a common denominator. Competition is the essence of sport, but also of market economics. Baseball has been beset by a tension between these competitions: many of the tactics employed by a team to win on the field reduce baseball’s appeal vis-à-vis all the other ways Americans can spend their leisure time and disposable income. Similarly, baseball players compete against one another—sometimes so fiercely that games are interrupted by fistfights—but have a common purpose at the bargaining table when advancing their interests against those of the club owners. Much of the story of baseball’s decline consists of failing to manage the competition among these various kinds of competition. The result is “a strange conflict inside the game,” according to the Athletic’s Evan Drellich, where what “is best for front offices” runs counter to “fan enjoyment of the sport.”
On the question of competitive balance, for example, MLB teams are athletic rivals but economic partners. A city could have 30 dry cleaning businesses, each owned by a different proprietor. Under capitalism’s moral and practical logic, if a handful of these enterprises are better capitalized, better marketed, and better managed, the stronger competitors will eventually acquire the weaker. Thirty storefront operations might remain, but the business competition would be among a few chains running six or eight of them.
Sports leagues can’t work this way, which we know because baseball once tried. In the late 19th century, when trusts were a business practice and political controversy, it was common for the same businessman to have an ownership stake in several “rival” professional baseball teams. It quickly became clear that such arrangements were untenable: fans would not buy tickets to games where they had good reason to believe the contest on the field was a sham. By 1903, when the older National League reached an accord with its new rival, the American League, the established practice was that each club would have one owner, and each owner one club.
Baseball has retained most elements of the structure created in 1903. There are still two leagues, and it was not until 2000 that separate presidencies for each were abolished. The World Series still pits the National League champion against the American League champion.
One feature carried forward from 1903 has proven especially troublesome. The sport was set up at a time when the box office was the primary revenue source. (The take from auxiliary sources—concession stand sales and advertising billboards inside the ballpark—rose and fell with ticket purchases.) Revenue sharing was simple: the visiting team received a fixed portion of the gate receipts. As a result, economic disparities were mostly a function of the quality of play on the field. No major league ballpark was big enough, and no major league city was small enough, for any team to lock in a competitive advantage, or be trapped in a position from which competition was impossible.
This finance system of every tub on its own bottom has proven increasingly unworkable for baseball, a sport reflecting “rivalries of city-states,” as Barzun wrote in 1954. Localism remains one of its features, as the typical MLB team’s fan base is more concentrated in a single geographic area than an NFL or NBA team’s following. But beginning in the 1950s a baseball team’s fastest-growing revenue stream came from either selling its broadcast rights to a television station or operating its own dedicated cable channel.
Under these circumstances, the population size of the metropolitan area where an MLB team is located became increasingly consequential. According to the 2020 census, the Cleveland metro area has a population of about 2.1 million people, compared to 20.1 million living in and around New York City. This huge disparity means that the commercials interspersed through ballgame broadcasts are much more valuable to companies advertising in New York than to ones seeking customers in Cleveland, which in turn determines the revenue to each club generated by those broadcasts.
As a result, the Cleveland Indians, playing in the American League’s smallest market, are in the same sport as the New York Yankees, but not really in the same business. In 2019, the Indians paid their ballplayers $108 million, which ranked 22nd out of the 30 MLB teams. The Yankees payroll was $223 million, second-highest in baseball. It’s true that a team’s payroll is not the decisive factor in where it ends up in the standings. Every year there are good teams with small payrolls and bad teams with large ones. (For the record, the Yankees won 103 games in 2019 and Cleveland won 93. New York advanced to the American League championship series, the penultimate round of the postseason before the World Series, while Indians fans had to console themselves with having the best record of the ten American League teams that did not make the playoffs at all.)
But spending is a significant factor. When the website FanGraphs added up each team’s spending and winning from 2016 through 2019 it found a coefficient of correlation of .50, a clear indication that spending on players makes a sizable difference to success on the field. (A coefficient of 1.00 would mean that differences in payroll spending accounted for all the variation in teams’ winning percentages, while an “r” of 0.00 would indicate it told us nothing about winning, like the completely random distribution we would expect between players’ batting averages and their Social Security numbers.) Borrowing a phrase about the importance of recruiting in college football, Jimmys and Joes beat Xs and Os. Teams with great players and good strategies win most of their games against teams with great strategies and good players.
Professional sports teams, called “franchises,” exhibit features of other franchised businesses. An individual or group of investors seeking to acquire an MLB team, for example, cannot just strike a deal with the current owner, but must apply to the other 29 owners for approval, an application often weighed against ones from competing buyers. Once accepted into this club, each owner must abide by its rules, including strict ones about relocating a team from one city to another. This explains why New York has almost ten times as many residents as Cleveland but only twice as many baseball teams.
I strongly suspect that the number of Subway sandwich shops or Toyota dealerships in the New York area is closer to ten times the number in Cleveland than to a ratio of 2:1. If baseball were run like Subway, there might be five or six MLB teams in each of its two biggest markets, New York and Los Angeles, and none at all in its smallest markets. The reason both huge metro areas have just two teams goes back to the city-state rivalry Barzun discerned. Fans—a word derived from “fanatics”—identify with their team, which means that a team becomes an expression of its locality’s sense of self. Half-a-dozen teams in one metropolitan area, no matter how populous, presupposes civic balkanization.
Those Little Town Blues
But this business logic threatens to make MLB franchises located in the smaller cities economically untenable. Jayson Stark puts it bluntly: “Are baseball’s smallest markets important to the future health of the sport, or not?” It often seems that baseball’s message to fans in such cities as Milwaukee, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh is: You should be grateful just to have a big-league team. You have no right to hope that it will ever be competitive enough to appear in the postseason on a regular basis. We reserve those kinds of expectations for big-city fans, who insist that their teams contend most of the time, not just once in a while.
In consequence, the default option for small-market teams is to be uncompetitive for many years, during which they carefully husband their resources to develop a cohort of good young players. If all goes well, the members of this core reach their peak at the same time, allowing the club to compete for championships. After a short interval at the top, however, the best players will have become stars who end up playing for other, richer teams, while the small-market franchise begins its next long rebuilding process.
This describes the trajectory of the Kansas City Royals, who play in baseball’s third-smallest market, a metro area of 2.2 million. From 1995 through 2012, the Royals had one winning season and 17 losing ones. Then, the team won 86 games and lost 76 in 2013; went to the World Series in 2014, losing a seven-game thriller to the San Francisco Giants; and won the World Series from the New York Mets in 2015. From 2016 on, however, the Royals have been irrelevant to the pennant race, losing more than 60% of their games in 2018 and again in 2019. By contrast, the Boston Red Sox, with New England as its fan base and one of the largest payrolls in the sport, have won the World Series four times in the past 18 seasons. And 2021 marked the ninth consecutive year that the Los Angeles Dodgers, another big spender in a big city, reached the postseason.
Professional football and basketball confront the same problem. The NFL (32 teams) and NBA (30 teams) both have two franchises in New York and Los Angeles, and one located in Cleveland, the same as MLB. These younger leagues, however, came into their own in the 1960s and ’70s, and accommodated television’s crucial role in sports more successfully. The NFL has an especially heavy reliance on contracts that the league, as an entity, signs with broadcast networks, resulting in much greater financial parity across the sport. In 2019, the four baseball teams with the smallest payrolls (Miami, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay) spent, on average, $71.5 million on players’ salaries. This was less than one third the average payroll—$220.2 million—of the four biggest spenders (the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, and Dodgers). By contrast, the four NFL teams with the smallest 2019 payrolls spent, on average, $171.2 million on player compensation, 82% as much as the four teams with the largest payrolls. (Indeed, two of football’s biggest spenders, the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers, were small-market teams.) The NBA follows a similar model: the four smallest payrolls are, on average, 78% of the four largest.
Some caveats are in order. If absolute parity reigned among the 30 big-league teams, we would expect that, in the long run, each team would win the World Series once every 30 years, play in it once every 15 years, and win enough regular-season games to advance to the ten-team postseason “tournament” once, but only once, every three years. As a matter of mathematical necessity, nothing can be done to alter the fact that every season will end in disappointment for 29 baseball teams and their fans. As a matter of practical experience, no league in any sport has ever known such parity.
In fact, the decades of baseball’s greatest popularity coincided with it having the most powerful dynasty in athletic history. In the 44 seasons from 1921, when Babe Ruth transformed the New York Yankees and baseball itself, through 1964, when it became clear that baseball was being eclipsed by professional football, the Yankees played in 29 World Series, winning 20 of them. There were 16 MLB teams for all but the final three seasons of this era, which means that the Yankees overperformed by, roughly, a factor of seven.
During baseball’s golden age there were also franchises as forlorn as the Yankees were dominant. From 1902 to 1953 the St. Louis Browns had only 11 seasons when they won more games than they lost, compared to ten last-place finishes. In 1954 they relocated and finally found success as the Baltimore Orioles. The Senators of Washington—“first in War, first in Peace, last in the American League”—were nearly as inept, and also had to relocate to become competitive, playing since 1961 as the Minnesota Twins.
If baseball once flourished despite such profound asymmetries, why can’t it do so again? There are two problems. First, Americans have many more things to do and watch today than they did in the era of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, when baseball was often, literally, the only game in town. In those days, fewer people followed professional basketball and hockey, which concluded their postseasons in April. Football was a fall sport that few fans focused on until the World Series ended in mid-October. Baseball was, as a result, front and center during its leisurely six-month season.
But in the 21st century the “winter” sports of basketball and hockey do not complete their playoffs until late June, while college and professional football starts to siphon attention from baseball before Labor Day. It has become routine for World Series games, now played as the culmination of an expanded postseason that finishes after Halloween, to draw significantly lower television ratings than regular-season NFL games when they are broadcast at the same time. Under these circumstances, perennial non-contending teams are in much greater danger of losing their fan base than even the weakest teams were when baseball was the center of attention.
Second, the problem of competitive balance was addressed in baseball’s heyday by a mechanism no longer available. Rather than redistribute revenue among teams, baseball shifted it from players to owners. Until an arbitrator ruled it illegal and unenforceable in 1975, the employment contract used throughout baseball contained a “reserve clause” stating that if a club and one of its players could not agree on a salary for the coming season, then “the Club shall have the right…to renew this contract for the period of one year on the same terms,” or, if it chose, on terms even less favorable. Furthermore, in an interpretation that could have come from Nero, baseball owners asserted that their unilateral right to renew a contract recurred year after year, for as long as “the Club” wanted to retain the player.
Under the reserve clause, the only negotiating leverage for the player unhappy with a club’s offer was to “hold out,” receiving no paychecks while refusing to report to spring training or start the season. Because there were no major leagues competing against MLB for baseball talent, and no comparable professional leagues outside the United States, a player’s negotiating position was only as credible as the club’s belief that he might retire rather than accept its terms. The reserve clause was upheld by courts—including the Supreme Court—as a necessity for promoting baseball’s competitive balance. Federal appellate judge Constantine Smyth wrote in 1922, “If the reserve clause did not exist, the highly skillful players would be absorbed by the more wealthy clubs, and thus some clubs in the league would so far outstrip others in playing ability that the contests between the superior and the inferior clubs would be uninteresting and the public would refuse to patronize them.”
The reserve clause will never return and deserves no lament. The 1975 arbitration decision endorsed the position advanced by the Major League Baseball Players Association, baseball’s labor union: the club’s right to renew a player’s contract for one year meant for one year only, not for an indefinite succession of one-year contracts. Free agency had come to baseball. The sport has subsequently operated under a succession of Collective Bargaining Agreements negotiated between the owners and the players’ union, which specify the number of years of service time before a player becomes a free agent, and his right prior to free agency to submit salary disputes to binding arbitration.
There is, however, no contradiction between calling the reserve clause indefensible and affirming that the problem Judge Smyth identified is serious. Since 1975 baseball stars have been increasingly likely to end up playing for teams in the biggest cities with the biggest payrolls. It’s not that teams with smaller payrolls can’t afford to sign stars, exactly, but that one player accounting for a large portion of a relatively small payroll makes it impossible to sign enough other good players for the team to be competitive.
This was the Texas Rangers’ experience in 2001 after signing shortstop Alex Rodriguez to a ten-year, $252 million contract, which at the time was the most money ever paid to a professional athlete. The Rangers had above-average payrolls 20 years ago, constrained less by market size than by mismanagement and inadequate capitalization. (The ownership group that signed Rodriguez eventually defaulted on a $525 million loan, declared bankruptcy, and sold the club.) Rodriguez was superb, winning the American League’s Most Valuable Player award in 2003—but the team finished in last place three straight years after he joined the club, losing 55% of their games over that span. In 2004 Texas traded Rodriguez to the Yankees, a team that could afford to pay him and other top-tier players.
Franchises that could not compete in bidding wars had to find other ways to compete on the diamond. At the same time as the Rangers’ debacle with the Rodriguez contract, the Oakland Athletics, with one of baseball’s smallest payrolls, were winning more than 60% of their games and finishing at the top of the standings. As recounted in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003), Oakland outsmarted teams it could not outspend by using new, data-driven analytical measures to find players and devise strategies that were undervalued by the MLB consensus. Hitters who drew walks, for example, could be as valuable as ones who got hits, especially since a base on balls often forces the pitcher to throw more pitches and, eventually, the opposing manager to use more pitchers. Similarly, the A’s’ front office, led by general manager Billy Beane, employed the era’s expanding hardware and software capabilities to determine that a stolen base’s rewards rarely justify its risks, and bunting to advance a runner into scoring position is not worth the cost of making an out intentionally. By finding players whose skills lent themselves to such tactics, the 2002 Athletics won 103 games with a payroll of $40 million, third-lowest in the sport that year. This record tied them for the most wins in baseball with the Yankees, whose 2002 payroll was $126 million, MLB’s highest.
In Wall Street terms, Oakland prospered by identifying assets the market had undervalued, such as batters with high on-base percentages but lacking other, more obvious statistical credentials. Doing so, however, ultimately reset the market. It’s hard enough for one franchise out of 30 to develop a special sauce, but virtually impossible to come up with a secret sauce. Even if your innovations are not praised in a best-selling book that gets made into a hit movie, the results of everything a team does are out there on the field, captured on television every day. The 29 teams outside Oakland could not help but be intensely interested in figuring out how the A’s paid $388,000 per victory in 2002 while the Yankees spent $1,223,000 apiece for the same number of wins. Other teams, including ones with large payrolls, reverse-engineered their rosters and strategies to duplicate Oakland’s success.
The result is that a sport whose rules have barely changed since the end of the 19th century has undergone continuous transformation in the 21st. As so often in the history of capitalism, new technologies and insights have proven lethal to old assumptions. Computer programs that capture details about each individual batter’s tendencies, for example, have allowed for precise positioning of fielders. Shifting three infielders to one side of second base, unheard of for most of baseball history, has become routine. In response, batters who find it harder to hit the ball through defenders try to hit over them, with a “swing path” designed to maximize the likelihood of a home run. What used to be a batting coach’s joke—swing hard in case you hit it—is now treated as a best practice. A growing proportion of balls put in play end up as home runs—but a growing proportion of plate appearances end up without the ball put in play. “Today’s hitters have beautiful swings, but they have only one swing,” writes ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian. So, “if the pitcher identifies and avoids that one bat path, he doesn’t just get him out, he strikes him out.”
A different kind of innovation has also been transformative. In 1974 surgeon Frank Jobe performed a new ligament replacement procedure on the left elbow of Dodgers starting pitcher Tommy John. After a year off to recuperate, John went on to win 20 games for the first time in his career, then to pitch in the majors for 13 more seasons. His success has made “Tommy John surgery” ubiquitous, and not just for established MLB pitchers. It is increasingly common for teenagers to have the procedure, or for professionals to undergo it a second time. Possessing this new safety feature, pitchers drive more aggressively, throwing harder and faster than ever before, with more violent torque in their delivery to produce breaking pitches that, from the batter’s perspective, defy the laws of physics.
Old social conventions have also been cast aside. It used to be thought unmanly for a starting pitcher to let another player complete his work. Stars, in particular, were expected to pitch nine innings—more if the game was tied. Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, for example, started 34 games for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1968 and completed 28 of them. In 2019, the 30 MLB teams played 2,430 regular season games and produced only 37 complete games. Data analysis has shown that almost every starting pitcher has markedly less success after opposing hitters have faced him twice in that game. Since it usually takes four or five innings to get through the batting order two times, starters are now routinely removed in the middle of a game so that managers can commence summoning a succession of flame-throwing relief pitchers.
It’s hard not to admire the ingenuity devoted to securing any slight advantage that will help a team score more and yield fewer runs, which is the point of every action on the field and in the front office. But, unfortunately, it’s also hard to enjoy the results. Johnnie B. “Dusty” Baker, 72, has been involved in baseball his entire adult life, 18 years as a player and for more than 20 as a manager. Now managing the Houston Astros, Baker has no choice but to watch ballgames, but that doesn’t mean he has to like them. “It’s unbelievable,” he told Kurkjian. “I watched a game the other night, the first three innings, the ball wasn’t put in play by either team. Everyone struck out. I’ve never seen that.” Tommy John, retired at 78, does not have to watch baseball, and chooses to avoid it, finding the game “unrecognizable.”
Not only does less action occur in a typical baseball game, but it takes longer for it not to happen. In the recently completed 2021 regular season, the average nine-inning game lasted three hours and ten minutes, the longest ever. Twenty years ago, the average game lasted two hours and 58 minutes. Go back another two decades, to 1981, and the average game was two hours and 33 minutes long. This relentless deceleration in the pace of play goes on despite rule changes intended to hasten games, such as limits on the number of conferences teams hold on the mound or on how frequently teams bring in relief pitchers.
In one of the most exciting contests in baseball history, the seventh and deciding game of the 1960 World Series, the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates combined to score 19 runs on 24 hits and five walks (but zero strikeouts!), with appearances by nine different pitchers and 23 position players. Bill Mazeroski’s ninth-inning home run finally gave Pittsburgh a 10-9 win and, with it, the championship. From today’s perspective, the most surprising fact about this game was that despite all its action and drama, the teams managed to complete their business in two hours and 36 minutes. It’s now unusual for a low-scoring game between teams that have no prospect of playing for the championship to wrap up that quickly.
Where Have You Gone?
Here’s a thought experiment: suppose we could effect the changes in rules and attitudes that would be necessary for baseball to be played just as it was in 1960. Games would last only as long as they used to, there would be as much action on the field, and any team would have the same chance to be competitive, even if it played in one of MLB’s smaller cities.
Would baseball played as it was in 1960 regain a good measure of the following it has lost since then? I cannot come up with one solid reason to think that it would, but several to think it would not. For one thing, television distorts not only baseball’s revenue structure but the game itself. Except perhaps for golf, no sport’s TV version differs as much from the experience of watching it in person as does baseball’s. Theo Epstein is right to insist that baseball is a nine-man game, but for viewers who know it primarily through television, it is for the most part a three-man sport. The camera angle that captures most of the action is a telephoto shot from the center-field bleachers looking in at the pitcher and, beyond him, the batter, catcher, and home plate umpire. When the ball is put in play, the TV producer cuts away from this default shot to ones showing a fielder or two, previously unseen, then a series of camera shots that trace the action involving base runners and other defensive players.
The cumulative effect is to make the game look like a random sequence of athletes moving around in undefined and disconnected spaces for no apparent purpose. The experience is entirely unlike watching a game from the grandstand, where the interplay of different players doing different things is, once you come to understand what you’re seeing, comprehensible and compelling. It’s no coincidence that the golden age of baseball was also the golden age of radio, since the broadcast of a game with a good announcer allowed the listener to “see” the whole field as if talking it over with a friend in the stands.
Worse, television distorts even the one facet of the game it shows over and over, the pitch to home plate. A two-dimensional screen, showing an image captured by a camera 500 feet away, gives no sense of what it means for the pitcher to stand 60 feet and six inches from home plate, then repeatedly throw the ball to a small target barely inside or outside the strike zone with speed, movement, and accuracy. Nor does it allow us to appreciate how amazing it is that the batter, with less than half a second to swing, take, or dive out of danger, ever manages to hit the ball, and sometimes to crush it.
Television changes not only the events it shows but the people who watch them. The advent of channel-surfing with the remote control, followed by web-surfing on smaller rectangles, has decimated our attention spans and reconfigured our synapses. It’s an obvious problem for baseball if games unfold ever more slowly while we expect life to come at us, and our sensory apparatus, faster and faster. As the Week magazine wrote in 2015, “[b]aseball simply struggles to work in a world of instant gratification.”
In Infinite Baseball (2019), philosophy professor Alva Noë concedes that “lots of people think baseball is boring” for the same reason that lots of people think classical music is boring: both are “difficult” and require “knowledge and focus to understand what’s happening.” This compliment to baseball fans offers little reassurance to baseball executives, since the managers and boards of symphony orchestras around the country also live in terror that the current, aging generation of music patrons will not have a successor. But at least four-minute renditions of the Minute Waltz have not become commonplace.
Noë fears that the various rule changes suggested to accelerate the pace of play and make baseball more appealing to 21st-century viewers “aren’t designed to improve the game but, rather, to improve the product.” It is not clear whether there are ways to do both. Industries that endure long declines after decades of dominance often go through an identity crisis. The people who have run baseball for the past 50 years appear to be increasingly uncertain about what they’re selling and whom they’re selling it to. In 2019 MLB introduced a new marketing campaign built around the slogan, “Let the kids play.” The idea was that baseball was going to celebrate, not merely tolerate, young stars’ exuberance, even to the point of repealing informal but long-settled rules against “showboating” and taunting. The campaign signals a future where baseball capitulates to the revolution in athletic norms that began 60 years ago when Muhammad Ali employed the publicity tactics of a fake sport, professional wrestling, to promote himself as the champion of a real one, boxing.
At the same time, the baseball industry’s comfort zone is honoring and marketing its past. Two of the most successful baseball movies of the late 20th century were The Natural (1984) and Field of Dreams (1989), both of which mythologized pre-World War II baseball. The movies’ success had a direct influence on stadium architecture. In 1992, the Baltimore Orioles opened their new Camden Yards ballpark, which immediately increased attendance and won praise. This successful “retro” park, incorporating modern amenities into a facility designed to evoke the look and feel of pre-war venues, was widely emulated. Over the past 29 years, the majority of MLB teams have built a new stadium, many of which seem to be posing for a sepia photograph. In August 2021 MLB staged a “Field of Dreams” game at the Iowa cornfield where the movie had been filmed. The national broadcast drew the highest ratings of any regular season game since 2005.
Baseball is not alone in struggling to forge a new future while preserving its heritage. America itself is unsettled by this challenge. In 1969 Hillary Rodham declared that her Wellesley graduating class represented a generation “searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.” Little wonder that baseball, the only sport where the official scorecard can record a sacrifice, was falling out of favor. Football became the most popular sport during this cultural revolution because, as George Will wrote in 1979, it “mirrors modern life” by consisting of “committee meetings, called huddles, separated by outbursts of violence.”
Neither in nor since the ’60s, however, has the nation devised a clear, uncontested successor to the old understanding of a life well lived. The dilemma was captured memorably by the 1967 Mike Nichols film The Graduate. Paul Simon wrote a song for the soundtrack, “Mrs. Robinson,” that also became a hit. Its most famous verse asked:
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you
What’s that you say Mrs. Robinson?
Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away.
After DiMaggio’s death in 1999 Simon wrote an affecting tribute in the New York Times, recounting that he met the Yankee Clipper once and assured him that the song was not derisive but a sincere lament for a type of nobility that had disappeared from the nation’s life. DiMaggio’s playing career began in 1936 and concluded in 1951, an era when “it was fashionable to refer to baseball as a metaphor for America,” Simon wrote, an allusion to writings like the Barzun essay. DiMaggio, Simon continued, “represented the values of that America: excellence and fulfillment of duty (he often played in pain), combined with a grace that implied a purity of spirit, an off-the-field dignity and a jealously guarded private life.”
Baseball can probably devise ways to be a successful product in a nation that has rejected the virtues Joe DiMaggio epitomized. Perhaps, however, the popularity of retro baseball reflects something more fundamental than the appeal of baggy flannel uniforms on the field and exposed brick walls in the concourse. Appreciating the game DiMaggio played could reflect a desire to recapture the principles and aspirations of the nation that made him a hero. If so, a game recognizable as baseball may yet flourish in a country recognizable as America.