"The one constant through the years, Ray, is baseball."
James Earl Jones to Kevin Costner, in Field of Dreams (1989)
Is this a great sport, or what?
Is it any wonder that there is such a strong correlation between the status of baseball, the original professional sport, and the overall greatness of the United States? Both were on the upsurge through the first half of the twentieth century, faltered a bit in the late 1950s, declined for the next three decades, bottoming out during the strike of 1994, and then came roaring back at the turn of the century. True, the triumphant end of the Cold War predated baseball's comeback by a few years, and one might argue that the renaissance of baseball was more of an effect than a cause, but the precise timing is not really important. Football may have gained greater popularity for the moment in this mindless, thrill-addicted era of video games in which we live, but at solemn moments such as the grieving after the September 11 attacks, everyone looked to baseball as the authentic wellspring of American values to bring our nation together.
Baseball and politics
Just as there is no crying in baseball (as Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own), there is no room for politicking. You can be a scruffy New Deal leftist like Studs Terkel or a blue-blood conservative elitist like George Will, and you will fit in just fine, as long as you park your political opinions at the door. In Ken Burns' Baseball documentary series, Bill "Spaceman" Lee, the psychedelic pitcher from the 1970s, criticized baseball owners in terms that were clearly Marxist. In the 2004 presidential campaign, in contrast, Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench campaigned for President Bush in the crucial state of Ohio, possibly changing the course of history. The return of baseball to Our Nation's Capital in 2005 offers hope that the sharp hostilities between the parties may gradually be eased by the resumption of the old custom of legislators and activists going out to the ballpark together. Whatever one's political affiliation, the image of the President throwing out the first pitch at RFK Stadium brings a warm, confident sense that what unites the country is stronger than what divides it.
Baseball and business
Professional sports is by nature a contradicton in terms, and could not exist in a society that lacked deep reverence for customs and ethical mores. Given the constant temptations to cheat for monetary gain, professional sports is a gigantic leap of faith. Thus, there will always be latent tensions that threaten to undermine the integrity of the sport, and nothing but fan vigilance can keep players and owners honest. In a nominally capitalist society such as ours, there is a higher value placed on individual competitive effort, whereas socialist societies place a higher value on team work. Among all sports, baseball seems uniquely oriented toward highlighting both individual and cooperative effort. But is professional baseball in the USA really an example of capitalist free enterprise, or is it a medieval cartel? The strike of 1994 is often blamed on "greed" but it is probably more the result of the antitrust exemption Major League Baseball was granted early in the 20th century. This removes the normal disciplinary market incentives that keep competitive businesses "honest." Some basic reform is needed to attract quality players while maintaining a semblance of balance between big markets and small markets, but there are no easy solutions in sight.
Baseball and kids
Many non-believers deride baseball fans as hopeless sentimental fools, out of touch with today's youth, and there may be some truth to that. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the love of baseball and its hallowed past is more than nostalgia, it is a lively, active literate interpretation of a saga that evokes the finest human qualities while embracing the funky, nitty-gritty realities of urban life. The scruffy street punks who venerated Babe Ruth back in the 1920s are the counterpart to the rap music fans and X-treme skateboard fanatics of today's hip-hop generation, defying authority in the finest tradition of Patrick Henry. Major League Baseball is not stupid, and their marketing departments are constantly inventing clever ways to appeal to the sensibilities of kids and adolescents. Hence the savvy use of the Goo-Goo Dolls' hard-rock rendition of Take Me Out to the Ballgame in the late 1990s, and the hip slogan, "I Live For This!".
Baseball in small towns
Even though nearly all fans' attention is focused on the big leagues, there would be no baseball if it were not for the thousands of organized local amateur teams that play all across the country. Click on the camera icons below to see some examples.