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Posts Tagged ‘baseball’

Around this time of the year, I write a post to celebrate the arrival of baseball, the national pastime. This year the pastime has not arrived on time; it may not arrive at all.

Its absence is far from the saddest story of Covid-19–though sad enough for the unemployed beer vendors, ticket-takers, and security guards, as well as the hot prospects who were going to break into the big leagues this year and the fading veterans who were going to resurrect their careers for just one more turn. Yet, true fans still yearn. We read the latest stories that baseball writers have scrounged from the recycle bins of their laptops, such as features on the best second-string left fielders who played on the teams west of Mississippi in 1977 or on the meals that the local team’s bullpen catcher is whipping up for his kids during confinement. Meanwhile, TV provides reruns of games that local nine never lose. empty ballpark trimmed

What will MLB do with the season? One idea being pitched and batted around, semi-endorsed by Dr. Anthony Fauci himself, is to play the games in stadiums scattered in a restricted locale–the Phoenix region is often mentioned–with the players effectively quarantined together (think of a cruise ship berthed in Scottsdale) and no fans in the stands, just tv cameras. What would baseball be like without the fans?

Athletes almost always publicly credit the fans, calling them the 6th man in basketball, the 10th man in baseball, the 12th man in football–really, the 6th, 10th, 12th person. Winning teams thank their fans for the support without which victory would have been impossible, losing teams praise them for their faith and loyalty through hard times. But, do fans really matter (besides paying the fare)?

I did a quick literature search on the topic.

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Baseball fanatics like me love to wallow in cliches such as “baseball is life.” “Baseball is a lot like life,” said Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell. “It’s a day-to-day existence, full of ups and downs. You make the most of your opportunities in baseball as you do in life.” Yes, indeed.

Regularly enough, however, a desiccated cliche like “baseball is America” comes alive. Such is the comment of San Francisco sportswriter Henry Schulman upon the announcements that Bryce Harper will get a guaranteed $330 million over 13 years from the Phillies and Mike Trout a guaranteed $430 million over 12 years from the Angels. (Trout will receive annually about 25 times more in real dollars than Babe Ruth ever did. He will make about 800 times as much per year as the median American worker today makes–and he will have a lot more fun making it, too.) “So, if I understand Baseball economics now,” Schulman tweeted, “a few guys at the top earn more than they can spend in 100 lifetimes, a lot of players who used to be paid decently now get scraps, and the group in the middle is shrinking quickly. No, wait, that’s America!” (@hankschulman 3/20/19).

Indeed, the pay disparities developing in major league baseball roughly parallel those that have developed in the general economy. (Mind you, no one need weep for the lowest-paid major leaguers; their minimum wage is about a half-million dollars a year. The real proletarians are average minor leaguers; they effectively earn less than the national minimum wage under difficult working conditions.) Another commonality between baseball and American economics is how massive data-crunching has helped produce growing inequality.

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In the off-season–and any season without baseball is “off,” as in slightly rancid–the big news in the sports world was political, the fierce controversy over NFL players “taking a knee” during the national anthem to protest… well, a variety of things, from police shootings to the rhetoric of the president. A good deal of this sports politics had to do with race–as a good deal of all American politics has to do with race. That helps explain where baseball stands in this controversy.

Hart_McCovey_Mays_1967

Hart, McCovey, Mays 1967

With rare exception, baseball players remained standing during the anthem and stood apart from the protests. While the 2017 World Series winners, the Astros (minus Puerto Rican player Carlos Beltran), made the ritual trip of champions to Trump’s White House on March 12, 2018, the 2017 NBA champion Golden State Warriors spurned the ceremony and several members of the Superbowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles said they would boycott a similar event. This contrast emerges from the historical connection between race and baseball.

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Opening Day 2016

Opening Day 2016 is coming up. And thus an opportunity for me to pursue an issue I addressed in 2014’s Opening Day post: how baseball remains America’s true pastime.

Real sports excitement and engagement rests in large part on the uncertainty of the outcome. This is why the drama of sports exceeds that of the scripted arts like theater, movies, and novels. Overwhelmingly, art scripts end predictably: heroes defeat villains, true love conquers all, innocent babes are saved, and so on. Sports stories, which also have moral plots and subplots, are unscripted and unpredictable and thus more engaging and exciting. And baseball is more so than the other leading American sports.

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Opening Day 2015

Baseball is back this week. Hallelujah!

Actually, it was back earlier, in spring training, which has become highly popular in recent years. One fieldwork observation about spring training in the Phoenix area,where 15 MLB teams train in close proximity, 10 of them sharing stadiums: The teams’ enthusiastic fans seem to mingle in good cheer. Why is this amicability worth noting? Because if one looks to Europe (and Latin America), one sees violence between gangs of fans at a scale and intensity shocking to Americans. The U.S. has a much higher rate of violent crime overall than does Europe and yet, in this regard, our stadiums seem like oases of peaceful sportsmanship.

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To be sure, violence does break out among fans at American sports events, even baseball. Mix together young men, competition and alcohol and you have a formula for brawls in the stands, dousing opposing players with beer, and busting things. In the Bay Area, we have had a couple of tragic fights break out among handfuls of fans just outside stadiums. Last year in southern California, three U.S. Marines were stabbed in a brawl between Dodgers and Angels fans. Post-championship celebrations too often end up in street violence–as did the celebration of the Giants clinching the 2014 World Series–although usually the damage is just to property. Still, American sports have nothing like the brutal battles between the supporters of European football (soccer) teams–for example, 39 deaths in a 1985 European Cup riot. How come?

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It’s time again to talk about the National Pastime. Baseball season is starting this coming week. (I know that there was a quasi-start in Australia on March 22-23 with two Dodger wins; that doesn’t count.)

 

Back in one of baseball’s Golden Ages, the 1950s, there seemed little debate about what sport was the national pastime. (The picture to the right commemorates the 60th Anniversary of The Catch and the then-New York Giants’ upset sweep of Cleveland in the 1954 World Series.) The NFL was just emerging into the mass market and the NBA was still farther behind. Nowadays, however, everyone assumes that professional football has displaced baseball as the National Pastime. I am here to argue otherwise.

Some point to the television extravaganza of the Superbowl as proof of football’s preeminence. But that spectacle gathers many viewers who are not fans except perhaps of commercials, half-time shlockfests, guacamole dips, and partying. Others point to surveys asking Americans what their “favorite sport” or “favorite sport to watch” is. The data here are clear: Until about the 1960s-70s, baseball led; since then football has taken a wide lead.

Gallup polls [gated] show that baseball was comfortably ahead of football in “favorite to watch” through 1960. By 1972, football had the lead (by 19 points in January, 1972, although by only 8 points in October, 1972). About four decades later, in 2013, 40% of Gallup respondents picked football and only 14% picked baseball as favorite to watch. The Harris Poll started only in 1985 to ask  its respondents who followed sports to name their favorite one; baseball and pro football essentially tied. In December, 2012, football led 34% to 16%.

OK. Football is the more “favorite” sport. That’s not the same thing as pastime.

 

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Writers – academic, commercial, and intellectual – have for generations indulged themselves writing about baseball. (This post, of course, becomes a further meta-indulgence.) There is nothing close in either American fiction or literary nonfiction about football or basketball, however much those other sports dominate the TV screen these days.[1]

Shoeless (?) JOe Jackson [Source]

Shoeless (?) Joe Jackson [Source]

Much of the baseball genre now tends to be nostalgic, elegies to a past of country pastures, sandlots, and pickup games. I was reminded of this trope when reading a recent essay in The (new) New Republic by Kent Russell about Amish boys playing ball. Russell’s essay combines two forms of nostalgia in the same space, wistful for a life and a sport that both seemed simpler and purer. (Will anyone ever write nostalgia about suburban kids’ traveling teams and their minivans? Maybe when they start to disappear.) An intriguing historical aspect of this literature, at least my impression of it, is that there are actually two strands of writing, one backward-looking and one forward-looking, although both are about childhood.

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In the first game of the 1911 World Series, all of the 18 starters were born in the USA. Just about every one of them carried a last name suggesting that his male ancestors came from the British Isles  – except perhaps Merkle and Herzog of the N.Y. Giants. (One could be misled. The Giants’ John Meyers was a California Cahuilla Indian.) In contrast, 7 of the 18 starters in the first game of the 2011 World Series were foreign-born; four, including the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols, came from the Dominican Republic. Moreover, the native-born starters of 2011 included a few with such non-Anglo names as Berkman, Kinsler, and Punto.

This is my annual America-is-baseball and baseball-is-America blog post (which can also be seen as the ritual welcoming of spring). It’s about the globalization of the all-American pastime, which has increasingly become many foreigners’ pastime, as well. Globalization – which has sent jobs from here to overseas and workers from abroad to here – has reached baseball.

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Opening Day 2011

March 31 brings Opening Day with your – well, at least my – World Champion San Francisco Giants facing the team that used to be called ‘Da Bums (before they became Hollywoodized). The come-from-behind-the-pack saga of a team of undervalued position players was capped by a tremendous victory parade last November along Market Street that even stunned the veteran players (see Andy Baggarly’s account). San Francisco fans remain, months later, in a blissed-out stupor.

Giants Parade 2010

The social history angle here – there has to be one – is to wonder about such mass adulation of sports heroes. Millions of people spend good money and spend good time watching a bunch of men play a game. No paycheck, religious duty, threat to life or family, tribal allegiance, or urge for freedom draws them into the stadium to cheer or onto the streets to celebrate. How does that make sense?

Modern mass spectator sports in America began in the late 19th and early 20th century. Historians have tried to understand what brought the masses out to spectate. Many say it’s all about compensation.

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As the Giants made their great run toward the World Series Championship (full disclosure: Giants fan since 1953), a story appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle about the social skills of manager Bruce Bochy. It quoted third-base coach Tim Flannery:

AP David J. Phillip

“There’s so much more to Bochy’s art – and it is that – than the X’s and O’s,” Flannery said. “What he does best, I think, is keep a team together from February to October. People from a distance may not understand, but when you’re together for 162 games, the only thing that gets guys to play hard is their respect for you.”

That is a striking claim: “the only thing that gets guys to play hard is their respect for you.” We’re talking here about individuals who are highly-trained professionals, who have competed in this sport since childhood, who are paid millions for their work, and who – more than in almost any other occupation – understand that their next contract depends very precisely on exactly how well they perform right now. Yet coach Flannery says that the “only” motivator is respect for the manager.

Stories on the Giants’ magical season also add another social dimension: their team camaraderie, the upbeat atmosphere of their clubhouse, their bonding. One local columnist invoked “community” to explain the team’s success. (The 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates invoked the slogan, “We Are Family.”) The cynic in us scoffs. (And that cynic may recall that the Oakland A’s in their heyday were noted for internal fighting.) Yet, history and social science research have shown that solidarity and personal bonds often matter more than individual interest in critical settings.

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