To try to understand baseball, is to try to understand America. And just like the country, there is much more to the sport than meets the eye. Sit in the bleachers, sip a beer, and take a bite of a bratwurst hot dog. There is a hush as the pitcher winds up for his first pitch, and as the wooden bat shoots out a resounding Crack!, you are overcome with joy, shouting and cheering with everyone around you.
The game is simple, but complex. You hit a ball with a stick and run around. Ah, but what about all of the unspoken intrigue, the subtexts, the gestures, the strategy? What about the statistical analysis, the mysterious hand signals from the catcher, the sacrifices and bunts and subterfuge? There is indeed a profound sub-level of baseball that makes it a thinking man’s game.
The origins of baseball-like games are Medieval, but the codified American sport, as we know it today, came around in the late 1800s, and of course was extremely popular in the early 20th century, especially after World War II. Baseball was called America’s national game, because its values seemed to mimic those of the country. It was a team sport, but depended on individual merit; it required sacrifices for the good of the team; it required athleticism, but was not violent; it was the first game to incorporate African-American players; it was wholesome, thoughtful, and family-oriented. Everything about the game seemed to reflect the values of the US, especially during and around World War II.
But sometime around the late 1970s, baseball was eclipsed by football as America’s national game, and the statistics prove it. More people watch American football now, than they do baseball. So what is it about the gridiron that has replaced the diamond as America’s favorite sport? If you Google the question, you will find countless theories, some of them plausible, and others just silly. But is there a single, right answer?
My own opinion is that the changing popularity of the two sports reflects the changes in American culture that each sport represents. After all, you can hardly say that American culture in 2014 is the same as it was in 1940 or 1950. So what exactly has changed?
During baseball’s birth and rise in the US, the country was still very conservative. A good, American life meant serving in the military, marrying, having children, owning a house, and other such wholesome, traditional values. But during the 1960s, things completely changed. A combination of the Summer of Love, the Berkeley and Kent State riots, the Vietnam War, Charles Manson, and other cultural phenomena changed the entire focus of the country. There was “a new generation with a new explanation”, as the song said.
During the next couple of decades, the Watergate Conspiracy, the rise of Communism, and the Cold War shaped the US into a muscular superpower whose goal was to prevent another world war through the expansion of the military and global involvement. In essence, it became a nation best described, not by the thoughtful, slow-paced, individualistic elements of baseball, but by the crushing, dizzying violence of football. Two lines of giant men in ballistic armor, bashing their heads together, is a more fitting analogy for an America that must keep its place as a world superpower and military force, two teams facing conflict after conflict in punctuated battles, in order to win an overall war.
So which game really is America’s National Game today? There is no doubt that football has a higher viewership than baseball. But many Americans still feel that there is nothing quite like watching a live MLB game, sitting in the stands and soaking in the entire experience, enlivening the five senses with all that is baseball. Maybe that is the whole point: like the US, sports keep changing to reflect culture.