The long exaggerated death of baseball

Scott Rovak / USA Today Sports

At this point, it would have been remarkable if the All-Star Break came and went without a column lamenting the impending death of baseball. "Is baseball on its way out?" CNN's Mike Downey asked on Tuesday. Downey laments the drop in attendance and wonders why everything isn't like it was when he was a kid. These things happen every year when the games take a break and journalists are forced to shout into the void. 

As pre-eminent baseball historian John Thorn tweeted recently, "The Golden Age of Baseball coincides neatly with when one happened to be twelve years old." As such, it should come as no surprise that former 12-year-olds have been portending baseball's doom since 12-year-olds have played baseball. But the pace does seem to pick up in times of crisis. In a minor crisis -- for instance, more Americans like soccer now -- it will be a trickle. For a major crisis -- such as, the Mitchell Report revealing every player you and your son loved did steroids -- it's more of a waterfall, with only Murray Chass waiting to stem the tides.

The only obvious fact, reading both the doomsayers and the counter-doomsayers, is neither side has the same definition of the death of baseball. A purely literal reading of the situation is neither illuminating nor interesting. Rather, it is clear that for some reason, for these fans and writers who talk about the death of baseball, something they valued about the league is either threatened or gone. This value could be something as trivial as baseball's popularity relative to soccer, or it could be something as deep as feeling baseball's integrity of competition has been compromised (as discussed last week).

As Thorn alludes to, these values are often formed in our youth as part of our cultural education. When these values are threatened--by drugs, falling attendance other sports, or apathy by those within baseball--then baseball is dying, or marching dangerously close to its death. Harry Edwards explains in Sociology of Sport:

Under these circumstances, the beliefs associated with sports involvement and scientifically definable as "cultural fictions" have been publicly acknowledged acknowledged by significant segments of the population as cultural fictions in fact. In this regard, Williams* states:

...[The widespread acknowledgements of] cultural fictions often represent more subtle processes of "loss of conviction," expressed in the language of psychology as withdrawal of affect or loss identification and involvement...

It is at the point that this "loss of conviction" begins to manifest itself that one finds widespread sentiments holding that even such sports spectaculars as the Super Bowl in football and the World Series in baseball have become "dull," "lackluster," or "unexciting."

*Robin Williams, author of American Society 

It's a perfect explanation for the cyclical nature of columns announcing baseball's death. The World Series or All-Star game, particularly one revolving around the farewell to a prodigious star, can serve as a particularly emotional reminder of how the game has changed. In sports, which maintains tradition at a level few other institutions do -- perhaps only religion? -- these changes are jarring, particularly so in a sport so saturated in tradition as baseball. The last 40 years have contained enough changes to make baseball unrecognizable in many ways. As such, there is some substance to the feeling that baseball is dying or even has died.

There is, however, more to it than the circle of life. Edwards notes the effect of mass media on American sports and the myths that maintain them:

In short, the onset of truly mass communication in the United States since the 1930s has resulted in an information explosion that has had a tremendous impact in broadening Americans' perceptions of and interests in events occurring around them. Under the impact of this information explosion, many old "truths" have frequently emerged less hallowed and somewhat more tarnished than past generations ever could have thought possible. Television, books, telephones, radio, mass rallies made possible by the jet plane and the automobile, newspapers, and magazines are not merely vehicles which have allowed the dissemination of an increased volume of information at an increased rate. The volume and rate of information dispersion has itself had an enormous impact upon society's members, especially in terms of their perceptions of the world and their definitions of reality.

Although sport has hardly died since Edwards published Sociology of Sport in 1973, it has gone through changes both more rapidly and larger in scope in the past 42 years than in any other period in American history. Free agency has radically increased the flow of money from owners to athletes. Sports like basketball and soccer have risen heavily in the national consciousness. Athletes of color and international athletes are far more prevalent in American sports. And the rise of cable television has made it possible to follow more and more sports and watch more and more games of sports that were already popular.

The internet is having as big an effect as any advancement in mass communications yet. Just as the sports fan experience was radically changed by the radio, the airplane and the television, the internet is leading to another explosion in information and another radical change in how sports are watched and learned by young people. Whereas sporting institutions were able to take advantage of the standardized infrastructure of television and radio, the more democratic space of the internet has offered fans more avenues to enjoy the sport and more different groups of people to do it with.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the American sporting institution was facing a number of crises. More and more athletes were joining social movements, both on campuses and in professional unions. An economic recession had hit the nation and was hitting sports hard. And the violence and authoritarianism in sports was becoming less and less acceptable to the growing liberal and left wing populations in America. Again, from Edwards:

What is happening in sports today results from the impact of the twentieth century, with its affluence, its speed, its mass communications--all of which have combined to creates a much smaller world and new definitions of reality. As tradition has become less and less relevant to contemporary perceptions of reality, tremendous strains have resulted. These strains themselves are manifestations of social change--a change which is rapidly approaching "critical mass" wherein not only is an adjustment in institutional processes demanded, but an alteration in institutional foundations and structural relationships as well.

Replace "the twentieth century" with "the 1980s and 1990s," and the above paragraph could easily pass as referring to sports today. The remarkable speed of communication and (as these Primary Sources columns should show) the remarkable access to archives made possible by the internet have only continued to erode the importance of tradition and to create the ever-shrinking world referred to by Edwards.

As a result, the conflicts between old and new will only persist, if not escalate. And as new ideas slowly but surely win some of these battles, those viewing from static perspectives will continue to moan, "Baseball is dead!"

Indeed. Baseball is dead. Long live baseball.

The long exaggerated death of baseball
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