Why Baseball is No Longer Central to the Culture
Sunday there was an interesting piece in The New York Times by Jonathan Mahler (“The Bronx is Burning”) on the whys and hows of the waning popularity of Major League Baseball.
He says a lot of what I say. Yes, attendance is up, yes, revenue is up. But TV ratings for national games are down and the sport is no longer central to the culture in the way it once was. People rarely talk baseball the way they talk football. If they talk baseball, it's local. If they talk football it can be the playoffs or the Super Bowl or the Super Bowl commercials. If they talk basketball it can be March Madness. The World Series? Is that on?
So Mahler goes into why this is so.
Here's a key paragraph:
The N.F.L. has certain structural advantages over Major League Baseball: teams play only once a week, and when the postseason arrives, every game is an elimination game. But its real advantage is that it’s louder, faster and more violent — which is to say, better in tune with our cultural moment. “We are a shouting culture now, shouting connotes excitement and engenders excitement,” says Daniel Okrent, who is considered the founding father of fantasy baseball. “Baseball is quiet and slow.”
We're a more loutish country so we have a more loutish national sport.
It’s telling that professional football has been around for about 100 years, but that it didn’t find cultural traction until the age of television.
If baseball was a game you followed, football was one you watched. Beneath the surface, it was an enormously complicated sport. But the passing, the running, the tackling? This was great television. And under the lights, on Monday nights, with Howard Cosell making you feel like the country’s fate hung in the balance of even the most meaningless game? Forget about it.
But he stops there. He doesn't go far enough.
Why has TV been kinder to football and basketball and hockey? Think of those sports. Think of the shape of the football field or basketball court or hockey rink. What is that shape?
Now what is the shape of your TV screen?
Put those sports on your TV and they fit right in. Baseball? Not so much.
Those other sports are two-dimensional. You follow the ball. Wherever the ball is, that's where the action is. Baseball? Well, the ball's in the right-field corner, the runner is rounding second with the tying run. Can he make it in time? Where's the right fielder? Where's the cut-off man? Where's the base-runner now? Around third? Here comes the ball! We want to be watching several things at once. It's requires three-dimensionality but TV flattens everything.
Final thought: If baseball is less central because of TV and because we're more loutish, are these related? Are we more loutish because of TV? (Yes. Yes, we are.)
Watching Harmon Killebrew at Met Stadium in the 1960s, I didn't know the sport's centrality was already waning.