Traditions abound on Opening Day, but one unfortunate reoccurring part of the festivities seems to be at least one inane and misinformed article touting the demise of baseball as the national pastime. I am convinced that the same article gets passed around each year so a new author can add a few extra distortions and inaccuracies. The latest example comes to us from John R. Miller, a visiting scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, who penned this year’s version of the same old tired piece for the Wall Street Journal. Let’s take a look at his effort and see if we can’t add a little common sense.
Jacques Barzun, the French-born, American cultural historian, once wrote that “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” Today Mr. Barzun would have to refer his foreign readers to professional football or even automobile racing, both of which trump baseball in television ratings.
Sadly, this logic isn’t what you’d expect from a scholar, especially one who purports to be a baseball fan. The NFL and NASCAR are both event driven sports. The number of televised contests are limited (and usually conveniently scheduled on Sundays). Baseball, however, has each team playing 162 games. As a result, it isn’t event-driven, but local-driven. Yankee fans watch the Yankees. Mariner fans watch the Mariners. And so on. Comparing the ratings of these sports is absurd. With so many more games at one’s disposal, the imperative to watch a game of the week is lost. If baseball only played games on Sundays and Mondays, I’m sure its regular season ratings would compete with football’s. Finally, it isn’t fair to compare the World Series to the Super Bowl because the later is viewed as more than a sporting event. In a sense, the Super Bowl is a reality show, with viewers tuning in to watch the commercials, see if their “box” wins or just provide background noise for a party. In my experience, when people gather to watch the World Series, the focus is almost undividedly on the actual game (of which there can be up to 7, as opposed to just one).
Major League owners like to boast that attendance at their games, except for the recent recession, has increased. But with the disappearance of hundreds of minor league and semi-pro teams—and thousands of teams in almost every town, factory, prison and military post across the land—interest in baseball and attendance has plummeted overall. Soccer has superseded baseball in suburban parks, and basketball has replaced stickball in the cities.
Major league owners like to boast about attendance because it has been extraordinary, even in spite of the recession and the two New York ballparks scaling back about 15,000 total seats per game. The notion that this attendance is being fueled by the obliteration of the minor leagues is not only absurd, but just plain wrong. According to MiLB.com, the number of minor leagues and teams has varied overtime, but the general attendance trend as been on the rise. For example, MiLB set its all-time attendance mark in 2008 by drawing over 43,000,000 fans, topping the previous mark of 39,640,443 when there were 488 teams. Now, I can’t speak for the decline in prison game attendance, but both minor and major league baseball are doing incredibly well at the gate. Unfortunately, a reliance on similar incorrect anecdotal evidence seems to be the pillar of Miller’s argument.
Gone are the days of the early 20th century when (as Harold and Dorothy Seymour point out in their book “Baseball: The People’s Game”) scores of young Detroit businessmen would wake before sunrise to play in “Early Risers” baseball games, 25,000 turned out to watch a New York City high-school baseball championship, and Chicago laid out 4,000 municipal ball fields.
Yes, gone are the days of the 20th century. What is the point? Besides, I’d invite Mr. Miller to check out any number of Brooklyn parks. If he bothered, he’d see scores of young (and old) New York businessmen playing softball. I am not sure what that proves, but they are out there playing.
Today when the best teams from different countries play each other, the Americans lose. In the two recent World Baseball Classics in 2006 and 2009, the American teams, though led by stars like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, didn’t even make the finals. Japan and Korea dominated, featuring mostly players who have never competed in the United States. Japan won both Classics.
This passage should probably have been a “stop reading” point. If Mr. Miller had any knowledge of the World Baseball Classic, he’d realize that the different countries involved had vastly different preparation and commitment levels.
Baseball’s decline on the field and in the homes of the United States may be partly explained by the increasing American taste for sports that offer fast-paced and violent action. But the main explanation lies with the mismanagement of baseball by the Major League owners, especially the owners of the teams in New York.
Years ago members of the Mara family, longtime owners of football’s New York Giants, backed broad revenue sharing and a draft favoring weaker teams to help build competitive franchises in the NFL and interest across the land. By contrast, the owners of the New York Yankees (most notably current owner George Steinbrenner) resisted or watered down such measures in order to raise their own profits.
Yet another absurd notion that ignores so many facts it makes your head spin. Let’s start with the fact that the NFL did not surge in popularity after the NFL adopted revenue sharing. A much better corollary can be drawn to rise in popularity and organization of sports gambling (but that’s a post for another day). Furthermore, the Yankees have always had a tremendous economic advantage…even in the times extolled by Mr. Miller as a golden age. Finally, Mr. Miller fails to offer any evidence to suggest why a sport with rising attendance and revenue has been mismanaged.
Mr. Miller continues with the same competitive balance drivel that has been disproven elsewhere, so it’s not worth responding point-by-point. Besides, I’ll save that for next year, when this terribly flawed analysis winds up showing up under the byline of yet another misinformed author.