Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Pastime? Who Needs a Pastime?


—this article comes to you courtesy of our esteemed Professor—

It’s spring, and spring is a time when a geezer’s thoughts turn to….baseball.  Even when living over in England, it is very difficult to look out upon the spectre of a beautiful, crisp May afternoon and not think “what a great day to be at the ballpark.”  Or even better, “what a great day to be out on the field.” 

But we few are a dying breed, I’m afraid.  With each spring comes a renewed—and tedious—discussion of whether baseball deserves it’s moniker of “National Pastime.”  The argument generally goes: football is much more popular than baseball, so shouldn’t it now be considered our National Pastime?  This argument becomes tedious year after year because it is based on a faulty premise; it equates the idea of “pastime” with popularity—if something is popular, it should be considered a pastime.  But being popular does not necessarily make a sport a pastime.  In football’s case, how can a sport that is played once a week (and even then, played under strict time restrictions imposed by the “clock”) be considered a pastime?

To examine this, we first need to get a handle on what a pastime is.  I contend (and etymologists agree) that a pastime is just that—a way to pass the time.  In terms of this definition, baseball was and is superb—unmatched among Americas’ major sports.  I learned this as a youngster  in two vivid ways.  First, you can play baseball it all day long…and I mean all day. Literally, you can pass lots and lots of time.  Growing up in a small city just down the street from a disused golf course, our typical summer recreation schedule was: baseball from about 9:30 until lunch at noon; baseball from about one until supper at five or six; baseball from 6:30 until sunset.   Five six, or seven days a week.  After describing this to my children their question is: “wasn’t it boring?”  To which I reply: compared to what?  Our families didn’t have the means to take “vacations”; we weren’t allowed to watch TV through the day; and we didn’t have money to go hang out at the mall (in fact, come to think of it, there was no such thing as a “Mall.”) 

Thank goodness there was baseball.  And what with Archie chasing around brother Ritchie with a baseball bat, constant argument about whether you were “out” or not, and a steady stream of taunting and bragging, the day fairly flew by.  And I defy anyone to play 70 hours a week of football, or soccer…or even half-court basketball.  You just can’t do it—the physical demands of
Young Dr. Golf, about to strike out from another fastball
delivered by the Professor. Looking on: Mercurious,
the Mathematician, and the kid nobody likes. 
the game (even for children, who back then would be horrified to hear themselves described by parents as “exhausted”) would stop you short.  Only baseball, with its batting/fielding/changing innings creates a kind of summer-friendly sluggish rhythm that is the sporting equivalent of Mark Twain’s slow, sprawling Mississippi river. Excellent analogy. If Twain lived today, he’d have season tickets. Either one is a perfect way to pass the time of summer; growing up along the upper Mississippi, we had both.  Heavenly.

At least once every two weeks through the summer, I had to skip the pick-up game of evening baseball, because I was a paperboy and needed to “collect” payment for the newspaper. The best time to do so was in the evening, when most of my customers were home.  And this is where I observed the second manifestation of baseball as a pastime.  I approached each customer’s house anxiously, hoping to find someone home (and with money handy to pay!)  In three out of four houses, my hopes were confirmed before I even arrived at the front door, for I could hear the sounds of Herb Carneal, Merle Harmon and Halsey Hall (Minnesota radio and television personalities) coming out of the
"Dammit," muttered Mr. Twain. "Got the porch.
Got the rocker. Got the cigar. Why the heck won't
somebody invent big-league baseball
and the portable radio?"
screened porch on the front of each house.  Our beloved Twins were on the radio, and my customer (usually, but not always, the man of the house) was settled in the coolest place in the house, passing the evening by listening as Harmon Killebrew either knocked one out of the park or struck out (these seemed to be the only choices with Harmon.)  Most of the people in our neighbourhood were working people, of limited means.  They didn’t really need “action,” they just needed a calm, restful way to spend the evening after a day of hard physical work Some played cards, a minority watched TV; most of them sat on the porch and listened to the Twins.

We don’t live in that world anymore.  If anything, there is too much diversion, and if you ask the typical person how they’re doing,nthe response is “busy,”  not “fine” as you once used to hear.  People don’t pass the time—they use every minute of it trying to hold it together.  And if they do have time to pass… well, first came multi-channel television, and now we have the most immensely effective time-waster (passer?) known to mankind—the Internet.  Do we need a quaint, traditional way to pass time?  Alas, it seems not.  When given the choice, people as a whole seem to prefer a “hot” medium that compels one’s conscious attention rather than more “cool” mediums that gently open up space through which the mind can wander, discovering it’s own path. 

The extent to which culture has moved away from baseball was brought home to me when I coached my children’s  little league baseball teams.  Harried parents would drop their children at the field with a quick, anxious question: when will little Jason be finished?   On practice days
"Seriously, Johnny," said the Professor to
his young protege. "All the big leaguers do it.
Shut up and swallow your steroids."
there was no problem answering this question, as we tried to keep on a firm schedule.  But as the season progressed and we had more and more game days, I’d have to say (with my best cheerful smile): “well, it’s baseball, so you can’t say for sure, but…” Though I gave my best estimate, you could tell by the exasperated reactions that this wasn’t enough for most parents; baseball—its rhythm, its rules, its very nature—just didn’t (and doesn’t ) fit with the world in which most Americans now live.  Parents don’t need to pass time, they need to manage time.

So, baseball may no longer be our national pastime—not because it is less popular than some other sport, but rather because we simply don’t recognize our need for pastimes anymore.  Does that mean baseball is destined for the competitive scrap heap?  By no means.  But the nature of those who watch, play and follow baseball is changing.  And so are the economics of baseball. 

Baseball is no longer woven into the fabric of summer (or the fabric of a community) the way it once was.  People will go to a few games a year, as more or less a special occasion.  Baseball is played by children who want to become baseball players, not by children of all kinds.  In summer camp after summer camp, baseball and softball fields are being converted into soccer fields (?)—a melancholy  sight if ever there was one.   Baseball is on its way to becoming somewhat of a novelty, a thing appreciated by afficianados, the sporting equivalent of wearing a bow tie. 

Perhaps that is all fine.  But there is something in me each spring that longs for baseball.  Perhaps the longing is not so much for baseball itself, but rather a longing for a vanished world in which an ability to pass the time was necessary and cherished.

 COMING SOON: Why Children Should Play Baseball 

6 comments:

  1. An excellent read. Thanks.

    I was never a baseball fan....I'm one of those who find it boring. But after reading your endorsement and learning the behind-the-scenes benefits of baseball, I might think of it differently the next time I see a game on TV. Or heaven forbid, ATTEND a game in person. :)

    S

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  2. Great to see Herb Carneal's name. You could always tell when you'd found the Twins on the radio dial--the static would end and there would be silence. Then Herb's voice telling us what we needed to know. Then he'd be quiet. Best baseball radio guy I ever heard.

    And a quick nod to geezerhood--my youngest son, soon to graduate, starts his high school baseball playoffs this Saturday, meaning any game may be his (and my) last high school game. I'm feeling a little twinge there.

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  3. You recall great memories of a wonderful time. I too carried a paper and remember those moments of collecting. Though I did not grow up in a baseball town, there was always a sense of relaxed magic in listening to a game being called on the radio. Later I found the televised game of the week was a great opportunity to lay on the couch while Dad and maybe Uncle Paul relaxed in chairs. There was such a relaxed feel to baseball.

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  4. Okay, you settled it for me... I now have to go procure myself a bowtie! Great writing and I do remember with fondness those long summer days!

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  5. Fantastic post! I have to admit that it saddened me more than a little bit. As a kid I spend so many nights listening to Vin Scully on my little transistor radio while I was lying in bed. Before that the Hollywood Stars and Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League were broadcast and I could usually hear them, but always. My first priority every morning was to go outside and grab the newspaper so I could pour over the box scores. I've done that my entire life. I still do, but now I use the internet. Baseball may not be what it once was, but it still is for some of us...

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