—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
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.
|Young Dr. Golf, about to strike out from another fastball |
delivered by the Professor. Looking on: Mercurious,
the Mathematician, and the kid nobody likes.
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
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.
|"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?"
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
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
|"Seriously, Johnny," said the Professor to|
his young protege. "All the big leaguers do it.
Shut up and swallow your steroids."
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