The Pastime of Past Times: Past Its Time?
by Benjamin Margetic '15
Now that the baseball season has completed and the Red Sox have unfortunately won the World Series, I suppose it’s a good time for reflection. Particularly as to why so many people are perplexed about baseball’s stature as America’s national pastime. It’s something worth considering. If it’s going to maintain that epithet then it should be a fundamental part of American popular culture.
Yet baseball’s popularity seems to be on the decline, particularly when compared to America’s other professional sports leagues, even including that most unpatriotic of sports: soccer. In 2013 nearly 108 million people tuned into the Super Bowl; 26.3 million tuned into game 7 of the NBA playoffs; and the NHL had its most-watched Stanley Cup Final ever. The World Series, on the other hand, was slated to cost Fox nearly $30 million due to disappointing ratings, perpetuating a nearly seven year downward trend in the series’ ratings. This begs the questions, why on earth is Baseball still America’s national pastime? And, why is baseball so deeply ingrained in our national identity?
A potential, though simple, answer is tradition. Apple pie is still synonymous with America despite the fact that there are most definitely better pies out there. The same goes for Chevrolet. Look at American car sales in 2012 and you will see only one Chevrolet model in the top ten, yet few things are as intrinsically ‘American’ as a Chevy. Both basketball and football are more popular than baseball, and yet baseball is still America’s national pastime. Chalking it up to tradition, however, seems rather boring and simplistic. Saying that we identify with apple pies because we’ve always identified with apple pies; that we identify with Chevrolets because we’ve always identified with Chevrolets; that we identify with baseball because we’ve always identified with baseball, downplays these standards’ symbolic value. Apple pie, Chevrolets, and baseball all serve as important symbols for American culture. So, should America change its national pastime to better reflect ratings and popular opinion? Absolutely not.
The reason baseball should remain as America’s national pastime is precisely because of its wonderful symbolic resonance. Our pastime should not be judged based off of popularity, but rather what it says about us on a deeper cultural level, and baseball speaks loads about the way we see ourselves.
In most popular sports it is difficult for the individual to stand out. Sure, there are massively talented strikers, and quarterbacks, and point guards who––through their individual efforts––can dramatically alter the outcome of a game, but this is nothing like baseball. In baseball almost every situation is one-on-one. Pitcher vs. batter; fielder vs. ball; runner vs. base. This collection of binaries allows for a unique sporting experience where, on every single play, the entire team’s outcome is reliant on a single individual.
Yet, even with the constant focus on the individual, baseball is useless without the whole. Individuals are given a chance to shine, but these moments only matter when the entire team benefits. A pitcher may throw a fantastic game but if his offence is unable to generate any runs, than his performance, no matter how strong, does not matter. The reverse is true as well. A hitter might have a career game but if his pitcher is ineffective, the outcome could still very well be a loss.
The lone baseball player is given quite a bit more freedom than his counterpart in other professional sports but his singular achievements matter little if they do not provide tangible benefits for his teammates. This unique approach to team sports is inherently American. The individual is given priority over the group but only if they are able to produce something that benefits the greater American society. Self-reliance is key, but as always, no man is an island, and a nation should be judged on its total output not just the actions of a select few. This is, in a nutshell, the American ideology and baseball is its grand metaphor.
A quick inquiry into the history of baseball reveals that it has grown and changed alongside the United States. Be it World War II, racial integration, or shifts in population, baseball has reflected and participated in the altering of American culture. Regardless of its popularity, it serves as a symbol for how Americans view themselves: individuals who strive for self improvement and, through that, achieve the betterment society in general. So next time you’re at a baseball game, eating an overpriced hotdog and drinking an overpriced beer, remember: you are watching America.