Why Baseball Matters – Still

"This is the last pure place where Americans dream. This is the last great arena, the last green arena, where everybody can learn lessons of life."
- A. Bartlett Giamatti, former Commissioner of Major League Baseball


In a sign of support during Jackie Robinson's (42) first season, Brooklyn Dodgers team captain and southerner from Kentucky Pee Wee Reese (1) holds Robinson's hand after Robinson's home run.
(Photo by Rogers Photo Archive/Getty Images)

For more than a century, baseball has been labeled the “national pastime.” American youths have taken to Little League parks and baseball diamonds for generations. The song "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" is part of American lore. Writers have rhapsodized about the game in their novels and histories while movie studios have released blockbuster films like Field of Dreams, A League of Their Own and Moneyball.

Nevertheless, as the 2015 baseball season began, the national pastime was faced with a slew of questions about its future. Perceived problems with the game went to the core of baseball’s sustainability, as the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher wrote:

“Baseball has lived for the better part of a century on its unchanging character, its role as a bond between generations, its identity as a quintessentially American game that features a one-on-one faceoff of individual skills tucked inside a team sport. Can a game with deliberation and anticipation at its heart thrive in a society revved up for nonstop action and scoring?”

Indeed, baseball’s deliberate pace in a high-speed world is one of the sport’s major challenges.

Before rule changes took effect this season to speed up play, the game had been taking longer at a time when Americans have been moving at an increasingly frenetic rate at almost every juncture of their lives. On average, games lasted three hours and two minutes in 2014, up from two hours and 33 minutes in 1981.

The slower pace was accompanied by fewer runs being scored, including fewer home runs, always a fan favorite. In 2014, major league teams scored about 5,000 fewer runs than in 2000 and about 1,500 fewer homers were hit. The lack of offensive spark became jarring to Americans accustomed to bells-and-whistles entertainment.

The sport faced other realities as well.

Upon Derek Jeter's retirement at the end of the 2014 season, baseball had few bona-fide superstars capable of drawing national attention to the game. No player in 2015 can compare in popularity with the glory days of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, or, in more recent times, Johnny Bench, Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan and Cal Ripken.

In proof of this point, no baseball players were listed among the 30 favorite sports figures in ESPN’s most recent survey of American youths.

Like much else in American life, competition matters. Baseball is in the marketplace with other sports and entertainment options. “We sell competition,” Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred told a Bush Center forum as the season began. Alas, all sports sell competition.

Attracting fans to the park is only part of the challenge. Television contracts and merchandise sales depend, in part, upon the fan appeal of the players on the field. Absent today's generation of players and fans passing their love of the game on to a new generation, baseball will survive as the national pastime in name only.

Local communities and their teams in smaller media markets have become baseball's biggest success stories. They have risen as big city teams with national followings, like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, have underperformed in recent years. There is a downside, however, to the rise of smaller-market teams. The 2014 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals went seven games, but it was the lowest-rated Fall Classic ever in the Nielsen ratings.

In spite of these challenges, baseball maintains that enduring connection with America. The sport even extends into the life of the Oval Office.

This symbiotic relationship gives baseball a unique place in our national life. The game still matters because through baseball we gain insight into our own national issues. Baseball helps us understand ourselves.

Baseball, Immigration, and the Quest for Freedom

Immigration has been a major story in America over the last two decades, but a big force in baseball longer than that. With each succeeding decade, the game has become more of a global enterprise and shows how open arms to people beyond America’s shores can enhance an operation. Major league games are now routinely broadcast in other languages and the international media, particularly from Japan and the Far East, send reporters to cover games from spring training through the World Series.

What’s more, Major League Baseball reports that 230 out of the game’s 868 players on rosters at the start of the 2015 season were born outside the United States. This year, the Texas Rangers have 15 players from eight countries and territories. That is the most of any club for the second consecutive year, prompting the Dallas Morning News' Gerry Fraley to call the Rangers "a team of nations."

The thorough integration of the game did not just happen. For many years, baseball scouts have actively evaluated young talent from the Dominican Republic to Venezuela to Japan to Australia.

The growth in players from Latin America and the Caribbean has arguably been the most transformational element of the game since the 1980s. Beginning in the 1950s, players like Minnie Minoso from Cuba and Roberto Clemente from Puerto Rico made it to the major leagues and became stars.

Yet Minoso and Clemente were among the few Latino players during the Fifties and Sixties. Today, Latin superstars have become a dominant force. The 2015 season began with 83 major league players from the Dominican Republic alone.

Baseball long had been a popular sport in the Caribbean and Latin America. Yet baseball academies that major league teams built and staffed soon became a key step toward the big leagues. They welcomed the most talented Latin American players, even from closed societies like Venezuela. This season, 65 Venezuelans started the year in the major leagues.

Teams have not operated academies in Cuba, but 18 Cuban were on rosters as this year began. The list included Yasiel Puig, the Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder. His harrowing story of escape from Cuba includes being raced to Mexico on a cigarette boat, being held in a Mexico motel at the mercy of human smugglers and eventually winding up a Dodger in June 2012.

Los Angeles Dodgers Yasiel Puig (66) and teammates stand for the National Anthem before spring training game vs San Francisco Giants at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, AZ on March 9, 2014.
(Photo by Brad Mangin /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

Puig is not the only player to escape oppression through baseball. Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos made it out of Venezuela through his baseball prowess, but kept returning home after each season. After being kidnapped in Venezuela while visiting his mother in 2011, he eventually decided to seek a U.S. green card. "It's not easy to be with a bodyguard all the time," Ramos told the Wall Street Journal. "It's not the life you want to live."

Indeed, the desire to be free extends beyond the political world. Athletes seek open societies, just like those who are imprisoned for their beliefs. When players like Puig and Ramos take to the field in a major league ballpark, they personify the human search for freedom and the opportunity to maximize one’s potential.

Of course, the baseball diamond reflected the quest for freedom and equal rights long before players suffering oppression abroad came to the U.S.

With his 1947 trailblazing entry into the major leagues, Jackie Robinson became a leading figure in the American civil rights movement. When the Brooklyn Dodgers’ star infielder could finally play on the same team as white players, stay in their hotels, and eat at their same restaurants, America took a huge step away from its stained past. Baseball became integrated before the American military did, and 17 years before the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.

Robinson's breakthrough was long in coming. The Negro Leagues existed in the early and middle parts of the last century. Stars like Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and Oscar Charles were denied the opportunity to play in the major leagues during their careers, even though they more than held their own in off-season exhibition games against All-Star teams made up of MLB's best players.

This dual segregated system provided a place for talented players of both races to showcase their skills. Yet it perpetuated the image of two "separate but equal" Americas, which, in fact, were not at all equal in salaries, travel, and playing conditions. The lack of full opportunity for players of all colors robbed the major leagues of great talent for many decades.

Strategic thinking by baseball’s leaders was required to open the path to racial equality and free market opportunity, just as strategists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall planned the social and legal path to equal opportunity for African-Americans in the 1950s.

Branch Rickey played the most important strategist role in integrating professional baseball, earning him the title of baseball’s “Great Emancipator.” Rickey was the Dodgers president who signed Jackie Robinson and partnered with him in breaking MLB's color barrier. He did not sign Robinson simply because he believed it was the morally correct thing to do. Rickey also did it because having Robinson in his lineup made the Dodgers a better ballclub. In Robinson's first year in Brooklyn, he led the team to the National League pennant and won Rookie of the Year honors.

As with the larger national struggle for civil rights, the integration of baseball did not come easily or without ugly incidents. But it did come, and the game benefited from the change. So did America.

Unfortunately, the participation of African-American ballplayers has declined dramatically in recent years. Baseball is a hard sport to play without a field, which can be hard to find in America’s inner cities or poorer neighborhoods. Major League Baseball has tried to deal with this problem by providing funding to build fields in neighborhoods that lack them.

This may be one of the game’s most pressing challenges, and, in many respects, it mirrors the challenge that urban leaders across America face: How can they rebuild their inner cities and neglected neighborhoods?

Baseball and Economics

Nowhere does baseball mirror American life more than in economics. This is true whether the issue is management/labor tension, free agency and the atomization of the workforce, or managing a complex organization.

The most serious management/labor dispute ended the 1994 season. As president, Bill Clinton tried to keep the game from finishing in a strike. He convened both sides at the White House, met with negotiators, and even tried to get Congress to impose binding arbitration. Unfortunately, his efforts did not succeed. The sides could not resolve their differences, and the season ended bitterly with the cancellation of the World Series.

The right of players to leave their existing teams and sign as free agents with other clubs constituted its own protracted, disputed struggle from the 1970s through the mid-1990s. Players eventually won the right to market their services to the team of their choice, thanks in part to Curt Flood, the St. Louis Cardinal star outfielder who rejected a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969. He opposed the trade because he thought baseball’s reserve clause gave team owners too much control over ballplayers’ economic freedom and prevented them from becoming free agents.

Flood fought his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but ultimately lost. His case did galvanize other players and, by the middle 1970s, the sport was on its way to allowing free agency for veteran players.

At the same time baseball was figuring out free agency, the American workforce was about to experience its own major shift. The technology revolution would soon make employees more individualized units of production. Like baseball’s free agents signing with three or four franchises during their careers, employees found themselves on paths to multiple jobs during their working years. No longer would they be tethered to a single employer for a lifetime.

For players, free agency meant a rapid escalation in salaries. They were able to use the marketplace to get a better deal. Perhaps the most eye-striking contrast with today’s players is the salary of the legendary Hank Aaron, who toppled Babe Ruth's career home run record in 1973. Aaron earned at most an annual salary of $250,000, and it came at the end of his standout career.

In 2015, the average salary of a major league player is more than $4 million and guaranteed contracts in excess of $100 million over several years is not unusual. Even when adjusted for inflation, Aaron’s highest annual salary was less than $1 million in today’s dollars.

Eye-popping salaries have rewarded some athletes with economic security for life, though they have also created the game's own wealth gap. The 2015 Texas Rangers' highest-paid player, Prince Fielder, will make $24 million this season, while about half of his teammates will receive the guaranteed minimum MLB salary of $500,000.

High-dollar salaries also make the economics of running a big league team challenging, causing the Los Angeles Dodger and Texas Rangers to recently go through reorganization proceedings in bankruptcy court.

Regardless of their size, modern ballplayers’ salaries are a product of supply-and-demand, the ultimate market principle. The 30 MLB clubs carry rosters with 25 players each. (Teams are allowed 40-man rosters late in each season.) Given the vast number of ballplayers around the world, and the reality of market economics, those who make it to the big leagues and become accomplished stars there, naturally draw high salaries.

With increased technology, baseball has become a more sophisticated game in the Information Age. Each new year bring new data and performance measurements that drive decisions about lineups, field positioning, and pitching matchups. This is no different from how waves of data drive decision-making in such fields as finance, medicine and education.

Moneyball, Michael Lewis' best-seller about the modern game, explained how number-crunching professionals increasingly influence baseball. With each passing year, general managers, scouts, and managers collect and then use more information about the tendencies of their own players as well of players on opposing teams. As a manager, Tony LaRussa made full use of every piece of computerized information to micromanage his Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals to World Series championships.

Yet long before technology helped baseball develop sophisticated metrics, managers constantly innovated and were their own dynamic market force.

Casey Stengel implemented the platoon system of creating lineups, recognizing that left-handed batters typically succeed more often when facing right-handed pitchers, and vice versa. Connie Mack began the practice of analyzing hitters’ weaknesses and then getting pitchers to take advantage of those weaknesses. Gene Mauch got his pitchers to vary their delivery in order to prevent base runners from getting too big of a lead before attempting to steal a base.

So, yes, baseball is a game and an athletic contest, but it also has provided a snapshot into the forces at play in a market economy. For that reason alone, the sport demands our attention.

Baseball and Leadership

The art of leadership is another way the sport demands our attention. Beyond the data-driven dugout decisions, or even the manager simply playing a hunch, there is the operation of Major League Baseball itself.

This season, Rob Manfred became the first new commissioner in more than 20 years. A Little Leaguer in childhood, Manfred had a successful legal career before joining MLB in 1998 as an executive and working closely in several positions under his predecessor Bud Selig.

Selig came into baseball as owner of the Milwaukee Braves and later the Milwaukee Brewers. In 1992, he became commissioner and enjoyed a long and successful tenure. That was largely due to his capacity to build consensus among MLB’s owners, especially as they faced such crises as the use of steroids.

Through the challenges, Selig lived on the phone not only with owners, but also with all of the game’s constituents. His approach allowed him to find the sweet-spot on controversial issues. Like a shrewd legislative leader, Selig knew when he had the votes to bring up a major decision.

Selig’s consensus-oriented style produced results, even when his final decisions generated controversy. His greatest achievements included growing the game’s popularity internationally, substantially increasing revenues for all clubs, and averting labor/management breakdowns.

Baseball’s intersection with the nation’s political leaders creates its own deep connection with Americans. There is the traditional presidential toss of the first pitch on Opening Day. More important than following tradition, presidents have recognized that the game can rally the country in times of crisis.

Americans were stunned by the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001. New York City especially reeled in the emotional turmoil.

When President George W. Bush strode to the mound at Yankee Stadium on October 30, 2001 to deliver the first pitch in Game Three of the 2001 World Series, a perfect strike at that, the chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” that reverberated through that venerable stadium echoed across the land and the world. The message was delivered: America may have been bloodied, but it was not bowed.

Franklin Roosevelt also understood the symbolism of baseball. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, he wrote the famous “Green Letter,” asking that baseball executives not cancel the upcoming 1942 season. He knew that families worried about their young soldiers at war could alleviate their stress and draw at least some pleasure from taking trips to the ballpark or simply gathering around the radio to hear a broadcast.

Richard Nixon grasped baseball’s importance, too. After his motorcade was stoned in Venezuela while he served as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, he asked the State Department to send big league players to the country on a goodwill mission. “The tour did more to clear the atmosphere than a dozen top-echelon conferences,” a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela later said.

Of course, baseball inculcates leadership skills far beyond the presidential level. The sport starts early training youth as leaders through Little League, the YMCA and other leagues. The focus goes beyond developing athletic skills to creating situations where children can work together as a team and develop sportsmanship.

Baseball and the Military

During World War II and the Korean War, Americans saw star players trade in their teams’ uniforms for the military uniforms of the United States. Promising careers were interrupted for service to the nation.

  • After serving in World War II, Ted Williams then flew 39 missions in the Korean War. His plane got hit on several flights, including one strike that forced him to land his burning plane on a flight deck. Fellow Marine aviator John Glenn thought of the great Williams most of all as a pilot. “Much as I appreciate baseball,” Glenn said, “Ted to me will always be a Marine fighter pilot."
  • Bob Feller, the Cleveland Indians Hall of Famer, volunteered for duty on the day after Pearl Harbor, and spent more than two years as chief of an anti-aircraft gun crew on a battleship.
  • Lou Brissie, subject of The Corporal Was a Pitcher, begged that his leg not be amputated after being severely injured in Italy during World War II. He not only kept his leg, but recovered sufficiently to become an All Star pitcher in 1949.
  • Sadly, not all baseball players survived their wartime service. Harry O’Neill was among them, dying in the battle for Iwo Jima.

Fast forward to today, baseball remains connected to those who serve their country in the military. Veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan face challenges as they move from the military into civilian life.

Traumatic injuries create their own special problems. Veterans coping with a lost limb or post-traumatic stress often need a variety of medical and social services to complete their reentries.

To their credit, teams like the New York Mets have stepped into the breach. Mets’ Chairman and CEO Fred Wilpon helped create the Welcome Back Veterans organization, which Major League Baseball significantly supports, to provide veterans with quality medical care.

The organization particularly assists veterans who struggle with post-traumatic stress. Welcome Back Veterans, along with partners, funds research into PTS at hospitals in New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, Georgia, California, North Carolina and Illinois. The ultimate aim is to create Centers of Excellence that provide veterans the best possible treatment for post-traumatic stress.

The Mets also have implemented Military Mondays to honor individual veterans as well as provide veterans discounted tickets. Many other major league teams likewise offer current military personnel and returning veterans discounted tickets.

Daniel Murphy of the New York Mets in action against the Philadelphia Phillies on July 28, 2014 at Citi Field in New York City. Murphy wears a camoflauge jersey for the Mets' Military Monday. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Efforts like these symbolize the relationship between baseball and American society, though they go beyond symbolism. They open the door back into a world of family, community, and employment for returning service members. At the same time, they open the door back into the national pastime for returning veterans.

Baseball's Road Ahead

This unique relationship with American society is one of baseball's strengths. Yet too many pressures exist to assume this connection will continue without significant attention and nurturing.

Baseball faces the same pressure that news organizations, religious institutions, and even late-night comedians encounter: how to engage young Americans. Declining numbers illustrate baseball's problem. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the number of American youths age seven to 17 playing in organized baseball leagues declined from 8.8 million in 2000 to 5.3 million in 2013.

Specialized sports are part of the problem. Children lock into one sport at an early age and don’t play other sports in an organized way.

Still, the game benefits from being played every day for more than half the year. The sport is part of the American rhythm, as Roger Kahn captured in The Boys of Summer. Each summer, seven days a week, baseball fans listen to games on TV and radio, check their newspapers and favorite websites for the latest box scores and stay abreast of who’s injured, who’s not, who’s hot, who’s cold, who got traded and who stayed behind.

Along with those rhythms, baseball embeds itself into the American mind through the power of storytelling. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has ascribed her ability to write a narrative from her childhood days listening to the Brooklyn Dodgers on the radio. The ballgames revealed to her that they each game has a beginning, a middle and an end, making the perfect vehicles for storytelling.

Most games in the 1950s were played during the day, so the young Goodwin would keep score and report to her father when he got home all the details of that day’s game. “He made me feel I was telling him a fabulous story,” Goodwin once said. “It makes you think there’s something magic about history to keep your father’s attention.”

Today, baseball’s stories are told in new ways. MLB’s popular At Bat app. ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You Tube. They are among the many modern opportunities to follow the sport.

Ballplayers themselves tell wonderful stories, many colorful, many humorous. Through those stories, we learn how ordinary individuals find ways to perform extraordinary feats. Unlike many sports, baseball does not require an outsized physique. One of the greatest of all, Willie Mays, stood only 5’10” and weighed 170 pounds.

Of course, families themselves hand down their own baseball stories. Grandparents regale grandchildren with tales of their favorite players from old, while grandchildren bring grandparents up to date on what all the new categories of statistics mean. Similarly, generations of families attend games together. And parents in 2015 delight in playing catch with their children just like parents and children did in 1915.

Economics. Leadership. Immigration. The quest for freedom. Equal rights. The Information Age. Veterans. Even storytelling. These are among the ways in which this sport connects with Americans at a deep level. They also are why baseball still matters. The game provides a lens into our very society and remains one of America’s most reliable means of connecting generations.

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