The start of a new baseball season always comes with odes to the national pastime. But is it fair to say that baseball still deserves that description? Measured by popularity, participation or skill versus other nations, baseball is arguably an American national pastime whose time is past.
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.
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 Soccer has superseded baseball in suburban parks, and basketball has replaced stickball in the cities.
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.
Baseball’s popularity has fallen here but has risen in other countries. Most Americans have heard how every Dominican boy yearns for his first baseball glove. Less well known is that in Japan there are two national high-school baseball tournaments that fill Japanese television screens for days every year, or that 40,000 fans turn out for even a practice by the national team.
A decline in American dominance on the field has accompanied the decline in national interest. It’s not merely the welcome entry into the major leagues of Dominican stars such as Albert Pujols and David Ortiz or Japanese stars such as Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui. Years ago, Babe Ruth led touring teams of major leaguers to Japan and the Caribbean, where they promoted baseball and won games against host teams by lopsided scores.
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.
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.
In this year’s Super Bowl two small-market football teams, New Orleans and Indianapolis, drew the biggest television audience for any show ever. By contrast, before the last World Series baseball officials were quoted as worrying that if it did not feature big city teams (preferably including one from New York) television ratings would be weak.
They needn’t have worried: the Yankees and the Phillies, both from major metropolitan areas with high payrolls, met in the Series. The Yankees, of course, won, giving the franchise its 27th World Championship. The Yankees secret to success is no mystery—the team’s payroll is five times larger than the payroll of its weakest competitor, and twice the size of two-thirds of the other major league teams.
On rare occasions when a small-market team does rise in the playoffs—giving officials the excuse to defend the status quo—the management system of baseball forces the team to sell off or give up most of its best players to their big market competitors. After the Florida Marlins beat the Yankees in the 2003 World Series, for example, they immediately sold off all their best players because they couldn’t afford the payroll. While local baseball writers and team-paid announcers opine every spring that their team has improved and has a chance to win it all, fans no longer take seriously the notion of, say, a Pittsburgh versus Kansas City World Series.
Football and most other major sports have also given greater authority to commissioners who, while chosen by the owners, exercise independence. So did baseball after the gambling scandals of 1919, but with the ouster of Fay Vincent in the late 1980s the owners reverted to management by owners.
Today, the owners’ designated representative, former owner Bud Selig, appears to be a decent fellow who enjoys baseball games and has instituted some reasonable changes such as interleague play. But when faced with truly big decisions such as whether to dictate a labor settlement and avoid the disastrous strike of 1994-95, or elevate drug testing to the top of the collective bargaining agenda in the late 1990s and avoid the steroid debacle, he gets on the phone and seeks a consensus of the owners.
By contrast, when National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell caught the then world champion New England Patriots cheating—coach Bill Belichick was videotaping opposing team’s coaches during games—he immediately levied $750,000 in fines and took away a first round draft choice.
Americans still want to believe that baseball is our national pastime. This was evident when, with Japan thrashing the U.S. last year in the World Baseball Classic, television announcer and former major leaguer Joe Morgan informed viewers that Japanese baseball was really the equivalent of American Triple A minor league baseball—as if a team of Triple A stars could beat a Major League all star team. Following Japan’s thrashing of Cuba, Fidel Castro wrote magnanimously that the Japanese and Koreans had simply fielded the best teams. After watching the crisp teamwork, fielding, bunting and base running of the Asian teams, I am inclined to agree—for once—with Castro.
Last month the Commissioner of Nippon Professional Baseball, Ryozo Kato, visited his American counterpart and reported that Mr. Selig was receptive to a truer world championship played in November between the winners of the American and Japanese series. This is not likely to happen. Both commissioners suspect the result would demonstrate that while baseball is now Japan’s national pastime, it is no longer America’s.
Mr. Miller is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, and a lifelong baseball fan.