Baseball is dying? Nonsense: The Case for Baseball’s Vitality
Baseball is no longer The National Pastime. Of this, there can be no doubt. Indeed, one of the sport’s greatest authorities noted it in pretty stark terms:
If it’s not the lack of public interest, it’s the money that that will do the game in. A Hall of Famer who has been noted as particularly financially-savvy made this perfectly clear when he said
And of course, one can’t ignore the fact that other sports have grown tremendously over the years, making baseball just one of many options for fans looking to spend their time and money. A respected journalist identified this trend when he wrote that baseball . . .
Baseball has an age problem too. As in, the kids don’t play it as much as they used to and the talent pool has become far too shallow. A former big league pitcher noted this trend, saying that while the best players are as good today as they used to be . . .
Such big problems identified by such knowledgable authorities has to worry the men and women who work for Major League Baseball and upon whose efforts the very future of the game depends.
Or, at least they would if those quotes hadn’t come from Albert Spalding in 1881, Hall of Famer Ty Cobb in 1925, journalist Jack Kofoed in 1929 and former major leaguer Hooks Wiltse in 1937, respectively.
The first professional baseball team began play in the spring of 1869. People began lamenting its demise approximately fifteen minutes later. And they haven’t stopped, not even for a moment, since then.
Baseball’s obituary-writing usually starts in the fall, when football begins to crowd baseball off the front of the sports pages. We’ve already seen a couple of examples of these, and we will see more as September wears on and the zeitgeist favors football over the sport which is still, mostly for historical reasons, referred to as the National Pastime. It will certainly come no later than October, when the playoffs begin and baseball’s national TV ratings fall short of meaningless regular season NFL games between non-contenders. We see these obituaries every year. Often several times a year. Columns written in major newspapers and soliloquies offered by TV or talk radio hosts about how baseball is no longer vital, popular or important. Arguments -- some of them quite dumb -- about how baseball is boring and anachronistic and broken and corrupt and unfair.
These obituaries will cite any number of causes of baseball’s death. A terminal case of high salaries brought on by an aggressive and invasive strain of player greed. A lingering demise brought on by the continued existence of its slow, 19th century pace in today’s kinetic 21st century world. A death by negligence, occasioned by the lack of interest in baseball by our nation’s youth and by our nation’s minorities who, in football and basketball at least, make up the bulk of the participants. Death by misadventure, as today’s players -- with their bat flips, slow home run trots and air-mailed throws past the cutoff man -- lack the fundamentals, mettle and respect for the game possessed by their predecessors. Most often, however, the obituary describes a sudden, violent death at the hands of a much stronger and vital adversary in the form of the National Football League and its enormous television ratings and cultural cachet.
Baseball fans might be sad when they read their favorite sport’s obituary, but to be honest, we should’ve known it was dying. We’ve had so many warnings. Like the ones from Albert Spalding, Ty Cobb and Hooks Wiltse going back 120 years or more.
Or maybe -- just maybe -- baseball isn’t dying.
Maybe baseball’s economic model makes ballpark attendance, local broadcast ratings and local broadcast revenues far more important than national television ratings. And maybe those national TV ratings aren’t actually as bad as everyone says.
Maybe team revenues and franchise values have escalated so dramatically over the past two decades that player salaries represent a smaller portion of a team’s revenue than they used to.
Maybe, salaries notwithstanding, more teams are turning in winning seasons, making the playoffs and winning championships in baseball than they do in the other major sports and far more than they did during baseball’s so-called “Golden Age.”
Maybe, while fewer kids and especially fewer U.S.-born blacks play baseball today than they used to, the game is nonetheless more racially and ethnically-diverse than it ever has been.
Maybe those brash, showboating kids who allegedly don’t respect the game actually represent a solution to one of baseball’s actual problems: attracting younger fans to a game that is perpetually fighting the perception that it is staid, boring and uncool.
Or maybe there’s no maybe about it. It’s clear that baseball is no longer be The National Pastime. But it’s a healthier sport today than it ever has been. It’s better off financially, better off competitively and better off culturally. And, the naysaying of baseball’s obituary writers notwithstanding, there has never been a better time to be as baseball fan.
It Doesn’t Matter That Baseball’s National Television Ratings Kinda Stink
On October 18, 2010, the Yankees played the Rangers in Game Three of the American League Championship Series. The Series was tied 1-1, and the teams represented baseball’s largest and fifth-largest television markets. On that same night, The Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans played each other on Monday Night Football. Both teams were pretty awful that year, with the Jags finishing 8-8 and the Titans finishing 6-10. Both teams play in two of the NFL’s smallest markets. In the television ratings, the matchup between the lowly Titans and mediocre Jags topped the matchup between two of baseball’s best and most popular teams fighting for the pennant. Topped it by quite a margin, actually.
Though this is not a terribly uncommon occurrence, much was made of it at the time. Much is made of it each year when a regular season NFL game beats a baseball playoff game in the ratings.
The numbers are what they are, of course. But comparisons to the NFL tell us very little about baseball’s health. Nothing does as well as football does in the ratings. Not the most popular entertainment shows. Not news shows. Not even Presidential debates. Indeed, to compare anything to football’s ratings is to illuminate nothing due to football’s status and primacy in the national consciousness, which is beyond dispute.
Baseball does quite well, however, when one considers the overall television ratings trends. Unfortunately, hardly anyone ever considers those trends when piling on baseball’s allegedly low TV ratings. Indeed, baseball is almost exclusively compared with the anomalous NFL -- or, more often, its own history -- as opposed to current television programming and the inexorable fragmentation of the TV viewing audience.
Watch this segment from Keith Olbermann’s ESPN show last October and tell me if the deck isn’t stacked against baseball when television ratings are concerned:
Olbermann argues that baseball has become culturally irrelevant by comparing the 2013 World Series‘ ratings to that of the Orioles-Pirates matchup in 1971. He’s not alone in doing this. Watchdog sites such as Sports Media Watch characterize the numbers in terms such as “Game 2 was baseball’s third-lowest-rated World Series game of all time,” which is a comparison dating back to the first World Series broadcast in 1947.
What if CBS and the producers of “The Big Bang Theory” got this treatment? “The Big Bang Theory” was the highest-rated entertainment show during the 2013-14 season (second overall behind NBC’s juggernaut, “Sunday Night Football”). It averaged a Nielsen rating of between 10 and 11 and a share of around 18. In 1971-72, the highest rated primetime show was “All In The Family.” It averaged a rating of 34.4 and had a share of 54. If “The Big Bang Theory” were on in 1971 and got the same ratings, it wouldn’t have cracked the top 20.
Where are the “The Big Bang Theory” is dying stories? Nowhere, obviously, and not just because “The Big Bang Theory” wasn’t on in 1971. They don’t exist because such comparisons make no sense. The primary purpose of TV ratings is to determine advertising rates and to guide the business decisions of networks. For this purpose historical comparisons are pointless. It’s also pointless because, in the 1970s, there were only three television networks. Cable had barely made any inroads. The ability to stream all manner of entertainment on the Internet didn’t exist. Viewers today have hundreds of competing entertainment options and, as such, success is measured differently than it was measured 30 or 40 years ago.
Baseball, however, is presumed to be competing against old ghosts like the 1971 World Series. And it never gets the benefit of television viewer fragmentation and the seismic shift in America’s entertainment consumption habits when its ratings health is assessed.
When judged on its own, current terms, however, baseball is doing quite well, thank you:
- In 2012, a World Series which many cite as a low water mark due to a short, uneventful series between the less-than-marquee-worthy Tigers and Giants, Fall Classic ratings beat every entertainment show on the fall primetime schedule in multiple key age groups: Men 18-34, Men 18-49, Adults 18-34, and Adults 18-49.
- Game Two of the 2013 World Series -- the Saturday night contest between the Red Sox and Cardinals which Sports Media Watch referred to as the “third lowest World Series game ever” – Fox averaged a 7.4 rating, which was up 21 percent over the Saturday night World Series game from the year before. It drew a 37.2 rating in St. Louis. It drew a 32.4 rating in Boston.
Those aren’t NFL-level numbers obviously — pro football has proved to be an exception to the overall rule about audiences getting smaller — but baseball is not getting beat by much else. Indeed, in terms of total viewers, The World Series typically delivers to Fox the same number of eyeballs an entire season of a top 10 entertainment program delivers. And it does so over the course of one week.
But those national ratings represent one of the least relevant metrics of baseball’s overall health and vitality. Why? Because . . .
Baseball Is A Local Game And Baseball Is Booming On The Local Level.
Walk into a sports bar in New York on a Sunday afternoon in November and you’re likely to see a half dozen TVs tuned to a half dozen different NFL games. Sure, if the Giants are playing most people are watching them, but say the Giants are playing the Sunday night game.
Are the TVs turned off? Of course not. Everyone is watching football, no matter where the games are being played. The same goes for a sports bar in Chicago or Baltimore or Omaha or Columbus, Ohio. Football is on because, well, that’s what everyone watches on Sunday afternoon. Everyone’s off work, they can eat wings and drink beer with impunity and they’ve devoted their day to football. It’s an event that comes once a week. Twice if you count Monday night.
Now, walk into a sports bar in New York on a Tuesday evening in July. Are there a half dozen TVs watching a half dozen east coast baseball games? Of course not. Everyone is watching the Yankees. If the Yankees are playing the late game out west you’d be lucky to see two TVs with any other baseball on before 10pm. Not that many people will be there for the 10pm west coast game, anyway. They have to work tomorrow morning. And they’d better take it easy on the wings seeing as though they just had dinner. Don’t even try to find a bar filled with baseball watchers in non-baseball cities like Columbus and Omaha. Believe me, I’ve tried.
Baseball’s Tuesday night watchers are not planting themselves in a sports bar and making a party out of it. They’re watching at home. After dinner but before a reasonable bed time. How can it be a party anyway? There are five or six of these games on a week and people have to pace themselves. They’re doing a pretty good job of pacing themselves too. A healthy number of dedicated viewers in local markets are watching their local nine night in, night out. And because of them, their local nine is making money hand over fist.
In 2013, Major League Baseball took in somewhere between $8-8.5 billion in revenue. Of that total, approximately $711.7 million -- less than 10% -- came from national television deals inked with Fox, TBS and ESPN. In contrast, the NFL’s revenue stands at someplace just north of $9 billion. It’s national television revenue from Fox, CBS, NBC and ESPN is $3.085 billion, or around a third. Clearly, national television, however much it is discussed by baseball’s obituarists, is significantly less important to baseball than it is to football, rendering the citation of national TV ratings for baseball only part of the story. What baseball has that football doesn’t are local broadcasts. Lots and lots of local broadcasts. Lots and lots of highly-rated local broadcasts. Lots and lots of insanely lucrative local broadcasts.
In 2010, the Texas Rangers signed a deal with Fox Sports Southwest which pays the team $85 million per year for 20 years and grants them a 10% equity stake in the network. Earlier this year the Philadelphia Phillies signed a 25-year, $5 billion deal with Comcast SportsNet. And, in the largest and perhaps most-publicized local television deal in baseball history, the Dodgers and Time Warner entered into a 25-year, $8.35 billion deal. While that Dodgers deal is unlikely to be matched by most teams -- and while it’s quite possible that the Dodgers’ deal is evidence of a local rights fees bubble -- it is a windfall that is attributable to the same dynamic enriching nearly every other team: the dramatic increase in value cable companies and local broadcasters are placing on live sporting events. Like baseball. People like watching local baseball games and are doing so in remarkable numbers.
According to Nielsen, between Opening Day 2014 and the week of July 24, the games of 12 of the 30 major league teams ranked as the top programming in primetime across all of television, including network broadcast television, in those 12 markets. The games of seven other major league teams placed either second or third in their markets. In 2013, the top end of local baseball ratings look an awful lot like the numbers for “The Big Bang Theory,” actually. The Detroit Tigers averaged a 9.6 ratings last year. The St. Louis Cardinals averaged 8.7. The Pittsburgh Pirates, long a doormat but in 2013 a surprise contender, averaged 8.1. The Cincinnati Reds averaged 7.4, The eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox: 7.2. Overall, the average local rating for 2013 games for all teams is ahead of where they were five years ago. And, it should be noted, all of these numbers have come at a time when more teams are broadcasting their games on cable and are increasingly abandoning over-the-air broadcasts. In theory, fewer people should have access to their team’s games, yet more people are watching them now than they did in the past.
No, these aren’t football numbers. They’re not eye-popping. But they are evidence of sustained strength and growth in local markets. And it’s truly a volume business. Each baseball team plays a 162 games a season, generating around 500 hours of television programming with ratings which are improving year-by-year. The World Series ratings seem somewhat disappointing come October, but far more eyes have watched far more baseball than most people -- especially most predictors of baseball’s demise -- allow themselves to imagine between April and September.
When all of this is taken into account it is inescapable that, while baseball’s television edifice isn’t built nearly as high as that of football’s, its foundation is much, much wider.
“Greedy Players” Are Not Making Too Much Money
Each November or December, at least one nine-figure contract is handed out to a baseball free agent. Sometimes several of them. This year one will undoubtedly go to starting pitcher Max Scherzer. Last year the big deal went to Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano. The common fan’s response -- and, quite often, the common sports writer’s response -- to any large free agent signing usually includes complaints that baseball players make too much money. That they play a kids’ game that many of us would play for free. That, if Willie Mays never made as much as $200,000 in a season, how in the heck do modern baseball players get off making $200 million?
This is an understandable impulse. At the end of last season, the average major leaguer’s salary stood just north of $3.39 million. The average American’s salary? Around $42,000. And the gap between those numbers has increased dramatically over the years, with baseball players’ average salary standing about 20 times more than it did in the early 1970s. Meanwhile, the average American’s salary is basically flat once you adjust for inflation.
But while it is absolutely true that baseball players are making a tremendous amount of money while firefighters and teachers are making a pittance, the idea that inequality in salaries between ballplayers and average Americans means that something is fundamentally wrong with baseball is a load of hooey.
High salaries aren’t, in and of themselves, problems. They’re problems when people are making insane amounts of money that is in no way connected to the products or value they create. When they find themselves in that position, not because of their hard work or effort, but because they were simply granted that benefit by privilege or favor not available to everyone else. This is decidedly not the case for baseball players who, unlike a great many overpaid corporate executives, compete in what is about as close to a genuine meritocracy there is. One in which one’s worth is tied directly to how hard one can hit or throw a baseball.
Baseball players make a highly specialized and extremely valuable contribution to a nearly $9 billion industry. People around the world spend that $9 billion for no other reason than some 750 players entertain us by doing what hardly anyone else on the planet can do. Baseball players are creating value in terms of butts in seats, hot dogs and beer consumed and team merchandise sold. So why shouldn’t they be paid for it?
If anything, they she be paid more for it. Sure, salaries are rising, but they aren’t keeping up with rising baseball revenues. As Matt Swartz of The Hardball Times noted in March, since 2002, the average major league baseball team payroll has gone up by 58 percent. Meanwhile, baseball revenue has gone up by 122 percent. Over that same period of time, total baseball player salaries as a share of revenue have declined from 56 percent to 40 percent. Baseball players are routinely singled out even among other professional athletes for their allegedly unreasonable salaries, but baseball has the lowest percentage of total revenue going to player salaries than the other three major North American sports, all of which pay players around 50 percent of revenues.
When we observe this trend in society at large we wring our hands about wealth being concentrated in the hands of the few at the expense of the workers. When it occurs in a situation where those wealthy few are owners of major league baseball teams and the workers are baseball players, we somehow conclude that the workers are the ones being unjustly enriched. This despite the fact that any one baseball player contributes far more to his industry’s bottom line than any one factory worker does to his industry’s bottom line or any one teacher does to society at large. We may not like that very much -- it may make us feel bad that teachers aren’t paid like elite center fielders -- but we are collectively responsible for our choices as to how we spend our money and what sorts of behaviors we reward. We’ve decided, as a society, that the center fielder is worth more.
Rich teams are not making it impossible for poor teams to compete.
With the Super Bowl only a week away, Americans must realize what makes NFL football so great: socialism. That’s right, for all the F-15 flyovers and flag waving, football is our most successful sport because the NFL takes money from the rich teams and gives it to the poor teams … football is built on an economic model of fairness and opportunity, and baseball is built on a model where the rich almost always win and the poor usually have no chance . . .
. . . The small market Pittsburgh Steelers go to the Super Bowl more than anybody - but the Pittsburgh Pirates? Levi Johnston has sperm that will not grow up and live long enough to see the Pirates in a World Series. Their payroll is about $40 million, and the Yankees is $206 million. They have about as much chance at getting in the playoffs as a poor black teenager from Newark has of becoming the CEO of Halliburton. That’s why people stop going to Pirate games in May, because if you’re not in the game, you become indifferent to the fate of the game, and maybe even get bitter . . .
It’s a wonderful quote. And some of the jokes he offered in support of his belief that baseball’s economic model is broken are almost funny enough to make us forget that Maher purchased an ownership stake in the New York Mets a year after saying these words. Indeed, there’s almost enough wit here to let us ignore the fact that the Pirates made the playoffs last year, are in the thick of the race this year and that the Yankees are on the verge of spending their second straight October watching playoff games on TV.
Not that Maher is alone in his belief that rich teams in big cities have made it impossible for the poorer teams in smaller cities to compete. Indeed, it’s a belief that is widespread. Books have been written about it. Scores of commentators have promoted the idea that a class system has been created in baseball consisting of those teams which can compete for the top talent and those who cannot. Which, they argue, creates teams who can always count on being competitive and those who are, for all intents and purposes, eliminated from contention before a pitch is even thrown on Opening Day. This mindset is practically a religion unto itself.
And, yes, there are certainly great disparities between the highest and the lowest revenue teams. But lost in all of this is the fact that baseball engages in plenty of socialism, to use Maher’s term. The league redistributes millions of dollars each year from big-market teams to the lesser ones through its revenue-sharing plan. A large portion of MLB’s central fund, which comes from national broadcasts and national marketing initiatives, is likewise set aside and allocated to teams based on their revenues, with the lower revenue teams benefitting the most. Baseball’s Competitive Balance Tax, more commonly known as the “Luxury Tax,” punishes teams for having high payrolls, taxing them at a rate between 17.5% and 50% for exceeding a payroll of $189 million. By 2016, there will be even more giving from the rich to the poor, as the fifteen teams in the largest markets in baseball will be disqualified from receiving any revenue sharing at all.
While revenue sharing and the Competitive Balance tax have not transformed Major League Baseball into the socialist paradise baseball’s critics apparently wish it to be, the stuff that actually matters -- results on the field -- have been just as equitable in baseball as they have been in the National Football League.
As Allen Barra pointed out in his article at The Atlantic last April, 27 different teams have played in the 48 Super Bowls, with 18 of them winning it. The last 48 World Series have featured 27 different teams playing and have had 20 different champions. And the trend has not skewed in the NFL’s favor since the Yankees broke the $100 million payroll barrier for the first time in 2001, ushering in an era in which people blithely claim that a team with sufficient means can simply buy a championship.
Between 2001 and 2013, 15 NFL teams played in the Super Bowl, with eight teams winning it. During that same period, 14 different baseball teams have played in the World Series with nine different teams winning. Once you factor in that the NFL has two more teams than baseball and allows a higher percentage of its teams into the playoffs than baseball does, it’s impossible to argue that baseball’s competitive balance, which most people assume to be atrocious, pales compared to that of the fair and just NFL.
Money’s inability to buy championships is clearly on display in the 2014 baseball season. Just two weeks ago Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal noted that the correlation between money and winning is nothing like it used to be. He found that, ten years ago, a team’s payroll accounted for around 25 percent of its success. Today team payroll accounts for barely more than four percent of a team’s success. Indeed, MacPherson found that the correlation coefficient between payroll and wins this season is even smaller than the correlation between the standings and the first letters of the cities in which teams play. “In other words,” he noted, “you’d have a slightly better chance of predicting playoff participants simply by using alphabetical order than by using payroll numbers.”
There are a lot of reasons for this. Smarter front offices have taken to locking young players up to long term deals while they’re still under team control, thereby neutralizing the rich teams’ financial advantage in free agency. There is more overall money available to smaller revenue teams due to those large TV deals we discussed previously. There have been numerous changes to the rules surrounding the amateur draft and the international free-agent signing period, capping the amount of money teams can spend. The reduction of performance-enhancing drugs in the game means that fewer older players (i.e. the players who can be acquired via free agency) are making impacts like they did back when they had an artificial fountain of youth at their disposal.
Of course it never hurts to be rich. Having money can help patch over a lot of mistakes. But being rich will not help you scout and draft well and being rich is no longer a prerequisite to retaining the good players you develop. To do that you don’t need Steinbrenner dollars. You just need a brain. And almost every team has a brain running its front office these days. If anything, the playing field is more level now than it ever has been. Maybe someday baseball’s doomsayers will take note of this.
Baseball Is Not Lacking In Diversity, And To The Extent Kids Don’t Play Baseball, It’s Not Because It’s “Uncool.”
On April 27 of this year, in a game against the Boston Red Sox, the Toronto Blue Jays lineup featured six players from the Dominican Republic: shortstop Jose Reyes, outfielders Melky Cabrera and Jose Bautista, first baseman Edwin Encarnacion, designated hitter Juan Francisco and right fielder Moises Sierra. That set a major league record. It may have been a bit of a fluke and something of a coincidence -- Sierra only played 13 games for the Jays before being waived -- but it wasn’t intended as a gimmick. It was simply a reflection of the composition of the Blue Jays’ roster at the time. Reyes, Cabrera, Bautista and Encarnacion, for what it’s worth, usually occupy the top four spots in the Blue Jays lineup.
The Jays’ Dominican-heavy lineup was noted by the baseball press for a day or two, but it didn’t make big news. It didn’t because large numbers of Latinos playing major league baseball isn’t news. Their numbers have been growing for decades. Thanks to expanded scouting efforts and the establishment of baseball academies in Latin America, the increasing number of Japanese and Korean players coming to play in the United States and the promotional efforts of Major League Baseball through the World Baseball Classic and other initiatives, the game has gone international in a major way.
But you wouldn’t know it if you listened only to the game’s detractors. Rather, you’d assume that baseball is exclusively the province of white, American players, with racial minorities increasingly squeezed out. This criticism, while containing a core of truth, misses the larger picture of baseball’s demographics and generally misplaces the blame for baseball’s alleged lack of diversity.
That core of truth: it is an indisputable fact that fewer U.S.-born blacks play the game than did in the past. And, to be sure, it is a regrettable fact. Following Jackie Robinson integrating baseball in 1947, black players became an increasingly important part of the major league landscape, with some if not most of baseball’s greatest stars from the 1950s into the 1980s being black. That’s not the case these days. Or at least not nearly the case it was as recently as 20 or 30 years ago. Each spring this topic is raised anew when The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) releases its annual report on the racial and ethnic makeup of professional sports and shows us how baseball breaks down demographically.
But no matter how regrettable a fact this is, those who use this fact as a vehicle to criticize Major League Baseball -- including the many, many columnists and commentators who spend the week or two following the TIDES report writing think-pieces in the media characterizing this trend as some horrible indictment of the sport -- are almost always off base in their attacks. There may be fewer U.S.-born blacks playing major league baseball these days, but baseball is a strikingly diverse sport. More diverse than it has ever been, in fact.
Major League Baseball’s racial diversity roughly mirrors that of the U.S. population. In 2012, when the most recent comparable data is available, whites comprised about the same share of the general population -- 63 percent -- as they did in Major League Baseball. Latinos are overrepresented in baseball, comprising over 28% of major league ballplayers, while they comprise around 17 percent of the U.S. population. Blacks and Asians are underrepresented, comprising around 13 percent and five percent of the general population, respectively, but only eight percent and two percent of major leaguers. In the early 1980s, when U.S.-born black representation in the majors was at its height, just under 19 percent of ballplayers were black.
Yes, fewer U.S.-born blacks are playing major league baseball. And yes, the sport could be more diverse than it is. But compare this to the NFL (66.3 percent black, 30.1 percent white, 0.7 percent, Latino 1.1 percent); the NBA (76.3 percent black, 19 percent white, 4.4 percent Latino, less than one percent Asian) and the NHL (not even measured by TIDES, but estimated to be between 93-95 percent white) and ask yourself which sport is more diverse. Or, maybe the better question to ask is what diversity truly means. There is probably no one right answer to either of those questions, but nor is it at all reasonable to say that baseball is truly and singularly wrong in this regard or that it’s any kind of extreme outlier.
Nor is it all reasonable to say that baseball’s alleged lack of diversity is of its own doing. Which baseball’s critics often say, actually, claiming that baseball is too conservative, too boring, too slow and generally too uncool to appeal to today’s youth. Particularly black youth. It is argued that young black kids who do not have black role models in baseball and are increasingly choosing to play other sports such as football and basketball. It’s an explanation that feels satisfying because it conforms with a lot of stereotypes -- stereotypes about the sports themselves, the people who run them, the fans who root for them and the kids we see playing them -- but it’s lacking in one crucial area: data.
On a very basic level, this analysis is akin to the off-base criticism of baseball’s television ratings in that it fails to account for the fact that baseball is no longer alone at the to of the competitive landscape. When baseball was beginning to sign, draft and develop its wide base of black talent in the 1950s and 60s, the NFL, still in its pre-Super Bowl years, was not yet the cultural behemoth it has since become. The NBA’s reach was hardly a national one. It didn’t even have national television contracts in place from 1956 through 1962 and again from 1965 through 1972. Just as baseball had a much greater part of the television broadcast field to itself then than it does now, it had a far greater platform from which to market itself to would-be players.
But it’s probably unwise to put too much stock on those marketing efforts anyway, because it’s not at all clear that young talent flows to baseball based on how visible, marketable and cool baseball seems to the kids who are exposed to it in the first pace.
In June, our friend Matt Swartz of the Hardball Times attempted to find some connection between geographic areas which featured black superstar major league baseball players and youth participation in baseball by blacks. After all, if it was all about marketing and cool-factor and role models, one would think that having Hall of Fame-caliber black ballplayers play for the local nine would influence kids’ choices about which sport to play. That having a Tony Gwynn, Frank Thomas, Rickey Henderson, Derek Jeter or Barry Larkin around would lead to increased baseball participation by black youth in San Diego, Chicago, Oakland, New York or Cincinnati, for example.
Nope. Swartz found no connection between black children choosing baseball and their exposure to local black stars. Where a connection can be found, however, is a connection between income and weather on the one hand and youth baseball participation on the other. The richer you are and the warmer your weather happens to be, the more likely you are to play baseball. This holds for children of all races and ethnic backgrounds.
The weather part makes sense: baseball must be played outdoors in pleasant weather, and the more pleasant weather one gets, the more reps one gets playing the game and thus the greater chance one has to develop excellent baseball skills. The money part is far more troubling.
As ESPN’s Tim Keown put it last year, youth baseball has become “a business enterprise designed to exclude those without the means and mobility to participate.” And to be sure, baseball has become a pay-for-play sport at the youth level over the past couple of decades. The local parks and recreation league is fine for those who aren’t terribly serious, but children who show promise -- with said promise identified at as young as age six in some instances — are steered toward more intense leagues, with high costs of entry and equipment. These leagues also involve a lot of travel, favoring those kids who have either a stay-at-home parent or one with a flexible work schedule. All of these factors select for wealthier participants and, as such, they have had a far greater impact on black participation than Major League Baseball’s marketing efforts or the perceived “coolness” of the various sports.
But even if the causes of decreased participation by black kids are out of its hands, Major League Baseball has not been blind to the problem. In 2013 Major League Baseball created an on-field diversity task force, the mission of which is to address the talent pipeline that, for financial reasons or whatever other reason it may be, has increasingly excluded black players. It has likewise long-maintained and recently beefed up what it calls its “urban baseball initiatives,” such as the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program and Jr. RBI program which are MLB-backed leagues for inner-city kids between ages 5 and 18. It has established MLB Urban Youth Academies which provide free, year-round baseball instruction and education opportunities in several baseball-related concentrations, including umpiring, groundskeeping, broadcasting, and journalism. It has also poured increasing amounts of money into various grassroots programs around the country designed to encourage more black kids to pick up and stick with the sport.
None of these things are a panacea. Baseball has a long history with committees which accomplish little. And no amount of charitable work in inner cities will overcome the fact that the basic unit of ballplayer development -- the individual club -- has zero incentive to develop raw talent in the United States the way it may in, say, the Dominican Republic. In Latin America you can sign the kids you identify and develop when they’re 16-years-old. In the United States there is a draft and why on Earth would any team pay to develop a young player if the competition is far more likely to get him than you are? Applying effort on the league level to developing black players is commendable. Allowing teams to engage in behavior that is more ruthlessly talent-development-oriented would be truly effective.
But even if Major League Baseball is unwilling to chuck the draft and send its scouts into our nation’s cities to find and develop talent, the league’s diversity -- particularly in its representation by Latino and, increasingly, Asian players -- is nothing for which it should be ashamed. Its efforts to acknowledge and address its shortcomings in this area have been earnest and, one hopes, will be shown over time to be effective.
That Player Who Is “Disrespecting The Game” May Very Well Be Saving It.
A funny thing has happened over the past several years: many of the very same people who claim that baseball is uncool and that it doesn’t appeal to minorities or kids have gone out of their way to criticize any player -- almost always a Latino player -- who dares enjoy himself on a baseball field, claiming that his antics are the harbinger of the game’s very doom.
This usually plays out in the same way. A talented young player bursts onto the scene. He’s a bit of a showboat. He ruffles some feathers and, occasionally, shows some immaturity. The chorus of critics then chimes in, claiming that he’s arrogant and entitled and doesn’t know how to Play The Game The Right Way. The brash young player is talked about as though he needs to be tamed and taught and called on the carpet. He needs to be reminded that Derek Jeter or Cal Ripken or Hank Aaron would never have acted that way. And that if he doesn’t straighten up and fly right he’s gonna find himself out of baseball.
We’ve seen this play out with Yasiel Puig, Bryce Harper, Carlos Gomez and many others. Players who need to learn to “respect the game.”
But like so many ideas that seem to exist only in the world of cranky old columnists and sports talk shout-fests, the phrase “respect the game” is as ridiculous as it is meaningless. It’s a cliche that allows its user to take any subjective criteria, smatter it with a healthy helping of armchair psychology -- and, on occasion, racism -- and turn a matter of opinion or aesthetics into some quasi-objective assessment. Repeating that phrase more like a religious incantation than an actual idea. Demanding that some cocky young kid who flips his bat, trots around the bases too fast (or, sometimes, too slow), shows off his powerful throwing arm or, worst of all, acts jubilant when jubilance would seem to be warranted, adhere to the codes and behavior of players past.
The problem with this is, of course, that there were a lot of players who might have been said to have disrespected the game before Yasiel Puig, Carlos Gomez and Bryce Harper came along if today’s strangely puritanical standards had been applied to them.
Why didn’t Ozzie Smith’s backflips make anyone angry? Or Mark Fidrych talking to the baseball or grooming the mound? Satchel Paige would, on occasion, ask the defenders behind him to move of the field and then proceed to strike out the opposing side like a tightrope walker going without a net. Babe Ruth allegedly called a home run shot in the World Series and was almost as big a character off the field as he was on it. Bill Veeck sent up a little person in a game that counted in order to draw a walk. Rickey Henderson referred to himself in the third person and had no qualms about calling himself the greatest of all time, even before he had developed the resume which, actually, made that a pretty darn plausible claim.
Maybe those players did make a few people mad at the time. But it was only for a short time. History has judged them to be some of baseball’s greatest characters, greatest competitors and greatest draws. The people who made baseball fun or exciting and who, almost certainly, brought in fans who might not have otherwise paid attention. The players, managers and owners who, through their flamboyance or cockiness, gave baseball its vibrance even though some now claim that their modern counterparts are hastening its demise.
Players like Yasiel Puig, Carlos Gomez and Bryce Harper -- or whoever the next cocksure young phenom happens to be -- are just as important to the promotion and health of baseball today as their showboating predecessors were. Maybe even more so. We lament baseball’s relative decline in popularity and note -- with good reason -- that the demographics of baseball fans has skewed older. But has it occurred to anyone that new fans -- including young fans -- may be drawn to baseball precisely because there is an emerging type of player who doesn’t “respect the game” in a certain, narrow and conventional way? Has it occurred to them that a lot of fans in this country would like to see the flamboyant and, at times, reckless style of play seen in Cuba or the Dominican Republic make greater inroads into the majors? Such fans cannot and should not be told that the players they enjoy watching are somehow bad for the game. Doing such a thing is far more likely to kill baseball than a Yasiel Puig bat flip is.
Baseball is in no more need of being respected by any one player in any one specific way than the sun is in need of being respected by cosmic dust. Baseball is way bigger than any one player and can survive — and even benefit from — players who are alleged to be so lacking in respect. Guys who don’t take everything so damn seriously all the time. Guys who sometimes lose their cool. Guys who use baseball as a vehicle for humor or for ego or for showmanship. Baseball has always survived them. At times, it has even embraced them. The game has never been weakened by them. Indeed, it is often made stronger. They get butts in the seats.
Baseball’s Alleged Golden Age Wasn’t All That Golden. And Baseball Certainly Isn’t Dying Now.
Anyone with a lick of common sense has to acknowledge that baseball is no longer the only game in town. Nor is it the most popular game in town, let alone The National Pastime. It no longer has the sort of cultural currency and relevancy it once did.
But so what?
What did the game’s prominence and popularity do for it back in the 1950s? It didn’t add any money to the bottom line of the many teams which struggled to make ends meet and which were forced to sell off their players or move from city to city. It didn’t give fans a better product. Unless, of course, the fans happened to cheer for the Yankees.
Ballparks were far emptier then than they are today. In 1957, the defending World Series champion Yankees drew 1.497 million fans, leading all of baseball. In 2013 the team with the worst attendance was the Tampa Bay Rays. They drew 1.510 million fans and their support is talked about as if it were a dire crisis. What is often called the greatest game of all time -- the 1951 National League playoff between the Giants and the Dodgers which featured Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World,” took place in a ballpark with nearly 20,000 empty seats.
Between 1946 and 1964, 19 World Series were played. The Yankees played in 15 of them and won 11. The Dodgers played in nine of them and won four. Those teams also outspent the competition at an astounding rate, to the point where some major league teams were actually spoken of as if they were defacto minor league teams whose purpose it was to serve them.
While Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, several teams -- particularly in the American League -- were slow to integrate. the Boston Red Sox did not have a black major leaguer until 1959. The game was not truly integrated, including a significant number of Latino players, until some time in the 1960s. By then, however, most people tend to say baseball’s “Golden Age” had passed.
Maybe there was a lot less showboating in the 1940s and 50s. There was also a lot more drinking and carousing and smoking and players doing all manner of things which prevented them from performing at their best and thus prevented their teams from competing at their best. Players were also paid a fraction of their worth and many of them had to sell cars or work on farms or dig graves -- yes, literally dig graves -- in the offseason in order to pay their bills.
So why the love for the baseball of yesteryear and the belief that baseball today is a dead game walking?
I imagine it’s inextricably tied up with nostalgia and that tendency for people to declare that that which existed when they were young was the best example of that which ever existed. The sportswriters and commentators who have come to speak most loudly for the National Pastime -- or, as it may happen, against it -- are the Baby Boomers. The ones who were children when Mickey Mantle was baseball’s biggest star and football was a relatively minor sport. When people were led to believe that ballplayers were just happy to be there and that they never played for the money. Who believed that, even if the Yankees won the World Series every damn year, hope somehow sprang eternal for their local nine because no one was around to explain that, no, the Kansas City Athletics really didn’t have a shot this year. Men who have idealized the baseball of their childhood and who, as a result, find anything which deviates from that norm to be inferior and infirm.
It’s an understandable impulse. But it’s one which has led so many astray. Because those led astray tend to speak from such prominent platforms, it has convinced so many people who didn’t live through the so-called Golden Age that it actually represented a baseball ideal. And to believe that today’s game is rife with problems that really aren’t problems at all.
Not that baseball is perfect. There are a lot of things wrong with it, in fact. There are a lot of things baseball could do so much better than it does. We chronicle them here at HardballTalk all the time and will continue to do so, even if we won’t claim that the sky is falling like so many people seem to enjoy doing.
But baseball isn’t dying, you guys. Indeed, compared to almost any time in its history, it’s positively thriving. The century-long impulse to write its eulogy notwithstanding.