It’s that time of year. The days are getting warmer, the flowers are beginning to bloom and idiot sportswriters are clamoring to tell us why baseball is dead.
You’ve heard all the reasons. Football’s number one now, the games are too long, there are too many of them, pitchers don’t go nine innings any more. Let’s examine (and shoot full of holes) some of them.
Does baseball have the hold it once had on the American psyche? Of course not. That’s not to baseball’s detriment so much as it is to the credit of other sports. In 1927, when the Babe was swatting 60 home runs, NFL football featured teams like the Pottsville Maroons with a bunch of eastern European guys whose families emigrated to western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio for jobs in the steel mills and coal mines. The NHL played a 44 game season, with teams limited to the northeastern US and Canada. The NBA? There wasn’t one. While those sports have obviously increased in popularity, hasn’t baseball slipped since the era of Willie, Mickey and the Duke? Well, when Bobby Thomson hit one of the most famous home runs in major league history in 1951 (The Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant!) in a game that pitted two teams from the most populous city in the world at the time with a World Series berth on the line, there were 34 thousand fans in the stands. Last night, there were 45 thousand fans in the stands in St. Louis. There were 38 thousand in Atlanta. There were 40 thousand in Seattle. 40 thousand at Yankee Stadium. 38 thousand in Milwaukee. 35 thousand in Arizona. For regular season games in May. Pretty good for a dead sport.
The games are too long! Really? Baseball games run about three hours. A little less than an NFL football game. I don’t hear anyone complaining about the length of football games. Instead of wringing its hands over the increasing length of its games, the NFL just backed up the start time for its late games to 4:15 or 4:25. Baseball games are longer today primarily because the commercial breaks between innings have gotten longer. Secondarily, the way the game is played has changed. Batters are taking more pitches. As the price of baseball players has increased into the tens of millions of dollars, baseball management has realized it doesn’t make sense to have them pitch 350 innings a year only to suffer debilitating arm injuries at age 28, so starters don’t pitch as long as they used to, meaning more pitching changes. By the way, remember how the old time pitchers used to gut it out for nine innings? Well, they didn’t. Again, going back to the Babe’s breakthrough season, 1927, pitchers threw a complete game about 40% of the time. Also, those pitchers weren’t facing the kind of lineups teams field today. In 1927, the shortstop was a 5-5 guy nicknamed Scooter who couldn’t hit a ball over the fence if he was standing on the warning track. Walter Johnson could throw it down the middle and pitch a 95 pitch shutout. Today’s shortstop is 6-3 and 220, had a football scholarship to Alabama and hits check swing homers to right field.
Someone once said baseball is dull. Legendary baseball broadcaster Red Barber said it’s only dull to those with dull minds. If you want to find me, I’ll be at the ballpark with Red.