"Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."
The words of the late historian Jacques Barzun can be found in almost any serious book on the sport that was long ago deemed "America's pastime." And it's true: Throughout modern history, baseball has come to exemplify the American spirit. Mark Twain said that baseball symbolized "the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming 19th century [America]!" And indeed, the game has long reflected the heart and character of a country increasingly urbanized yet still influenced by simple, small-town roots.
And we treated it with reverence. Author Victor Alexander Baltov Jr., in his book Baseball Is America, once asserted that "baseball defines America; it's as sacred as Christmas, traditional marriage, and right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness."
But not anymore. Today, American culture is clearly shifting away from baseball.
As longtime Washington Post journalist Mary McGrory put it, "Baseball is what we were. Football is what we have become." And while the numbers don't tell us the whole story, they are difficult to refute.
According to a 2014 Harris Poll, 35 percent of sports fans said the NFL was their favorite sport, followed by Major League Baseball at 14 percent, and college football at 11 percent. Television ratings support this poll, with a significant increase in fans watching football over baseball. If those numbers aren't convincing enough, just follow the money. The NFL is slowly on its way to bringing in more revenue than the MLB and NBA combined. As reported by Forbes in 2013, the NFL brought in $9.5 billion in revenue, $5 billion of that coming in from television deals, while MLB brought in $7 billion and the NBA $4 billion.
But this is about more than money or sports. It's about a societal shift away from a certain kind of America where baseball made sense — where it was just so naturally and obviously illustrative of who we were as a people. Today, we are changing— and fast. Yet baseball is changing very little. It's as if baseball can't keep up, particularly for an increasingly distracted and impatient people.
Technology is changing the way we receive and process information, making it more difficult to focus, especially on a slow-paced game like baseball. We lack patience. We check our email 150 times a day. We play with an iPad while we watch Game of Thrones. All while being asked to fidget through 200-minute, molasses-like baseball games. Baseball simply struggles to work in a world of instant gratification.
But this shift doesn't just vivify America's devolving ethos when it comes to the realities of technology on the human experience. It also underscores a hypocrisy in the nation's ethic of violence.
The link between the crushing violence of football and brain disease is clear. But we still watch — and more than ever. We flee the languor of baseball for the violent vigor of football. We choose what feels more like the modern equivalent of Roman gladiatorial combat over the slower, understated drama of baseball.
Sports both reflect and shape culture. So the conversation surrounding the demise of baseball in America stands to be far more significant than a superficial debate about sports. While it might all seem trivial or relative, a deeper consideration makes it more startling to think that in 50 years someone might say that, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn football.”