1. The game that made America famous
Some might ask, Do We Love Baseball? One has only to read this recent story on the MLB website to know that baseball commissioner Rob Manfred is bullish on the game and, according to his state-of-the-game remarks at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City in August, so is the rest of America, and possibly portions of the rest of the world, if the stardom of Shohei Ohtani and the success of the World Cup Classic are any indications. It is the best of times for baseball.
Who knew? Wiser heads have been predicting the death of baseball for years. Usually, the doom-sayers cite polls like this 2018 Gallup Poll and this Harris Poll, showing the NFL is anywhere from three to four times more popular than MLB. Baseball, according to this view, is a dated sport, a relic, almost anti-modern in its pace and its obsession with its history. But other polls have not been nearly so dire. Baseball seems to be holding its own against professional football and is more popular than professional basketball and collegiate football and basketball. There is also less concern about serious, life-diminishing injuries to baseball players than football players, for whom concussion and lingering brain damage have become issues of public concern and in some measure even public scandal. There is an air of grotesqueness that surrounds football, where injuries are often described as gruesome, that does not affect baseball. So perhaps we still do love baseball.
According to Manfred, attendance is up, thanks to new rules that have sped up the game, shaving about twenty or so minutes from the average contest. The goal was to reduce the time of a game from over three-plus hours to about two and a half. As a friend sarcastically said to me, “Going to a ball game now is no longer a slog. It’s just a marathon.” Actually, watching a televised baseball game today is likely to take less time than watching an NFL game and will probably have fewer commercial breaks.
There is an air of grotesqueness that surrounds football, where injuries are often described as gruesome, that does not affect baseball. So perhaps we still do love baseball.
Manfred also noted that here are more bars and restaurants in or near baseball stadiums to appeal to young adult fans. Major league baseball is apparently having success getting more children to play the game. People who play the game when young became fans as adults, as a general rule.
Finally, Manfred averred that MLB’s efforts to interest more Black Americans to play baseball through inner-city baseball activities are starting to be rewarded and, overall, more outreach to Black fans is being rewarded as well. This, despite the fact that recent polling shows baseball is not popular with Blacks, rating far below football and basketball. Also, recent polling shows that a higher percentage of Blacks than Whites regularly watch sporting events, which means that Black lack of interest baseball is all the more telling. If MLB is attracting Blacks to the game or back to the game (Blacks used to have their own professional leagues during the days of segregation), three cheers for baseball. I guess Manfred knows what he is doing, making baseball great again. MLB owners extended his contract. Maybe we still do love baseball, or can be made to love it again.
2. One-of-a-kind love affair
Joe Posnanski, one of America’s leading sportswriters, enjoyed best-seller success with his previous book The Baseball 100 (2021), an unlikely but impressive feat for an 800-plus-page sports book that chronicles the greatest 100 players in the history of the game. Why We Love Baseball is an appropriate, and shorter, sequel. The device governing both books is the listicle. People these days seem more attracted to listicles than ever, quite possibly because they provide order and judgement in a country where a fair portion of the population seems to abhor both as contrary to emancipation and liberation. The listicle suggests everything in its right place, to borrow a song title, not quite a great chain of being, but a great queue of relative worthiness, the grand system or scheme of ranking. The listicle is the Top-40-ization of American taste. Everyone likes it because anyone can do it: make a list. It simplifies the art of criticism.
Why We Love Baseball is Posnanski’s list of the greatest moments in baseball history. “There are important moments in here, naturally, and also consequential and dramatic and game-changing moments,” he writes. “But there are also moments that are none of those things. Some are silly. Some are virtually unknown. … These are moments that have exhilarated us, enchanted us, lifted us, and yes, broken our hearts. These are the moments that have for more than a century made people fall in love with baseball.” (xx-xxi) As it happens, there are 108 moments in the book. The fifty countdown is interrupted by “five unlikely homers, five baseball trick plays, five baseball moments that melt the heart, five blunders that will never be forgotten,” (xxi) five duels, five meltdowns, five pitching oddities, five barehanded plays, five loud home runs, and five catches. As Posnanski reminds us, 108 is a magical number in baseball because the ball has 108 stitches. For baseball enthusiasts, magical thinking resides in the magic of numbers, the arithmetic of glory.
As a baseball fan, I found Why We Love Baseball an enjoyable book. It is well-written, tugging at the heartstrings one moment, being like Ripley’s Believe It or Not in another. There are lots of good portions here for St. Louis Cardinals fans: Tom Lawless’s 1987 World Series home run that barely made it over the wall and his bat flip that I am sure irritated the Minnesota Twins no end. Lawless hit only three home runs in his entire career. (3); Ozzie Smith’s incredible defense play against Atlanta in 1978 (Smith was still playing for San Diego at the time) (141-144); Bob Gibson getting revenge at an Oldtimers Game for a home run struck against him during his final game (177-179); David Freese’s otherworldly postseason in 2011. (193-198)
As Posnanski reminds us, 108 is a magical number in baseball because the ball has 108 stitches. For baseball enthusiasts, magical thinking resides in the magic of numbers, the arithmetic of glory.
There are well-known stories here, such as how the Yankees’ Reggie Jackson became known as Mr. October (183-187), how Jose Canseco misplayed a fly ball that bounced over his head and over the fence for a home run (180-182), Hank Aaron’s ordeal breaking the home run record (356-360), and Pirate pitcher Harvey Haddix’s 1959 12-inning perfect game against the Milwaukee Braves that he wound up losing (129-133). Other stories will probably be new to all but the most ardent baseball fan, dying knuckleball pitcher Joe Niekro teaching Chelsea Baker the knuckleball (19-22), Ponderous Joe Bauman’s 72 home runs in 1954 (63-69), or strikeout supreme Japanese pitcher Yutaka Enatsu purposely allowing a number of opposition batters to put the ball in play so that he could strike out the great home run star Sadaharu Oh in order to set a personal career record (85-89). Aspects of the book could appeal to people who are indifferent to baseball, but the book is clearly for fans.
As the season winds up and the postseason draws near, and as the Cardinals try to end a miserable season on a positive note (Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright finishes strong, as he had hoped), curling up with Posnanski’s book on an October night would be a nice way to pass the time.