Every spring, for about the last half century, the new baseball season kicks up a debate about whether football has replaced baseball as America's national pastime. Usually, this debate is silly—in large part because it’s built on misconceptions. Here are four of the most prevalent myths about baseball today.
Myth No. 1: Baseball Isn’t as Competitive as Football
This widely held belief was best expressed by Bill Maher before the 2011 Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers. “The American people need to understand what makes NFL football so great: socialism,” he said. “That’s right. The NFL takes money from the rich teams and gives it to the poorer ones. Football is built on an economic model of fairness … and baseball is built on an economic model where the rich always win and the poor have no chance.”
In other words, baseball's critics complain about an economic structure that has so-called big-market teams like the New York Yankees pulling in an estimated nine times what small-market clubs like the Kansas City Royals earn. Most of the NFL’s revenue comes from its national TV contracts, which the league divides up into equal shares for each team; most big-league baseball revenue comes from local TV contracts, which differ wildly from city to city.
However, it isn’t quite that simple. MLB redistributes millions earned by the big-market teams to the lesser ones through its revenue-sharing plan.
But there’s a larger point Maher and others miss. In sports, economic equality doesn’t necessarily equate with "fair" and competitive. From the first Super Bowl, in 1967, there have been 48 NFL championships featuring 27 different teams, 18 of them winning rings. The last 45 World Series have also featured 27 different teams, but have had 20 different champions. Slight edge to baseball.
To narrow down the comparison, let’s look at the new millennium. From 2001 through the 2013 season, 15 different NFL teams played in the Super Bowl, with eight different teams winning the big one. Over the same span, baseball had 14 different teams play in the World Series with nine different teams winning. To borrow a term from basketball, that’s pretty much a jump ball.
So when you look at the numbers, it seems baseball is actually the more competitive sport, particularly when you consider that the NFL has 32 teams and 12 playoff berths, meaning 37.5 percent of its teams will make the postseason. Though baseball expanded its playoffs in 2010, over the last two seasons it is still only 10 teams out of 30—roughly 33 percent—who make the postseason. Pro football only appears more competitive because there are more playoff spots open.
In other words, despite the sport’s “capitalist” bent, fans in every Major League baseball town can rest assured that no matter what their franchise’s income, they have at least as much of a chance of playing for and winning the championship as any football team.
Myth No. 2: Baseball Games Are Too Long
“Baseball games are too long,” wrote Tracee Hamilton in the Washington Post last July. “I never thought I’d say that, but even a baseball lover like me is growing impatient with the pace of the games. And I can’t be the only one.”
Longer, than what, exactly? In the early 1960s baseball games lasted, on average, 150 minutes. Over the last 60-odd years, the game has only increased in length by about 27 minutes. And it likely isn’t because the pace of the game itself is slower.
A few years ago, watching a replay of Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. I was struck by the fact that after each inning there was one long commercial, one short commercial, and a pause for station identification—usually a two-and-a-half-minute break, three minutes tops. But pull out your stopwatch nowadays and you can usually count five or six minutes between the last pitch of one inning and the first pitch of the next. So it seems most of the difference in the length of the game doesn’t have anything to do with the pace of the game but with added commercial time.
By contrast, NFL games last year were, on average, 15 to 16 minutes longer than the average MLB game. As for what constitutes action, as Peter Handrinos points out in Errors and Fouls, “the average pro football contest has only about 12 minutes of in-play time (from the snaps that begin plays to the whistles that end them)." The average major-league game, meanwhile, has about 25 actual minutes with the ball actually in play.
Or stated another way, the average NFL game has about half the action of a big league baseball game.
Myth No. 3: Baseball’s Talent Pool Has Been Diluted by Expansion and Competition From Other Sports
“The quality of baseball was at an all-time high after World War II because there was such a concentration of talent on just sixteen teams,” wrote Ralph Kiner in his 2004 memoir, Baseball Forever. “By the time each league added two more teams in 1961 and 1962, you had guys on major league rosters that would have been on Triple-A minor league rosters just years before.”
George Gmelch in his 2006 book, Indies Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball, wrote that, “Expansion (four new teams since 1993) has created many more openings, and many great athletes who once would have played baseball now are siphoned off into other sports, shrinking baseball’s talent pool,”
Those two quotes show how this myth started to catch on after World War II and still exists today. In 1945, the population of the United States was around 140 million. It’s a popular assumption of old timers that the quality of baseball’s talent pool has been diluted ever since. But the only concretely observable shift in the league’s population in that time is racial. The number of white players in the big leagues has declined since the end of the Second World War—but, of course, at the end of the Second World War the league excluded blacks and most Latinos from playing.
By 1960, when both leagues had expanded, the U.S. population had risen to 180 million and the talent pool included blacks and Latinos. In the 21st century, we now have a population of nearly 320 million, and the 30 teams are drawing not only Americans but the best from the Dominican Republic and many other Caribbean nations, plus the top talent from Japan, Taiwan, and even an occasional Australian. (Perhaps MLB will even pick up a few recruits from India in the wake of Jon Hamm’s baseball movie, Million Dollar Arm.) People of color now make up 38 percent of the league.
It’s true that over the last half century, baseball has lost talented youth to football and basketball. But it’s also true that many of the positions on football and basketball teams demand body types that aren’t suitable to baseball anyway. (Just ask a former unsuccessful minor-league baseball player named Michael Jordan.)
To the extent that the talent pool really is shrinking, it’s mostly because American youth are dropping out of team sports in general. In January, the Wall Street Journal reported that from 2008-2012 youth participation in the four major sports—basketball, soccer, football and baseball—declined by four percent overall. When comparing the 2008-2009 season to 2012-2013, the number of high-school football players declined by 2.3 percent and the number of basketball players fell 1.8 percent. The number of baseball players actually increased 0.3 percent.
Myth No. 4: Baseball Is Declining in Popularity
Last fall, in a New York Times article titled “Is The Game Over?” Jonathan Mahler wrote that baseball “has never been healthier. So why does it feel so irrelevant? Maybe the best evidence of this admittedly unscientific observation is the national TV ratings …”
Well, that certainly is unscientific. If the game has never been healthier, why would it matter if national TV ratings were down? Nationally broadcast NFL games routinely outdraw nationally broadcast baseball games by about four to one. But what difference does that make when nearly all baseball fans watch their teams play on local networks?
And, as I wrote last fall, baseball’s appeal is largely regional, while football’s is national. On a given Sunday afternoon or Monday night in the fall, the nation’s football fans will tune in to watch, say, the Dallas Cowboys play the San Francisco Forty-Niners. On a spring or summer night, most baseball fans aren’t watching a national game; they’re watching their team.
It’s no more relevant to argue the greater popularity of pro football by citing national TV ratings than to maintain that baseball is more popular because it outdrew pro football last year in attendance, 74 million to 17.3 million. People consume these two sports in very different ways; that doesn’t make either one of them less of a great American pastime.