The 4 Biggest Myths About Baseball

The sport isn't in decline. Football isn't more competitive. So why do people say otherwise?
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AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

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.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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