Every October, as World Series drama unfolds, parents lament that their kids don’t care about baseball.
Their concern is hardly unfounded: Baseball has, indeed, lost its edge with young people, and the usual suspects—video games and competition from faster-moving sports—bear some of the blame. But there is another culprit, one that takes us back to the roots of the modern game. Baseball became our national pastime when its early pioneers turned a wild game into a demonstration of their diligent efforts and sober respectability.
No wonder kids today think it's a drag.
In its primitive, pre-19th century forms, baseball was literally child’s play, and it had more in common with today’s kickball games than with the modern game. Rudimentary bat-and-ball games such as “town ball” were highly participatory, with no foul lines and little distinction between players and spectators. They were governed by the playful impulses of children and pleasure-seeking adults.
Adult men started playing what we would now recognize as baseball (initially designated “base ball”) in the decades before the Civil War. Many of these were ambitious clerks and dedicated craftsmen—small manufacturers of clothes, furniture, shoes, etc. They were men with middle-class ambitions who saw their futures irrevocably tied to hard work, discipline, and the mastery of patiently acquired skills. Almost as soon these young men began playing the game regularly, they began changing it to suit their desire for respectability; for these early ballplayers, baseball was a respite from the demands of work, but it was also a form of recreation through which they could demonstrate the qualities of intense concentration and attention to detail that men with proper vocations needed to succeed.
The upwardly mobile adults who created modern baseball initially had a hard time convincing their Victorian contemporaries that they weren’t spending their time indolently, that this exhibition of batting, catching, and uninhibited running was a “manly” and wholesome pastime. Pruning away the less competitive and more playful aspects of traditional bat-and-ball games made their case easier. In doing so, they also made baseball into a serious game, which could be won through honest and devoted toil—and perhaps a little Providential favor.
As sectional strife peaked and Civil War guns blazed, baseball’s founding fathers systematized the sport, imposing standardized rules and uniform dimensions. They organized associations of baseball clubs and jettisoned “unmanly” features such as the rule that allowed un-assisted catches for outs even after the ball had bounced. Pegging runners for an out had already been eliminated. By 1876, the first permanent professional league, the National League, was established.
Eventually, in a little-known but significant turn away from the children’s game from which it emerged, baseball’s leading tinkerers sanctioned fast, overhand pitching. This change deprived hitters of the fat, stiff-wristed underhand tosses on which they had once feasted. Fielders became more expert as well, and began donning gloves for the first time. So no more tallies of 100-63. Winners defeated their opponents by scores we would recognize today, like 7-5, 5-2, and even 1-0.
The move to overhand pitching and carefully measured strike zones meant that the action would turn on innumerable judgment calls—the fraction of an inch separating ball and strike—in a way that traditional bat-and-ball games did not. As the modern game shifted attention to the compressed channel between pitching mound and batter’s box, pitchers and hitters adopted techniques that were increasingly exact and dauntingly esoteric, and many of the game’s participants (i.e., those in the field) were marginalized.
By the end of the 19th century, baseball was both the national pastime and the undisputed dominion of respectable men. The game’s early innovators had succeeded in making the sport precise, quantifiable, and respectable, just as they set out to do. There was joy to be had here—especially for poets and statisticians—but much of the fun had been eliminated. This was work.
Little of this mattered when baseball was the nation’s most beloved spectator sport and when it was passed dutifully from father to son like a cherished heirloom. Children were attracted to this more refined game in ever greater numbers, and their fathers (it was usually fathers) avidly encouraged them in it. Little League baseball was created in 1939, and the backyard catch arose as an iconic feature of 20th-century middle-class life.
But time eventually caught up with this 19th-century game. Fan interest peaked some time before Dwight Eisenhower’s first term as President. Newly ascendant sports like football and basketball amused fans faster and with less effort. They also made for more engaging television. And then came video games. None of these new activities involved standing in an outfield, waiting futilely for a ball to bounce into your vicinity. And none of them required the patient apprenticeship, the grinding repetition, or the daunting precision that the subtle craft of baseball was intended to inspire.
As they were in the 19th century, adult men are still at the root of the problem. For all their lamentations about baseball’s declining appeal to young boys, modern dads are often unwilling or unable to instill the craft of baseball. In the most blighted urban areas, where baseball has seen the sharpest decline, dads are sometimes absent altogether. When they don’t spend the time, when they don’t instill the essential skills, the craft of baseball—the essence of the modern game—languishes. After all, it was not designed for everyone’s enjoyment, but for the recreation of those whose prospects in life depended on diligent effort, patient learning, and the acquisition of difficult skills.
When circumstances permit, baseball remains the sport in which the hard-earned joy of the kid and the discipline of the parent meet on relatively equal terms. Baseball remains one of the few highly regarded crafts in our culture, and one of the very few that can still be handed down from adults to children. This is less reliably the case with basketball, football, or soccer. More often than not these sports are learned with peers, rather than from parents. And this is why baseball remains the sport in which the most compelling inter-generational memories are forged.
The glory of this sport and the tragedy of its withering both owe something to baseball’s peculiar 19th-century combination of recreation and discipline. Moms who distribute postgame popsicles and dads who try to muster excitement about a base-on-balls are desperately trying to undo something that cannot be undone. Efforts to make baseball “fun” in the joyous and spontaneous way that games of kickball, tag, or even soccer are fun, are destined to fail. The game, in its modern form, was designed for different purposes by men with 19th-century ideas and aspirations.
Baseball still has a future, though it may be a diminished one. And that is a real loss. In many ways, baseball doesn’t look like anything else that we do in our lives. Its languid pace makes it the least frenetic of team sports. But more importantly, its lessons about hard work, discipline, and attention to detail remain as relevant as ever. The kids just need the time to learn them.