Baseball is the most American of sports, or so its celebrants, from Walt Whitman to George Will, have long been fond of telling us. How appropriate, then, that our national pastime is so steeped in that most American of creeds: exceptionalism. Baseball is different from such rival professional sports as basketball and football not simply because it’s older and slower, but because it’s baseball. Don’t take my word for it. Here is John Chancellor, narrating the early minutes of Ken Burns’s 18-hour documentary Baseball, which turns 25 this year:
It is a leisurely game that demands blinding speed; the only game in which the defense has the ball … At its heart lie mythic contradictions: a pastoral game born in crowded cities, an exhilarating democratic sport that tolerates cheating, and has excluded as many as it has included. A profoundly conservative game that often manages to be years ahead of its time. It is an American Odyssey that links sons and daughters to fathers and grandfathers, and it reflects a host of age-old American tensions, between workers and owners, scandal and reform, the individual and the collective. It is a haunted game in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope, and coming home.
This is a lovely passage, although its breathlessness was dated even a quarter century ago. (In 1994, an acrimonious labor strike led to the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years.) To that list of contradictions, I’d add another: No other sport has changed so much yet remained so committed to its self-conception as unchanging.
The history of baseball is a never-ending crisis of purity, occasioned by everything from “curved balls” to game-fixing to night games to integration to designated hitters to free agency to instant replay. The composition of the ball itself has changed repeatedly. At every juncture, the fundamental nature of the game has been deemed under dire threat, but somehow baseball has endured. Perhaps the most essential part of the sport is its belief that it has an essence. Baseball might be exceptional, but a more colloquial way of putting it is that baseball is weird.