The Dead Ball Century

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You know John Thorn. Official historian for Major League Baseball. Mustachioed guy in the Ken Burns documentary. I went to his big house upstate last week because Thorn wanted to show me something. It was evidence of a “lively corpse,” Thorn called it, “or fabulous invalid.”

Let me explain. As you read this, someone somewhere is writing an article that claims baseball is dying. Or in decline. Or just plain irrelevant — having “fallen out of the national conversation,” as the New York Times put it last year. Baseball-is-dying articles always appear around playoff time. The writer gathers Nielsen ratings, listens to the moans of the game’s sages, and files a fresh obituary.

Craig Calcaterra took an elephant gun to such stories last month. But I’d come to see Thorn because he had a collection of old newspaper clippings that revealed something more about sportswriting than its occasional resistance to logic. It turns out the press has been announcing baseball’s death decade-by-decade, and sometimes year-by-year, for nearly the entire history of the game.

Baseball’s rogues  its gamblers, faux-founding fathers, and steroid users  are the kind of people that get John Thorn excited. For him, they don’t besmirch baseball history but write a counter-history all their own. Baseball’s obituarists are no different. So it was with excitement that Thorn described to me the words of Pete O’Brien, captain of Brooklyn’s championship Atlantic club:

Somehow or other, they don’t play ball nowadays as they used to some eight or ten years ago. I don’t mean to say they don’t play it as well. … But I mean that they don’t play with the same kind of feelings or for the same objects they used to. … It appears to me that ball matches have come to be controlled by different parties and for different purposes …

O’Brien wrote this, the first known baseball death notice, in 1868.

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Thorn sat in his second-floor study, surrounded by antique sports prints and shelves sagging with baseball books. We began our tour in the 19th century, because that is Thorn’s favorite century. It was a boom time for baseball-is-dying stories. Eighteen years after O’Brien’s lament, the poet H.C. Dodge wrote in Puck magazine:

Oh, give us the glorious matches of old, when love of true sport made them great,
And not this new-fashioned affair always sold for the boodle they take at the gate.

What did the press think was killing baseball? I asked Thorn. “It was the extreme violence of the game, which is very amazing because we see it now with football,” Thorn said. “Baseball was thought of as violent in the days before gloves and masks. I have a wonderful series from the New York Times from 1881 saying, ‘Baseball must be on the wane, because hospital admissions have declined.’”

Baseball, the Times sniffed, “was in the beginning a sport unworthy of men, and … it is now, in its full developed state, unworthy of gentle-men.”

“Then it was owners trading players  treating players like chattel,” Thorn said. “You’re only a quarter of a century removed from the Civil War.” The image of a man bought and sold carried an unseemly resonance. “You cannot put him up like a slave on auction block,” the Milwaukee Journal warned in 1890, in a story called “The Decline in Baseball Interest.”

During the Gilded Age, people feared that the U.S. economy was being controlled by monopolies like Standard Oil. It was the same with baseball: By the 1890s, the National League had driven out its competition. Fans suffered through shenanigans like the Robison brothers looting the Cleveland Spiders of good players and transferring them to the other team they owned, the St. Louis Perfectos.

“The rage for base ball appears to be dying out,” the Omaha World-Herald declared in May 1890. A month later, the Arkansas Gazette imagined “the ghost of Baseball dead and gone come back for the benevolent but solemn purpose of exhibiting itself as an awful warning to its successor.” The cover of a 1913 issue of Puck noted, “No class of labor feels the grip of grinding monopoly more than our underpaid, overworked ball-players.” An illustration showed ballplayers snared in chains made of baseballs.

Just as the NBA is said to be gaining on baseball today, baseball’s journalist-coroners charted the progress made by other sports. In 1892, the Boston Journal noted  in an article titled “The Decline of Base Ball”  that bicycling was the true sport of the age. In 1917, the Colorado Springs Gazette argued that baseball was losing ground to trap shooting. “The modern young man takes up a sport that he can actually do,” the Gazette reported. “No longer is he to be a bench warmer.”

Thorn said, “So if trap shooting is a perceived rival, and bicycling is a perceived rival, then it’s no surprise that the NBA and the NFL are eating baseball’s lunch somehow.”

Before we left the deep past, Thorn identified one more perp that was going to kill baseball: the car. “The automobile and golf are commonly held responsible for the decline of baseball,” the Aberdeen Evening News reported in 1928.

“But it wasn’t because people were motoring about,” Thorn said. “It was because they were screwing in the back seat!” Only the prudery of family newspapers spared us the headline “Base Ball Demised by Sex.”

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As you read through Thorn’s morgue files, you notice a funny development. Something that was supposed to kill baseball  say, players being treated like chattel — is mitigated. But then players start asking for more money. And this opposite force is also going to kill baseball. In 1922, when the Yankees were paying Babe Ruth $75,000, a Michigan paper argued that baseball had birthed a “salary-frankenstein.” The headline read, “Enormous Salaries May Mean Death of Base Ball Business.”

“Oppressing the player, or allowing the players to oppress the public,” said Thorn. “It’s the obverse and reverse of a coin. You just flip it and see the way it comes out and that’s the way you argue in a particular decade.”

These days, you hear baseball is vulnerable to new media — first TV, which loves the NFL more, and then the Internet, because MLB is more tight-fisted with highlight clips than the NBA. This is also an old argument. “The movies were regarded as a big challenge,” Thorn said. A scout told the Colorado Springs Gazette in 1917 that people preferred nickelodeons to stadiums.

The 1920s produced a spate of stories saying kids had given up baseball, a development that would kill the sport at the roots. “Decline of Baseball As Major College Sport Foreseen,” read a 1925 headline in the Miami News reported. A year later, the Associated Press found baseball “showing signs of dying on the sandlots.” A decade after that, a former major leaguer told a Delaware paper, “Baseball as an interscholastic sport no longer exists in many of our larger cities.”

In 1945, the conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler mused on the death of baseball. Pegler alighted on what would, in succeeding years, become the greatest serial killer in baseball history. Call it the American character. The theory goes like this: Something about America changed  its mood, maybe, or the pace of life  and baseball got left behind. “I detect a sad and desperate admission that the game, itself, is outmoded,” Pegler wrote.

As Pegler saw it, the kids of ’45 were too easily distracted for street ball. “Frankly, baseball, love it though you may, is a complex game requiring more organization and enthusiasm than boys today are willing to give it,” Pegler wrote. This is before BioShock Infinite, the iPhone, and the catalogue of demon-toys that allegedly make today’s young punks surrender their gloves.

In 1955, a Kansas paper announced, “We predict that within 25 years there’ll be no organized baseball except the major leagues, if even they’re in existence then.” As a doomsday prediction, it was topped only by that of a Virginia magazine: “In a few years the only place you will be able to find a first baseman’s mit [sic] will be in the baseball museum at Cooperstown, N.Y., and the deeds of Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial will be recounted the way we now speak of buffalo hunters.”

But let’s go back to that ’55 death notice. It’s interesting because it was published at a summit of baseball’s so-called “Golden Age”: the year Brooklyn finally beat the Yankees in the World Series; the year Mantle and Willie Mays led their leagues in homers; a period from which we modern fans feel Boomers will never let us escape.

Even Golden Agers thought baseball was fatally anachronistic. “The game is getting to be outdated by other forms of entertainment,” the paper noted, “which are more exciting, more accessible, and  in many cases  cheaper.” It suggested that baseball would be usurped by the drive-in theater, the swimming pool, and the airplane.

♦♦♦ 

The fact that baseball was your father’s game, your father’s Oldsmobile, I think we started to see this in the 1960s,” Thorn said, “as baseball on the field seemed to be in a declining stage as measured by offensive stats.”

In the ‘60s, baseball was going to die because of over-expansion. The winnowing of the minors. Outfield fences pushed back in bigger stadiums. “If baseball dies,” the columnist Jim Murray wrote, “the murder weapon will be real estate.”

In the ‘70s, it was the winnowing of the minors (again). Bigger stadiums (again). And that elusive American character  now warped by Oswald, Vietnam, and Kent State. “While baseball hasn’t passed,” a Toledo Blade writer noted in 1972, “its current decline tells a lot about the changed American character. It’s the collapse of small-town America, the rush to violence in sport, film, and other entertainment, the diminished competitive urge, and the lessened credibility of the American dream.”

Note the shift: Where once America was too easily distracted for baseball, now it was too cruel, or too heartbroken.

At times, the sportswriters got tired, as one put it, of driving “the verbal hammer of nails into the proverbial coffin.” So they picked up the dugout phone and called a higher authority. “Baseball is doomed,” media theorist Marshall McLuhan claimed in a syndicated article in 1969. “It is a dying sport.” McLuhan settled on a culprit: the American character. “Baseball,” he said, “is just too individual a sport for our new age.”

The five-tool historian Jacques Barzun became an unlikely player in the baseball death industry. Barzun had once written, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” Afterward, whenever baseball had one of its periodic crises, journalists would call and ask how the crisis explained America. Barzun in 1976, amid a sluggish economy and a spring-training lockout: “Perhaps it is an expression of disillusionment, that the American dream has failed.” In 1993, amid chatter of free trade and free agency: “Atoms hang together much better than teams today.”

The last bit was an unintentional quotation of Jim Murray’s ’63 obituary: “Atomic physics is no more abstruse than the far reaches of the Baltimore roster.” After 125 years of declaring baseball dead, you’re bound to double-dip an analogy.

By the 1980s  well, I’ll be honest. Before we reached the ‘80s, Thorn and I got tired of talking about death and went out for sandwiches. I present those murder stories as a newsreel:

August 26, 1987: “Hall of Famer Sewell says baseball declining

July 4, 1995: “An aging population adds to the decline of baseball

May 1, 2003: “Where are the fans? Baseball’s declining attendance

And finally we arrive in 2013, when Daniel Okrent, a fine writer and co-creator of fantasy baseball, told the New York Times, “We are a shouting culture now” and that “baseball is quiet and slow.” But you’ve already heard about the American character being out of tune with baseball. In 1972. In 1945. In 1868. …

♦♦♦ 

Why is baseball’s death such an appealing premise? Well, “Baseball Is Dead” is an editor’s idea of a good headline. Trend stories depend on rubicons being crossed, on scattered data revealing a shocking truth. Of course, after a game like Royals-A’s the other night, the same editor might ask for a headline that reads, “Baseball is back from dead.”

Declaring baseball dead allows us to imagine we’re present at a turning point in history. We’re the lucky coroners who get to toe-tag the game of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Kurt Bevacqua.

“We are not at a historic moment,” Thorn said. “The popularity of anything will be cyclical. There will be ups and downs. If you want to measure a current moment against a peak, you will perceive a decline. J.P. Morgan was asked, ‘What will the stock market do this year?’ His answer was: ‘Fluctuate.’”

Baseball’s repeated death throes, Thorn argued, are symptoms of its own innate nostalgia. Pete O’Brien thought baseball’s true glories lay in an unreachable past. We modern fans do, too. “I think it’s this Garden of Eden thing,” Thorn said. “Things are not as they used to be. It is a solace that lies behind the church, as well. The precepts of the good book are largely in decline today, but once upon a time … 

It’s not just the spryness of the game we find lacking. It’s modern players. This is why Hank Aaron is wielded like a weapon against Barry Bonds, why an otherwise clear-headed argument against Derek Jeter’s canonization turns into a séance for Red Ruffing.

“The Garden of Eden notion that giants walked the earth in the old days — we need this to be true,” Thorn said. “Now, we don’t think it’s true in football or basketball. We don’t think it’s true in Olympic sports.” That’s because those sports’ big numbers have already fallen: Usain Bolt is faster than Jesse Owens. “Baseball statistics tend to provide this camouflage,” Thorn said. “Back in 1887, ten men hit .400. Boy, they must have been great!”

The final reason is the opposite of nostalgia, more like a kind of anti-nostalgia. If baseball really is our father’s game, then saying it’s dead is a statement of selfhood. Every man kills the thing his father loves. “You grow up by not following in your father’s footsteps,” Thorn said in his study, “but finding ways to separate and have turf you can declare your own.”

Filial angst is perfectly legal. Today, it’s often exercised by embracing the NBA  a league, by the way, that was repeatedly pronounced dead or declining.

There’s just one hitch. Our dads thought baseball was their fathers’ game. (From 1969: “Now I know why old people like baseball. It’s a sanctuary for the listless.”) And our grandfathers thought baseball was their fathers’ game. (From 1917: “The day of the proxy sport has passed for the live-wire American.”) By declaring baseball dead, we haven’t broken with our fathers at all. We’ve reconciled with them. We’re two obituarists meeting in a magic Iowa cornfield. “Hey, Dad,” we venture, voices cracking. “You want to write a think piece?”

Filed Under: MLB, Baseball, MLB History, Decline of Baseball, John Thorn

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Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ curtisbeast