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Is Baseball Still the National Pastime?


Is Baseball Still the National Pastime?

News alert: Football is now our new national pastime. At least that was the message in an article from in April 2015. The article headline read, Move Over Baseball: New Bloomberg Politics Poll Shows That 67% of Americans Now Say Football Is National Pastime.

Yes, two out of three people surveyed said baseball’s reign as “the National Pastime” titleholder is over. And if you read opinions online, many sportswriters and commentators agree with that assessment—it seems that sports fans of all types have felt that way for years, if not decades.

But do you believe baseball is no longer the National Pastime? Is it true?

What’s in a name?

Baseball has long been a sport of nicknames for players and teams. Babe Ruth is the Sultan of Swat, Lou Gehrig is the Iron Horse and Pete Rose is Charlie Hustle. The 1927 Yankees were Murderers’ Row, the 1934 Cardinals were the Gashouse Gang, the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s were Dem Bums.

And baseball in America has forever been called the National Pastime.

The term “national pastime” was first linked to baseball in print long ago…as far back as 1856. That’s a couple of centuries ago. At that time, baseball was growing in popularity across the country and was played by people of all ages and just about anywhere the game could be played. Playing baseball was fun and so was watching others play the game.

As time went by, “National Pastime” started to appear in articles written by journalists of the day. And although baseball was never named the official national sport of the United States, it easily became known as the National Pastime. (For the record, the U.S.A. does not have an official national sport as many countries do.)

But now people say that baseball shouldn’t be able to use that long-held title.

Today, as the poll indicates, a majority of sports fans say football (especially NFL football) is America’s national pastime. And they’re fairly convinced there’s no real need for a debate about it. In their opinion, the majority of Americans sports fans prefer to watch football to baseball. End of story. Case closed. Not even close.

Baseball: Pastime…or past its time?

Just in case you’re wondering, here’s one dictionary definition of pastime:

“An activity that you enjoy doing during your free time.”

That name became associated with baseball because people across the country were captivated by playing or watching baseball games in person or by reading accounts of it in newspapers. For anybody who has followed the game or followed a team, you know that baseball’s past is tied to spirit of the game. Many of today’s baseball fans remember baseball’s past, going back three or four decades or more. (Just ask any Boston Red Sox fan.)

Baseball fans remember the players, the teams they were on, the plays they made and the exciting games. They also recall games that were meaningful at certain times in our nation’s history. They remember when significant records fell and when long-suffering teams finally tasted some success.

If football fans get excited about a game, baseball fans celebrate the game itself.

We don’t just enjoy a few games—we enjoy the history of it. In 1994, Ken Burns, the famous documentarian, chose Baseball as his next topic to focus on. The nine-part series covered the history of the game, dealing mostly with its past and less on its present. That’s what made it so interesting.

To baseball fans, at least.

Baseball is stuck in the past.

And yet, those who want to steal the national pastime title away say that baseball’s history is the problem. Baseball is about the past, not about what’s exciting and entertaining today. Baseball doesn’t keep up with today’s fans who want more action, greater excitement and genuine competition. Football fans care only about action on the field in a big game, not history lessons.

And they get precisely that once a year in a very big way.

The Super Bowl and big television ratings.

Many fans point to television ratings for the Super Bowl and say that’s evidence enough that pro football is the new national pastime. The numbers are on their side. Virtually all of the most-viewed television shows or events in history are Super Bowl Games.

Last year’s Seattle Seahawks vs. New England Patriots game drew 168 million viewers. Every year, total viewership and market share grow.

By comparison, Major League Baseball’s numbers on TV aren’t as impressive: Last year’s World Series between the Giants and the Royals averaged fewer than 14 million viewers per game. That’s under 100 million for the seven-game series.

Not so fast.

Football-only fans would like everyone else to think that baseball is dead. But in 2015, baseball is as popular as ever. Attendance at most parks is still high and the revenue teams generate is strong.

Every year, baseball fans still look forward to Opening Day, still go to Spring Training games in March that are “meaningless.” Across the country, people of all ages still play baseball (and softball)…probably more so than they play a friendly game of football.

And for a variety of factors, including competitive balance and exciting pennant races, the past decade of professional baseball has produced all 10 of the best-attended seasons in Major League Baseball history. Then-commissioner Bud Selig had this to say about the 2014 season:

“Once again, I’d like to thank our great fans for their continued enthusiasm
and support over the last decade and beyond. I join our fans in looking forward to another magnificent Postseason and all the best of our National Pastime.”

News alert: Baseball isn’t football.

It doesn’t seem logical to give football the national pastime title simply because it draws millions of viewers on television for Super Bowl Sunday. Super Bowl Sunday is also the day more avocados (guacamole) are consumed than any other day of the year, but that doesn’t make the avocado the greatest fruit in the country.

One report even revealed that 96% of those who say they prefer football to baseball have never been to an NFL game. That has to make you wonder if television ratings are all it takes for football to become the national pastime?

Football fans put down baseball simply because it isn’t football, as if football is the better sport because of it. Football is exciting to watch, yet it is a hard-hitting, violent game. Many coaches compare being on a football team, and striving to win, to being part of the military. It takes sacrifice, guts and determination to win.

The late comedian George Carlin had this incredibly insightful and funny routine that compared football to baseball. His observed that football has a military war-type sensibility about it (long bombs, field general, blitzes, sudden death, helmets) while baseball terms suggest a friendly game (parks, diamonds, heading home, home runs, extra innings, ball caps).

Baseball is a more leisurely sport, but it’s still competitive. It has a long history and it’s still played by people of all ages. It’s still popular with fans who very likely enjoy watching baseball and football. Many true baseball fans probably watch football every Sunday and the Super Bowl every February. They like both games for different reasons.

Baseball is the National Pastime because that’s what it was named more than 150 years ago. People watched it or played it to pass the time leisurely and enjoyably. That’s still the case to this day for baseball fans.

* press release, September 29, 2014