Thursday, April 19, 2012

Predictions of Doom

“The National Game has begun to topple from its ancient pedestal, as the one-time fervid fans turn to new sports…”

            This is how reporter Jack Kofoed begins his hard-hitting article entitled “A Dirge for Baseball.” There is really nothing to differentiate this article from the hundreds of other articles that consistently predict baseball’s imminent demise. Yet it is very interesting for one particular reason. Of course, I will naturally neglect to tell you about why this article is interesting for quite some time, and don't you dare scroll ahead!

            Kofoed hits all the classic tropes. First, he decries the shortsightedness of ownership for charging too much for tickets, thus driving the young fan away from the game and ensuring that the young fan’s “hunger for baseball is not nourished when it is most important.” He then laments the lack of superstar talent in the game, particularly since the feats of some of the biggest stars have recently been obscured by moral and legal mistakes. But most of all, from Jack Kofoed’s perspective, baseball is threatened by the rise of more active and readily accessible sports.
            Though Kofoed admits that baseball has grown in viewership and profitability over the last several decades, it has not grown nearly as quickly as its younger rivals, putting the economic future of the sport in doubt. Yet more insidious than economic concerns, Kofoed charges that

“the spirit of the baseball fan is flagging. There can be no question of that.”

            Not only do the fans no longer treat “the game with enormous seriousness,” the players themselves, who once “lived and ate and slept baseball in the old days” are now distracted by other pursuits.

            These are damning critiques, and are certainly echoed by other, less verbose articles, thousands of which can be found with a simple Google search for the depressingly clich├ęd phrase: “baseball is dying.” Jack Kofoed’s article is so similar to the pabulum put out by writers and bloggers everywhere on the internet that it is difficult to believe that it was published in Volume 228 of “The North American Review”… in July of 1929.

            Consider this: when Kofoed was penning his artful treatise as to why baseball would not be long for the world, Babe Ruth was well on his way to blasting 46 home runs, Lefty Grove was striking out 170 batters, and the Chicago Cubs were far and away the best team in the National League.

            Craig Calcaterra, the blogger-in-chief for Hardballtalk, wrote in response to a particularly egregious modern day article:

The first professional baseball team was established in 1869.  Two weeks later someone probably wrote a column about how baseball was dying, on its way out and utterly utterly doomed.”

            As Kofoed has shown, Calcaterra was not exaggerating by much at all.

            These days the common charge is that, thanks to its strong national TV ratings and insane hoopla, football has not only become the most popular sport in America, it will quickly render baseball irrelevant. The challenges seem dire, but less so when compared to equally dire predictions made in 1929.

            The rival sports that Kofoed believed were fast overtaking baseball in 1929? Tennis and Golf. Yes, golf, that rousing spectacle of wealthy men smacking balls across the lawn and chasing them down at a leisurely ramble, was to supplant baseball.

            Kofoed admitted that,

“the impossibility of massing spectators in a stadium or grandstand, means that golf can never compete with baseball as a paying spectacle”

            But as a participatory sport, Kofoed expected the hundreds of private and public courses would combine with the rise of tennis at schools to destroy baseball’s potential fan base.

            Clearly, the situation in 1929 is very different from that which baseball faces today, but it is nevertheless instructive to see that competing sports have never seriously threatened baseball. Mainly because, as static and unchanging as the game appears on the field, the dynamics of baseball viewership and marketing have always evolved to meet new challenges.

            One thing that did change about the experience of the average baseball fan during the course of Kofoed’s lifetime was the ticket prices, which rose from the “reasonable fee” of “two bits” to the apparently prohibitive cost of “fifty or seventy-five cents.” However, that increase did not drive young people away from baseball and towards other sports as he feared. Even the Great Depression, which was to begin with the Wall Street Crash barely three months after this article was published, failed to dampen the public’s enthusiasm for baseball.

            As desirable as 75-cent tickets may seem with tickets averaging $26.91 last year, it is worth noting that the average NFL ticket last year was $76.47. It is true that the economics and season lengths of the two sports are sufficiently different as to render per game cost comparisons irrelevant. Depressingly, however, most of the modern day “Football is King and Baseball is Mercifully Dying” (a real article written by real people) rants focus on how baseball ratings for nationally televised game trail football telecasts. These articles ignore the fact that the vast majority of baseball games are televised on the thirty (incredibly profitable) regional networks.

            The financial outlook for baseball in 1929 was strong, even acknowledging the substantial hit that baseball, along with the rest of the country, was to take during the great depression. In 2012 baseball’s financial prospects are even better, and despite the challenges presented by up and coming sports, baseball will undoubtedly persevere, just as it did when challenged by tennis and golf (still giggling about that one) in the 1920s.

            Financial and external problems pose no threat to the game now, just as they did not in Kofoed’s time. The internal problems, the “bankruptcy in player material” that Kofoed observed, seem comical in hindsight. The 1930’s produced some of the best players in the long and glorious history of our game, and if tennis, golf and boxing could not turn Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Joe Dimaggio, Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller away from baseball, then I sincerely doubt that football, basketball, hockey and soccer will rob us of a future generation of stars.

            As to the moral and legal problems that baseball was struggling with in the 1920’s, I should think that most of you would have guessed that the Black Sox scandal of 1919 and the 8 expulsions that followed were the cause of Kofoed’s loss of confidence. In modern times, labor strife and steroid abuse have both damaged the integrity of the game. However, with the harsh lessons of the strike of 1994, and the embarrassment of the fallout from the steroid years fixed firmly in the minds of management and players, it is my hope that neither scandal will threaten baseball’s future.

            What is the lesson of this one obscure article that I found buried in the dusty crevices of Jstor? Some would argue that this merely proves that it is never too early to sound the alarm! Or, more reasonably, perhaps Kofoed’s article from 1929, and the passel of drech from the internet, show that baseball is far stronger than any of us expected.

(Due to copyright concerns, I regretfully cannot provide a link to Kofoed’s article, therefore unless you have access to Jstor through a scholarly institution, you will just have to take my word on the content of the article.)

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