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The Negro Baseball Leagues: A Photographic History Chartwell Books, 110 Enterprise Avenue, Secaucus, New Yersey, 07094; Amereon Ltd., P.O. Box 1200, Mattituck, New York, 11952.)
Why is baseball so different from other sports in its symbolic status and impact upon America? Why does only baseball claim the undisputed status of a “national pastime”? Further questions can be posed to the game’s different constituencies. For writers and intellectuals: Why is baseball alone among sports (with some challenge, perhaps, from boxing) the subject of a distinguished literature, both fiction and nonfiction? For lawyers and politicians: How can the anomaly of baseball’s exemption from the anti-trust laws, accorded to no other sport yet affirmed three times by the Supreme Court (in 1922, 1953, and 1972), possibly be justified? (In declaring baseball a sport and not a business subject to regulation, the Court challenged Congress to pass legislation to deal with this anomoly, and Congress has dodged the issue ever since. Apparently, neither branch of government dares to infuse this form of reality into our chief icon and pastime.)
In trying to grasp why baseball alone enjoys this exalted and symbolic status, I would invoke the two categories used in my own field of evolutionary biology: advantages conferred by historical and structural factors. The game evolved in America from a variety of English stick-and-ball games popular here even in colonial times. Although the early “official” leagues of the mid-nineteenth century had elitist foundations as gentlemen’s clubs, baseball always maintained popularity across a full spectrum of geography and social class—for farm and industrial leagues (school and prison leagues as well) also sprung up in those formative days. Football, by contrast and until recent years, largely flourished within an institution that catered to a tiny minority of the population: colleges and universities. (To this day, professional football recruits from colleges, and baseball from its minor leagues.) The phrase is not political rhetoric: baseball has truly been the people’s sport in America.
But a variety of structural reasons has maintained baseball’s position and reputation (for history alone could not sustain such a symbol in the face of fierce competition). I will mention just three of many categories:
The appeal of games not ruled by clock time. Most team sports (football, soccer, hockey, basketball) follow a similar theme: a team in possession of something (a ball, a puck) tries to score by moving the object somewhere (a net, or goal line), against an opposition and under pressure of a ticking clock. In baseball, the other team manipulates the key object (pitching and fielding), while you try to score runs (hitting) under no penalty of time, but for a duration that depends on your own skills. The result is a game with internal pacing, not subject to the almost frenzied and regimented actions (for crowds and players alike) that rigid time limits engender. Since we live in a harrowed world, increasingly regulated by our watches, this interval of interior time appeals to many people as a blessing and an oasis. During most moments of baseball, both nothing and everything is happening all at once. You can drink a …