Baseball has long been characterized as America’s National Pastime. Long ago, French-born historian Jacques Barzun said that whoever wants to know the heart and mind of this country better learn baseball.
And then along came loud, rollicking, brutal pro football to kick the more pastoral game aside and stake its claim as the most popular sport in the United States. It did not help baseball that many of its finest historic performances were tainted when by revelations that many stars ingested performance-enhancing drugs as if they were kids gone wild over candy at Halloween.
MLB's time to shine
The question now, in the middle of a World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals, culminating what may be the most dramatic playoff season of all, is whether we are at a tipping point. Concurrent with this compelling post-season of one-run games and underdog upsets, are cracks in the foundation of behemoth pro football.
It has long been understood that baseball is the safer sport and by the nature of full-speed collisions the average career expectancy of a football player is much shorter. In recent years, put under microscopic view in a manner where it can hide little, pro football has shown to be more dangerous than ever. Life expectancy for pro football players is shorter than average American men and the drumbeat of information about concussion impacts is frightening and depressing. Not to mention how many ex-players walk funny, too, because their legs have taken such a battering.
More and more it seems parents don’t want their kids to play football because of the potential health implications and they steer them into soccer instead.
Football brilliantly sold itself on television -- on more days of the week than ever – and still fills large stadiums. Many of its personable young men are the equivalent of Hollywood stars in glamour. Yet the game has been confronted with ugly statistical studies indicating those same young men may not live very comfortable existences as they age. It is unnerving when a player comes out of the closet to reveal he can no longer remember much. Or that he wouldn’t dream of trying to run a step, but is plenty happy if he can walk up steps.
Worse is when a former player commits suicide, shooting himself in the chest instead of the head to preserve his brain for science as a gesture to help future generations avoid the suffering he endured. Former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson did that.
Baseball has its share of tragedies, but compared to football it is a jog through the outfield, as long as a guy is alert for pitches inside and high or hard-hit line drives.
Compounding football’s debilitating injury scenario has been the recent spate of off-field domestic violence incidents involving arrested NFL players. The NFL hierarchy botched its handling of the cases, being too lenient in meting out punishment and tone deaf in response to the outcry of protest. It was almost as if the league was saying punching out your wife or girlfriend was like just another tackle.
The appearance of being out control implied that the NFL was made up less of sportsmen than thugs. The scathing public response was not heeded until it reached the decibel level of a rocket ship overhead.
So now football is at a low ebb in public esteem while baseball has mostly recovered credibility from the steroids era by operating a vigorous drug-testing program.
At one time baseball was such an important social institution in the U.S. that the sport was the focal point of integration as the nation slowly broke free of its prejudices against African-American athletes. It was baseball where the clamor lay for integration, not football or any other sport. Baseball was the game that mattered, and although dragged grudgingly and haltingly into its pioneering role, the fact that Major League Baseball broke barriers and boundaries is to its everlasting credit.
Ironically, despite all of the social battles fought and won by the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson and other early African-American baseball stars, young African-Americans today have drifted away from the game, relegating it as an athletic choice behind basketball and football.
Baseball already had been trying hard to win back the hearts and minds of young African-Americans, to woo them back into the game with aggressive inner-city youth programs. Maybe football’s woes will result in baseball’s gains.