Tom said the link doesn't work

and I see that's true, so at risk of violating copyright law, here it is. WSJ, if you are reading, maybe this will encourage some of my "peeps" to subscribe.


The start of a new baseball season always comes with odes to the national pastime. But is it fair to say that baseball still deserves that description? Measured by popularity, participation or skill versus other nations, baseball is arguably an American national pastime whose time is past.

Jacques Barzun, the French-born, American cultural historian, once wrote that "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." Today Mr. Barzun would have to refer his foreign readers to professional football or even automobile racing, both of which trump baseball in television ratings.

Major League owners like to boast that attendance at their games, except for the recent recession, has increased. But with the disappearance of hundreds of minor league and semi-pro teams—and thousands of teams in almost every town, factory, prison and military post across the land—interest in baseball and attendance has plummeted overall. Soccer has superseded baseball in suburban parks, and basketball has replaced stickball in the cities.

Gone are the days of the early 20th century when (as Harold and Dorothy Seymour point out in their book "Baseball: The People's Game") scores of young Detroit businessmen would wake before sunrise to play in "Early Risers" baseball games, 25,000 turned out to watch a New York City high-school baseball championship, and Chicago laid out 4,000 municipal ball fields.

Baseball's popularity has fallen here but has risen in other countries. Most Americans have heard how every Dominican boy yearns for his first baseball glove. Less well known is that in Japan there are two national high-school baseball tournaments that fill Japanese television screens for days every year, or that 40,000 fans turn out for even a practice by the national team.

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Associated Press

Babe Ruth at an exhibition game in Meiji Stadium, Tokyo, Nov. 21, 1934.

A decline in American dominance on the field has accompanied the decline in national interest. It's not merely the welcome entry into the major leagues of Dominican stars such as Albert Pujols and David Ortiz or Japanese stars such as Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui. Years ago, Babe Ruth led touring teams of major leaguers to Japan and the Caribbean, where they promoted baseball and won games against host teams by lopsided scores.

Today when the best teams from different countries play each other, the Americans lose. In the two recent World Baseball Classics in 2006 and 2009, the American teams, though led by stars like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, didn't even make the finals. Japan and Korea dominated, featuring mostly players who have never competed in the United States. Japan won both Classics.

Baseball's decline on the field and in the homes of the United States may be partly explained by the increasing American taste for sports that offer fast-paced and violent action. But the main explanation lies with the mismanagement of baseball by the Major League owners, especially the owners of the teams in New York.

Years ago members of the Mara family, longtime owners of football's New York Giants, backed broad revenue sharing and a draft favoring weaker teams to help build competitive franchises in the NFL and interest across the land. By contrast, the owners of the New York Yankees (most notably current owner George Steinbrenner) resisted or watered down such measures in order to raise their own profits.

In this year's Super Bowl two small-market football teams, New Orleans and Indianapolis, drew the biggest television audience for any show ever. By contrast, before the last World Series baseball officials were quoted as worrying that if it did not feature big city teams (preferably including one from New York) television ratings would be weak.

They needn't have worried: the Yankees and the Phillies, both from major metropolitan areas with high payrolls, met in the Series. The Yankees, of course, won, giving the franchise its 27th World Championship. The Yankees secret to success is no mystery—the team's payroll is five times larger than the payroll of its weakest competitor, and twice the size of two-thirds of the other major league teams.

On rare occasions when a small-market team does rise in the playoffs—giving officials the excuse to defend the status quo—the management system of baseball forces the team to sell off or give up most of its best players to their big market competitors. After the Florida Marlins beat the Yankees in the 2003 World Series, for example, they immediately sold off all their best players because they couldn't afford the payroll. While local baseball writers and team-paid announcers opine every spring that their team has improved and has a chance to win it all, fans no longer take seriously the notion of, say, a Pittsburgh versus Kansas City World Series.

Football and most other major sports have also given greater authority to commissioners who, while chosen by the owners, exercise independence. So did baseball after the gambling scandals of 1919, but with the ouster of Fay Vincent in the late 1980s the owners reverted to management by owners.

Today, the owners' designated representative, former owner Bud Selig, appears to be a decent fellow who enjoys baseball games and has instituted some reasonable changes such as interleague play. But when faced with truly big decisions such as whether to dictate a labor settlement and avoid the disastrous strike of 1994-95, or elevate drug testing to the top of the collective bargaining agenda in the late 1990s and avoid the steroid debacle, he gets on the phone and seeks a consensus of the owners.

By contrast, when National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell caught the then world champion New England Patriots cheating—coach Bill Belichick was videotaping opposing team's coaches during games—he immediately levied $750,000 in fines and took away a first round draft choice.

Americans still want to believe that baseball is our national pastime. This was evident when, with Japan thrashing the U.S. last year in the World Baseball Classic, television announcer and former major leaguer Joe Morgan informed viewers that Japanese baseball was really the equivalent of American Triple A minor league baseball—as if a team of Triple A stars could beat a Major League all star team. Following Japan's thrashing of Cuba, Fidel Castro wrote magnanimously that the Japanese and Koreans had simply fielded the best teams. After watching the crisp teamwork, fielding, bunting and base running of the Asian teams, I am inclined to agree—for once—with Castro.

Last month the Commissioner of Nippon Professional Baseball, Ryozo Kato, visited his American counterpart and reported that Mr. Selig was receptive to a truer world championship played in November between the winners of the American and Japanese series. This is not likely to happen. Both commissioners suspect the result would demonstrate that while baseball is now Japan's national pastime, it is no longer America's.

Mr. Miller is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, and a lifelong baseball fan.


  1. What few diamonds we have in America are either weed choked and uninhabited, or share their space with soccer practice.
    On the other hand, minor league baseball, such as in my own suburban Dallas neighborhood, seems more popular than ever, in tidy little stadiums of their own. Fewer and fewer of the pro players are from the U.S. A few years ago my brother and I caught a Tiger spring game in Bradenton. We sat right next to the Pirate dugout. While the players and coaches were very friendly, only the coach could speak any English at all.
    Is this still our national pastime, or are we evangelizing the world? Does it really matter?

  2. Gregg, I don't know which Pirates played that day, but on its 2010 roster the team has several players born in the USA who speak English, including local hero Andrew McCutchen .

  3. PS to me it doesn't matter if it's still our national pastime or if we are evangalizing the world. And was baseball ever really our national pastime? What does that term mean anyway? To me 'tis merely a sportswriter's cliche.

  4. Percentage of foreign-
    born players in MLB drops

    April 7, 2010

    NEW YORK — The percentage of Major League
    Baseball players born outside the 50 states
    dipped slightly from last year.

    It was 27.7% at the start of this season, down
    from 28% on Opening Day in 2009.
    The commissioner’s office said Tuesday that of
    the 833 players on rosters at the end of Monday,
    231 were born outside the 50 states. That was
    down from a high of 29.2% in 2005.
    The Dominican Republic leads with 86 players in
    the majors. That’s five more than last year but
    two fewer than in 2008 and down 12 from 2007.
    Venezuela was next with 58, an increase of six
    from last year.
    Puerto Rico was third with 21, a decrease of
    seven, followed by Japan (14), Canada (13),
    Mexico (12), Cuba (seven), Panama (five),
    Australia (four), Taiwan (three), and Colombia,
    Curacao, South Korea and Nicaragua (two each).
    The New York Mets had the most foreign-born
    players for the fourth time in five years and had
    a record high of 18, including natives of Canada,
    the Dominican Republic, Japan, Mexico, Panama,
    Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
    The Chicago Cubs, Colorado, Los Angeles
    Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas have 10

  5. Was it ever "an America's Pastime?" Yes, I think it was. In our neighborhood, it was two or three games a day. No soccer, rarely a basketball in sight. Our beloved 1968 Tigers had John Hiller, a Canadian, as the only "Green Card."
    What does it mean? On the good side, it certainly improves the quality of the game to see people like Ichiro or even aging stars like Vlad Guerero here in Texas (although the guy barely speaks any English after years in the bigs.) This is what allows for expansion to 30 teams keeping some semblance of quality baseball. This is similar to what has happened with hockey. (I wonder if Canucks have this debate?)
    But we love our athletes to be personable characters. We loved The Bird, "Two-Swing Gibbie" and the more they talk to us through the media, the more the media tells us their story, the more we love them. Ichiro or Vlad just aren't much of a character, as they are a cut out, wind them up, put them in the batter's box and watch them run.
    Earlier in his career, Pudge wasn't so much of a fan favorite, but while he was here in Dallas, his English improve noticeably, the media were able to tell the story of San Pedro de Marcoris, and all of a sudden, we started to appreciate him for hi efforts, talents, etc. Those qualities were there all along.
    Yep, you are on to something when you say this is a media created issue. But we see our sports through the media.
    But, Tom, since only you and I are participating in this conversation, I gather nobody else thinks it's very important either, so I'll go back in my cave now.