It’s been a banner year for Major League Baseball. This season, over 79 million fans filed into stadiums nationwide to cheer on their local teams. Commissioner Bud Selig (a Milwaukee guy) called this year’s attendance record proof positive that baseball is in the midst of a “golden age.” It would certainly seem to be that way; attendance is up in many baseball markets, including here in Milwaukee, where the Brewers were contenders for the playoffs deep into September, broke the season attendance record for major league ball in Milwaukee, and, at long last, fielded a team that generates more excitement among the faithful than the sausage race does.
But if we baseball fans really are in the midst of a new Golden Age, it’s instructive to look back on baseball’s first Golden Age. In the delightful book Crazy ’08, we see how the 1908 season cemented baseball as America’s game. It was those days that produced so much of the tradition on which baseball continues to sell itself. In the early 20th Century, the teaming immigrant masses flowed into America’s big cities, and, over-worked and underpaid, needed something to rally around, something to identify with as “Americans”. Baseball fit the bill. It was good, cheap, clean fun. It instilled hometown pride (the Brooklyn Dodgers were named after the term “trolley dodgers,” a nickname for Brooklynites at the time). It gave city-dwellers the chance to soak up the “pastoral” atmosphere of a ball game. And it was played by regular Joes, like Three-Fingered Mordecai Brown, the part-time ace pitcher, part time farm laborer (hence the three fingers) who was instrumental in winning the Chicago Cubs’ last World Series, in 1908.
Baseball still presents itself as the Sport of the People, but in reality, it’s hardly the sport of choice for the urban masses anymore. How could it be, when tickets to game one of the World Series start at 175 bucks, when modern ballparks cater to big-spending customers in order to maintain the growing salaries of star players, who, increasingly, are skimmed off the top of professional leagues in Latin America and Japan, not organically grown from within America’s big cities and small towns?
Baseball was born of the city, but it has become divorced from the city. In Milwaukee, the Brewers’ home field, Miller Park, looks like a UFO that landed on a sea of asphalt on the west side of town. This season I took the train down to the Windy City for my first game at Wrigley Field, one of the country’s great urban ballparks (Brewers lost 6-5, a tough road loss for the Crew). But Wrigley, despite all of its charms, struck me as a haven of wealthy suburbanites set amongst what was, not too long ago, a working class enclave on Chicago’s north side.
So if we are now in baseball’s new “Golden Age,” what does the new reality say about the game, and the country? This season was a great one for baseball in Milwaukee, but among the kids in my neighborhood on Milwaukee’s west side, baseball is an afterthought, no matter how well the Brewers are doing. No, for the youth in my city, basketball is the undisputed king. Basketball has a few things going for it that baseball doesn’t. It’s accessible. It can be played anywhere, anytime, and costs next to nothing to play. It doesn’t require leagues, vanpools and field fees. And, perhaps most importantly, kids on my block identify with pro basketball players than with any other athlete. They can dream about one day wearing a Bucks uniform, but cannot imagine themselves in a Brewers uniform, because, to them, baseball is a sport played and watched by other people, somewhere else.