It was long held that baseball was created on a lazy summer afternoon in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839 by Abner Doubleday, a young, resourceful player, who made up the rules for the game and then called it baseball. This tale was promoted by a patriotic sporting goods entrepreneur named Albert Spalding and others, who were eager to prove that baseball was a uniquely American invention. Research has since shown the Doubleday story to be myth. Baseball actually evolved slowly out of several bat-and-ball games, such as rounders and its offshoots "town ball" and "old cat," which were played in England and the American colonies (Rossi).
The Industrial Revolution was a major influence on the development of baseball as a spectator sport in the West. As workers left the countryside to take jobs in the new industrial cities, they needed new forms of recreation. By the 1830s, ball-and-bat games had become popular in the United States. Virtually every region had a different version. In New England "town ball" was played on a square field with no distinction for foul territory. A player made an out by "plunking" the base runner with a thrown ball. One out retired the side, and a set number of runs, often 100, won the game. The Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York, the first organized baseball team about which much is known, viewed a ball game as genteel amateur recreation and polite social intercourse rather than a hard-fought contest for victory. Until about 1855, play was largely informal; although there were organized clubs, they mostly played intramural games. New York City had about a dozen clubs, and the city's newspapers began to refer to baseball as the "national game." In 1856, the New York Mercury coined the phrase "the national pastime"(Tygiel, p. 6).
The British sport of cricket also enjoyed wide popularity in the United States and vied with baseball for supremacy. Many American cities and towns had cricket clubs, and matches often attracted larger crowds and received more attention in the press than did baseball. In 1859, over 24,000 spectators attended a cricket match in Hoboken, New Jersey, between an all-star American team and a touring professional English club (Rader, 1990). Unlike baseball, however, cricket was mostly an immigrant game, played mainly by white-collar and skilled British expatriates. Cricket was hailed for its capacity to instill "manly virtues" in its players.
One of the first newspapers devoted to covering sporting events, Porter's Spirit of the Times, called for a game "peculiar to the citizens of the United States, one distinctive from the games of the British like cricket" (Tygiel, p. 6). America had a national flag, national anthem, national government, and national symbols, but no national game. The desire for a "national game," a sport separate from the foreign games of cricket and soccer, was fulfilled in baseball after 1865. The Civil War (1861–1865) did much to popularize the game in all areas of the country since soldiers in both armies played the game in camps and prison compounds. By the late 1860s, popular opinion held that cricket was boring while baseball was exciting. Cricket, which had been the preeminent American bat-and-ball game of the first half of the nineteenth century, gradually faded and was irrelevant by 1900.
Origins of the Baseball Crowd
The National Baseball Association was established in 1871, effectively marking the birth of professional baseball in America. Baseball soon became a mass spectator sport, with the construction of urban ballparks and the professionalization of teams and leagues. Baseball was also a great social leveler. Whereas early in the century baseball was primarily the domain of upper-middle-class men, by the end of the century its appeal had broadened to encompass the middle and working classes, who mingled together on equal terms. "The spectator at a ball game," noted one observer, "is no longer a statesman, lawyer . . . or doctor, but just plain everyday man, with a heart full of fraternity and good will to all his fellow men. . . The oftener he sits in grandstand . . . the kindlier, better man and citizen he must tend to become" (Kimmel, p. 293).
Baseball as a spectator sport was well suited to industrial capitalism, providing a leisure-time diversion for working-class men. Ballparks were located in the city and admission fees were affordable, resulting in attendance at baseball games being more broadly based than other spectator sports, such as boxing. Watching baseball was regarded as a catharsis. City dwellers who worked long and arduous hours at boring, repetitive jobs needed an opportunity to relax and relieve themselves of their builtup "aggressions," which they might otherwise direct at their families or employers. They would do this at the ballpark. It was believed that young men learned to become better people not just by playing baseball but also by watching it. The values and benefits that were thought to come from playing baseball had made the imaginative leap to being instilled merely by watching baseball.
While sports entrepreneurs had been charging admission to horse races, cricket matches, and prizefights for some time, no admission was charged to attend baseball games until the early 1860s. In 1862, fans were charged a 10-cent fee to watch clubs play at Brooklyn's new Union Grounds. Soon prominent clubs began playing for a share of the gate money, breaching the amateurism of early baseball. Officials refined the rules of the game to make it more interesting to spectators. As fans demonstrated a willingness to pay to see a ball game, admission fees rose so that by 1880, 50 cents was the standard charge (Rader, 2002). A seat at a popular theater of the time cost 25 to 75 cents, so baseball tickets were not out of line. For a time the National League sought middle-class fans while the rival American Association (1882–1891) appealed mostly to working-class fans. Compared to men, women rarely patronized professional baseball, despite the scheduling of special "ladies" days and special sections of the stands being reserved for women. Early photographs of baseball crowds reveal an overwhelming preponderance of males.
As the popularity of baseball increased, more improvements were made—the baseball diamond was standardized, teams and leagues were organized, rules were refined, game schedules were instituted, and soon grand tours were undertaken by professional baseball teams. By 1910, there were an estimated 2,000 organized baseball clubs across the nation. Professional baseball reached its highest development in the rapidly growing urban centers. There the baseball park was one of the new important locations for social life, especially for white, native-born men. The prestige and reputation of cities was affected by the status of their professional clubs. Owners and sports writers insisted that baseball was an excellent source of community pride. Feelings about one's city could depend on how the team performed. By 1900, baseball was firmly embedded in American culture as a popular pastime for boys and men, as a spectator sport, as a subject of national and local news reporting, and as an increasing source of national pride. It would grow even stronger in the new millennium.
After the first baseball game was broadcast in 1921, many team owners questioned whether regular radio broadcasting would keep ticket buyers away from the actual game. Fearing a decline in attendance, the American League initially prohibited broadcasts from their ballparks. The Sporting News, the sport's premier publication, warned that baseball was a game better seen than heard, that fans would stay home and listen to the games for free (Rossi). But the excitement generated by the broadcast of the 1926 World Series changed opinions. Radio broadcasts of the World Series became an annual rite, until upstaged by television in the 1950s.
In 1925 the Cubs let any Chicago station broadcast their games free of charge and over the next six years they saw their home attendance increase 117 percent. Their league rivals who did not broadcast their games saw their attendance increase only 27 percent. By 1935, only the three New York teams—Dodgers, Giants, and Yankees—had no regular radio broadcasts of their games. Soon, New York's resistance weakened, however, as radio stations discovered they could sell commercials during the broadcast and thus pay clubs for broadcast privileges. With new income from radio, club owners were less concerned about the loss of some of their gate receipts.
After World War II, the number of big-league games aired on radio ballooned astronomically when the number of local AM radio stations in the country doubled. Baseball had become a staple of radio programming on the local, regional, and national levels. By the time radio was eclipsed by television in the 1950s, radio broadcasts had created many new fans and spread the popularity of the game far beyond major league cities.
The first televised major league game, the Cincinnati Reds playing the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, was on 26 August 1939. Few fans would have seen it though, as only 400 sets were in existence in the United States, and most of them were not in homes but in companies interested in the new technology. It wouldn't have made any difference because, while the players were clearly distinguishable, it was not possible to see the ball. The New York Yankees, who were the last club to allow radio broadcast, were the first team to sell television rights, in 1946 for $75,000 per year. Major league games were not regularly televised until a few years later. As with the beginning of radio, most baseball executives did not understand the new medium and rejected the early television deals, thinking they would negatively impact attendance. Branch Rickey, usually an innovator, feared television, saying, "Radio stimulates interest. Television satisfies it"(Rossi, p. 159). "TV Must Go—Or Baseball Will" was the cautionary title of one news article (Tygiel, p. 155).
Families who did not yet own TV sets could watch the game with neighbors, or in other venues such as bars and restaurants, which had recently discovered that televising sports attracted patrons. Some even watched in small crowds around TVs in windows of appliance stores. ABC aired the first regular weekly network telecast in 1953; its Game of the Week became a fixture lasting until 1992. Still unsure whether telecasts would keep fans at home, most teams nonetheless signed lucrative television deals in the 1950s. Most teams contracted for broadcasts of every game, the cautious few broadcast only road games. By 1955, only four teams were without television deals.
Television's impact on attendance was mixed. Allowing telecasts of nearly all their home games, the Boston Braves saw their attendance decline nearly 81 percent between 1948 and 1952 (Rader, 1990). Attendance at other ballparks, however, seemed to be unaffected by television. It was also difficult to separate out the effect of television from new competing leisure-time activities that were also hurting attendance.
But unlimited major league telecasts were a disaster for minor league baseball. Fans in minor league towns across the country, who could now see big leaguers play on television for free, had less interest in going out to the ballpark. Minor league attendance fell from 42 million in 1949, before the advent of televised major league games, to 15 million in 1957, and to just 10 million in 1969. The new interstate highway system, which gave fans access to big league baseball, also contributed to the decline; and a few of the more profitable minor league cities, such as Los Angeles and Seattle, were overtaken by major league baseball.
Baseball's New Geography
Until 1953, major league baseball could be found only in the Northeast and Midwest, the two areas of the country where the game had been founded at the turn of the century. St. Louis was the westernmost and southernmost outpost of the "national" pastime. Yet the fastest growing areas in the nation were the West and the South. In 1953, the Boston Braves, a weak franchise and less popular than the same town Red Sox, moved to Milwaukee. It was the first franchise shift in more than fifty years; no team had moved since the 1903 transfer of the Baltimore Orioles to New York City, where they ultimately became the Yankees. Following the Braves' success in their new home, nine other teams uprooted themselves over the next two decades, including the St. Louis Browns moving to Baltimore (and becoming the Orioles), the Philadelphia Athletics to Kansas City, the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles, the New York Giants to San Francisco, and the Washington Senators to Minnesota (becoming the Twins). Understandably, many fans, most famously in Brooklyn, deeply resented the loss of their team. The Dodgers' owner, Walter O'Malley, became one of the most maligned figures in modern sport. As Brooklyn fans saw it, O'Malley's greed had cost them their beloved Bums. His fat face, sleek hair, and perpetual cigar made him an easy villain. The Dodgers, like the Giants who had departed New York at the same time, had merely acted the way baseball teams had historically behaved—searching for greater profits. Besides, defenders of the relocation said, baseball's move west was long overdue, as California had become the nation's most populous state. The expansion of major league baseball in the West and South broadened the game's national appeal and created droves of new fans. Cities that acquired the relocated franchises took great pride in becoming part of the elite fraternity of big-league cities. Becoming "big league" gave them a new identity.
Free agency, which enables players to switch teams, selling their services to the highest bidder, has affected the loyalty of fans toward their teams. Until 1975, all major and minor league ballplayers were tied to the teams that signed them by a "reserve clause." In the late 1960s, the Major League Baseball Player's Association (MLBPA), led by Marvin Miller, began to chip away at baseball's venerable reserve clause. In 1975, a federal arbitrator effectively abolished the clause in ruling that players could be reserved for only one year at the end of their contracts, after which they would become "free agents." In response, players' salaries jumped from an average of $45,000 in 1975 to $144,000 in 1980 and to over $2 million in 2000. After the 1975 decision, a compromise was reached in 1976 as part of the collective bargaining agreement between the players' union and club owners in which players were now tied to their teams for six years, after which they could become free agents. The new freedoms enjoyed by the players and their escalating salaries resulted in more conflict between team owners and the players' union. Fans grew increasingly alienated by labor-management warfare and what was perceived as greed on the part of both sides.
For fans, the largest impact of free agency has been that their favorite team loses veteran players every year and has to reinvent itself before each new season. Oldtimers, who grew up watching nearly the same lineup year after year, are bewildered by all the new faces. A few defenders of the new status quo say that it's exciting to ponder how the new collection of talent will perform. Will the new crowd finally bring the Cubs or the Red Sox a championship?
Not only do team rosters change more today; so do owners. In the old days, family dynasties were common—Tom Yawkey, William Wrigley, Walter O'Malley, Horace Stoneham, Calvin Griffith—and they held their teams for decades. Today, few owners have been in the baseball business more than ten years. Many fans don't even know their names; indeed, powerful media conglomerates like the Tribune Company (Cubs) and Turner Broadcasting (Braves) own a few teams.
The earliest ballparks, built in the 1850s, were for more than just baseball, and they were not enclosed. Efforts to enclose them, known as the "enclosure movement," allowed owners to charge admission and brought order at games. Fans could no longer simply sit wherever they pleased, sometimes encroaching on the field. The earliest parks accommodated only a few thousand fans on wooden benches. Most parks were rectangular to fit into the setup of long city blocks. Often the result was a short right field that favored left-handers. Fans were close to the action; they could see their sports heroes sweat, they could witness their emotions, and they cared about them because they knew them. Constructed of wood, the parks were often in need of repair, and sometimes burned to the ground. One, Redland Park in Cincinnati, collapsed in 1892, killing one spectator.
The first concrete and steel park, Shibe Park in Philadelphia, wasn't built until 1909. It seated 20,000. The first triple-decked ballpark, Yankee Stadium, was finished in 1923 and could seat 57,545. Twelve years later, the first major league park with lights was built—County Stadium in Milwaukee in 1935.
By the 1950s many major league ballparks were handicapped by a shortage of parking and by their location in decaying neighborhoods. Americans had abandoned public transportation in favor of automobiles, thereby requiring large parking lots at their ballparks. Built in residential neighborhoods, many of the old parks could not find space to accommodate parking. Hence, in the 1960s baseball left the city, and clubs replaced the old ballparks with new, concrete multisport ovals, some of which had artificial turf as well. Their design and uniform dimensions made them impersonal and soulless, with no suggestion of history and no sense of place. They were so similar to one another that they came to be referred to as "cookie-cutter ballparks." As one player said, they looked like they had been built more for bullfights than for baseball. They blighted the baseball landscape for over two decades. In the 1990s, baseball began to tear down the cookie-cutter coliseums and replace them with new "old" ballparks with a retro feel. Oriole Park at Camden Yards began the trend, and by the early 2000s had spawned the construction of ten other postmodern ballparks with frills and loads of character. Indoor stadiums are also on their way out, as is artificial turf, which has proved hard on players, shortening their careers. At its peak, ten teams played on artificial turf; in 2004, only three were left.
Baseball fans have a closer attachment to their ballparks than in any other sport. Ballparks are "magical places," with the sweep of their grandstands, the rainbow of color in the different sections of seating, the emerald green fields crisply outlined in chalk. Fans speak with reverence about Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, and Wrigley Field, and with admiration of a different sort for the new retro ballparks such as Pac Bell in San Francisco, Safeco in Seattle, and Camden Yards in Baltimore. Phillip Lowry called his book on ballparks Green Cathedrals because the more he studied ballparks the more he thought they resembled mosques, synagogues, churches, and similar places of worship. He believes many Americans have a "spiritual reverence for ballparks, because they hold treasured memories and serve as a sanctuary for the spirit" (Lowry, p. 52). In no other sport do fans plan vacations around visiting ballparks. "When was the last time you heard a football fan making a pilgrimage to all the NFL stadiums or a basketball fan bragging about which NBA arenas he's been to?" asked Craig Wright and Tom House in The Diamond Appraised (p. 299).
Besides the game itself, there are other activities at the ballpark that entertain its spectators, such as the antics of mascots, games and video played on the scoreboard, and between-inning competitions and races involving children. Fans sometimes create their own diversions such as the "wave," in which thousands of spectators join together in rising to their feet in proper sequence to produce a human ripple across the stadium. Or fans bat beach balls around the stands, directing them from one section of the seats to another. In one of the venerable rituals of the game, all fans stand to stretch in the seventh inning and often sing a chorus or two of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," the most popular song ever associated with a particular sport. Throughout the game, fans follow developments elsewhere in the major leagues on the scoreboard, noting how division rivals are faring.
Ebb and Flow of Ballpark Crowds
Despite baseball's popularity, crowds at ballparks in the nineteenth century were small compared to the early 2000s. During the 1871 to 1875 National Association seasons, for example, teams averaged less than 3,000 per game. The Boston Red Stockings drew only 1,750 per game in 1875 when they finished first. In the 1890s, National League teams averaged about 2,500 per game.
Attendance increased in the first decade of the twentieth century due to high interest in the World Series, a decline in ballpark rowdyism, and close pennant races. But in the following decade (1909–1919), attendance dropped off due to a slumping economy, World War I, and competition from new leisure activities such as motion pictures.
Spectators came in droves again after the end of the war and through the 1920s as prosperity returned to the country and the home run became common with the arrival of larger-than-life Babe Ruth. In 1920, the Yankees drew over 1 million fans, the first team ever to do so. Attendance then suffered heavily from the Great Depression through World War II. At its low point in 1934, the National League averaged just 5,200 per game. Even the Cardinals, who won the pennant that year, could attract only 4,200 per game.
Attendance didn't recover until after the war; the 1946 season saw 15,000 per game, a 70 percent increase over the 1945 season. Crowds grew larger in the 1950s, and then slipped in the 1960s when major league baseball expanded. The new unwieldy ten-team leagues, with no divisional play, saw too many teams eliminated early in the season. Attendance was also hurt by the dominance of the New York Yankees, who won every pennant from 1960 through 1964, causing fans in other cities to lose interest early in the season. Attendance and interest continued to decline through 1974 (the period from 1966 to 1974 is sometimes referred to as the "Dark Ages of Baseball") in part due to the growing popularity of football. An exciting 1975 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds, however, reignited interest. (Game 6 of that World Series is considered by many to be the most exciting baseball game ever played.)
In an effort to broaden its appeal, especially to younger fans, the 1970s and 1980s saw most teams adopt mascots. Many were trying to emulate the hugely successful San Diego Chicken. The new mascots wore oversized animal costumes, such as the Cardinals' Fred Bird, the Pirate Parrot, the Mariner Moose, and the Phillie Fanatic. Curiously, in 1984 the San Francisco Giants fans voted overwhelmingly against having a mascot. The Giants persisted, and when their new Crazy Crab arrived in the middle of the fifth inning, fans booed and threw trash at it. It was discontinued after a few games. As the new millennium begins, the Giants have a new mascot in Lou the Seal. Early in the last century, it was not uncommon for teams to use dwarves, hunchbacks, or mentally disabled adults as mascots.
Crowds increased steadily from 1975 until 1991, and then labor strife between the club owners and the players' union alienated many fans. A strike ended the 1994 season in August, canceling the World Series. The following season, after a new contract was finally agreed upon, attendance declined by 29 percent. Many unhappy fans turned to minor league baseball, which enjoyed a renaissance and record attendance all across the country after the 1994 strike. Many Americans had first become aware of the lure of minor league baseball in the 1988 movie Bull Durham. In minor league ballparks fans found a sense of community and a charm that is often absent in major league stadiums.
The Minor Leagues
The minor leagues, as the name suggests, is the level of professional baseball below that of the major leagues. There are sixteen minor leagues today, about the same number as in the 1960s—far fewer, however, than the fifty-nine leagues that existed in 1949, the all-time high. The minor leagues are categorized into six levels: AAA (the highest), AA, high A, low A, short season A, and rookie (the lowest). Each major league team has six minor league teams whose primary purpose is to develop talent. Commonly known as the "farm system," the minor leagues were the creation of Branch Rickey, one of the most influential baseball executives of all time. While general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, Rickey began in 1917 purchasing minor league clubs. By producing their own players, the poverty-stricken Cardinals, Rickey hoped, could avoid expensive player purchases and also offset some of the advantages enjoyed by clubs in the large market areas, such as the New York Yankees. The owners of the other major league clubs resisted acquiring their own minor league teams, believing that the cost outweighed the benefits. But the success of Rickey's system eventually forced all owners to follow his example. Between 1926 and 1946, the Cardinals won nine league championships, finished second six times, and had greater profits than any other league club—most of their profits came not from attendance but from players' sales. In one year alone, sixty-five players who were products of the Cardinal farm system were on the rosters of other big-league clubs.
The new popularity of the minor leagues in the 1990s led to a building boom in new, top-rated ballparks. Over half of all minor league teams in the early 2000s play in ballparks that were built in the previous decade. Where most major league stadiums are separated from communities by freeways and enormous parking lots, minor league ballparks often exist in neighborhoods. Their smaller size (seating capacities are just one-eighth to onequarter that of major league ballparks) means fans are closer to the field—they not only see the action better but they can hear the umpire's voice and see the players' emotions. Fans easily obtain autographs and can even chat with players along the sidelines before the game. Parking is never a problem, tickets are cheap, and the quality of baseball is high. The downside for fans is that the development of talent is more important than winning and the top-performing players don't stay in one place long enough to generate an identity for their team.
The word "fan" first appeared in 1682, short for "fanatic," referring to a person with an extreme or unreasonable enthusiasm or zeal. Most fans are socialized into a sport role at a young age. Parents purchase their children sports paraphernalia as gifts—toy baseballs and bats, and T-shirts and caps bearing the logo of their favorite teams. Fathers and mothers introduce and teach them the game. Soon they begin paying attention to sporting events on television on their own, and gradually they learn the rules of the game. Those who have the requisite skills participate in their sports as athletes, but participation is not necessary to become a fan.
Scholars like Arnold Beisser, author of The Madness in Sports, have tried to explain the motivations of fans—why they give so much of their energy and interest to following professional sports when in strictly utilitarian terms sporting contests serve no tangible purpose. They assert that sports provide fans a sense of belonging and identification with a social group beyond the immediate family. Rooting for a team enhances ties with other people who support the same team. This is an important benefit in our socially atomized, highly urbanized American society in which family ties have become attenuated, where geographical mobility has scattered relatives, and where people often have few roots or ties to the places in which they live. Scholars also talk about the "normative social influence" of fandom (Edwards). Simply, people become fans because sports are popular; young people see others enjoy cheering for a favorite team and following sports figures and want to do the same. Put differently, people become fans because of the snowballing effects of sport's initial popularity.
Sport can have another meaning as well. For many fans, team identification represents an extension of the self, and enhances their self-esteem. But such an identification can be double-edged. When your team wins, your self-esteem is enhanced, but when it loses, it can be strained. The effects of team identification have been referred to as "BIRGing" (basking in reflected glory). Conversely, CORFing (cutting off reflected failure) is an effort to distance oneself from a losing team and is induced by the desire to maintain a positive self-identity.
Baseball fans are said to have an especially strong connection to their sport. Most fans first developed a relationship to baseball in childhood. Most boys in America play the game at some point, or at least have worn a glove and tossed a ball; an increasing numbers of young girls play softball. As youngsters, many collected baseball cards and autographs, idolized and memorized the statistical histories of their favorite players. Many boys are taught the game by fathers, an act long memorialized as one of the most significant in fatherson relationships. At the ballpark the fans enjoy unusual freedom to voice their feelings about the performance of the players and managers on the field. They cheer and boo perhaps more than fans in any other sport. To speak their minds is a presumed right that goes with having paid the price of admission. They do so because they care, because they emotionally identify with their team, and because sloppy play and losing leave them in despair. In no other sport are fans given the opportunity to vote on most of the players who appear in the mid-season all-star game.
Baseball fandom has been enhanced by a number of baseball novels that have woven romanticism out of folklore and nostalgia. Several, such as Bernard Malamud's The Natural (1952) and W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe (1982), became popular movies, the latter as Field of Dreams. The film's most memorable incantation, "If you build it, he will come," has entered the nation's cultural language. Baseball fans also celebrated the Public Broadcasting Service's (PBS) eighteen-hour documentary Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns (1994), which integrated captivating historical footage with lyrical ruminations of celebrity fans about the meaning of the national pastime to them and its role in American life.
While an increasing number of people are watching baseball, others have become disillusioned with it or with professional sports in general. Competition has been diluted by expansion, by too many playoff games, by free agency, by high turnover in team rosters, and by greed. The avarice of players and owners, which fans blame for ongoing labor strife, has caused many Americans to view major league baseball as no different from other areas of institutional life in America, whether it be business, politics, or religion. In becoming part of the corporate landscape, baseball may be losing the capacity to inspire Americans as it once did.
Fans no longer worship baseball superstars the way they once did. Boys growing up in the 1950s read player-hero biographies, such as Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and Joe DiMaggio. These were tall tales of splendid performers who won fame through hard work, clean living, and battling obstacles. In the 1960s, several books, but notably Jim Bouton's Ball Four, began to demythologize baseball stars. Most fans no longer view ballplayers as desirable role models for their children. Although major league games draw nearly twice what they did in the 1960s, about 25,000 versus 14,000 per game, many observers say there are fewer diehard fans in attendance. Few spectators keep score on a scorecard. Many love baseball not so much for what it is, but for what it used to be—when the faces didn't change every year, when pitchers went nine innings, when players weren't multi-millionaires, and when all games were played outdoors and on grass. A Gallup poll in the early 2000s reported that baseball was a favorite sport of only 12 percent of Americans. In 1964, that figure was 48 percent. Many fans complain that the game is slow, even leaden. Major league baseball is responding to the complaints in various ways, notably by trying to speed up the game by reducing the dead time.
Concerned that the game is no longer sufficiently entertaining for many of today's spectators, both major and minor league baseball have turned to mascots and zany stunts and contests—water balloon tosses, girls dancing on dugout roofs, kids racing the mascot around the bases—to inject fun and amusement. Huge electronic scoreboards now entertain with quizzes and video displays. Fans can picnic at the ballpark. Other tactics to entice fans include the giveaway—key chains, miniature bats, seat cushions, and bobble-head dolls—distributed at the gate, and air guns shooting T-shirts into the crowd between innings. One cost of all this new activity is that ballparks have been less a place for conversation between friends or between fathers (or mothers) and sons (or daughters) than they once were.
Some fans have traded sunshine and the roar of the crowd for keeping track of baseball statistics on their own home computers. In the mid-1980s, the widespread availability of the personal computer made possible a new type of fandom in the form of fantasy baseball and Rotisserie leagues. Fantasy leagues, based on the day-to-day statistics of major league players, give fans the opportunity to "manage" their own teams and to win or lose based on their player's daily performances. "Owners" draft big-league talent onto their teams and then follow their key statistics (e.g., batting averages, home runs, RBIs) daily. The total of all these categories for all the players on one's "team" determines the standings in each fantasy league.
Ultimately, the fans are the ones who determine baseball's popularity and its financial success. Spectators are as much a part of the sport as the players. If people don't buy tickets, owners can't meet their payrolls. If fans don't watch televised games, the networks won't spend billions for the rights to air games. The fans make professional sports possible.
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George Gmelch and Kaitlyn Richards