Curt Smith: Help for one of America’s oldest friends - baseball

Curt Smith

An old friend of mine — likely of yours, too — is ill. In 1943, NBC’s Bill Stern told listeners how Lincoln, dying, asked Abner Doubleday to “save baseball for the future.” In World War II, the Japanese charged U.S. soldiers, screaming “To hell with Babe Ruth!” To a baby boomer, baseball was a child’s sun, moon and stars. Today it faces eclipse.

A new book, “The Cambridge Companion to Baseball,” attempts to explain our national pastime. The chapter I wrote describes how radio and, especially, television dictate what we follow. Researching, what I found saddens me. At best, as Bob Costas says, “Baseball’s place in society is not nearly what it should be.” At worst, the game is in cultural freefall, especially among the young.

In a 1960 Gallup poll, baseball routed football as America’s “favorite game,” 39-17 percent. By 2009, the pastime trailed, 43-11 percent, losing every demographic: white, black, brown, rich, poor and middle class, small town, suburb and city. Says Sports Illustrated, “In every metric, the NFL’s stance as America’s game is undisputed.”

In 1952, each World Series game averaged 1 in 2 U.S. viewers; 1980, 1 in 5; 2010, 1 in 16. By contrast, the 2011 Super Bowl lured more than 1 in 3, or 111 million. Last year football forged TV’s 20 top-rated sports events, the NFL Pro Bowl for the first time outrating baseball’s All-Star Game. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones correctly says, “The most popular TV sport is by definition America’s most popular sport.”

From Neverland, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig huffs, “Our game has never been near this popular,” ignoring falling attendance and football’s lead in video game sales, licensed garb, unique Internet users and “marketable athletes” lists. Hollywood once meant baseball’s “The Natural” and “Field of Dreams.” In 2009, football’s “The Blind Side” became sports’ all-time highest-grossing film.

Long-term, things seem likely to get worse. The Wall Street Journal recently said, “Gloomy studies suggest kids are losing interest.” From 2000 to 2009, children age 7-17 playing baseball fell by 24 percent; hockey and tackle football up 38 and 21 percent, respectively. In municipal parks around the country, fields are brooking an extreme makeover from baseball to soccer, football and lacrosse.

The situation would seem less hopeless if baseball’s hierarchy were less clueless. Without wishing to be presumptive, let me cite past lessons that apply:

First, hire broadcasters who enliven. Boomers were weaned on Dizzy Dean, Mel Allen, Vin Scully — Voices using language to entertain. Robotic and alike, too many now mock Churchill’s “words are bullets that you use as ammunition.”

Second, quicken a pace umpire Joe West terms “a disgrace.” America took Omaha Beach, split the atom, reached the moon. Selig can’t enforce the strike zone, batter in the box, or bases-empty rule mandating a pitch each 20 seconds. A 1-0 game routinely tops three hours. Game Seven of the 1960 World Series generated 19 runs in 2:36. As culture turns more impatient, baseball turns more inert.

Third, restore intimacy. The late NBC director Harry Coyle hailed Fenway Park’s “great” coverage; the home plate camera shot low, yet above a wire backstop. New stadia put the TV booth above swanky suites, players resembling ants. Mesh screens obstruct the camera, like watching through prison bars. What a recipe: a sport where little happens, and you can’t see it when it does.

At best, radio and TV sing a sonnet upon baseball’s heart. So: Hire harmonic Voices. Make baseball less slow motion. Let a viewer see the screen. For what not to do, see any post-mid-1990s park. For what to do, watch a game from Fenway.

Shortly after World War II, Pope Pius XII said that America, “has a genius for splendid and selfless action.” Putting baseball’s house in order would be splendid, if overdue. It might even help our longtime friend.

Curt Smith is the author of 13 books and a former speechwriter to President George H.W. Bush. Contact him at

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