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If baseball was invented today, would it be popular?

Aug 28, 2013, 4:42 PM EDT

baseball grass

Kind of a silly question, really. But Bob McManaman of asks it, and he concludes it would not be popular if someone — say a guy named Ted Prisby — invented it today, because the only reason we like it now is because of the past:

But baseball thrives because of its nostalgia, because of the generations of memories it has produced. It’s romanticized because of its tradition, its old-time heroes and its folksy grace. Without that, baseball as we know it is nothing.

It’s those grainy images of Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Willie Mays that make us pay homage and keep coming back, season after season.

But I’m telling you, if baseball never existed, I think Ted Prisby’s new game would rank somewhere between beach volleyball and a tractor pull.

And if a frog had wings he wouldn’t bump his ass a-hoppin’.

I know the games is passed down in families and that the past is important to the essence of the game. But I refuse to believe that baseball is nothing more than a historical hangover or an exercise in nostalgia. I refuse to believe if, for no other reason, than any kid who is taken to a ballpark is wowed and those kids don’t know doodly squat about baseball history for the most part.

Maybe it’d be different if it were a startup sport in the mold of every other startup sport that happens. Corporate sponsors, small scale, a business model which is aimed at blurring distinctions between franchises. It would probably be a niche thing like every other new thing is a niche thing in our society, at least to some degree.

But even if baseball as it is owes so much to its history, that’s not its entire appeal. Not by a longshot.

  1. raysfan1 - Aug 28, 2013 at 4:59 PM

    Kids learn to love baseball if Mom/Dad love it. They learn to play and learn the game is fun. The interest in the history of the sport comes later. I love grainy film clips of Gehrig because I love baseball, not vice versa.

    • bfunk1978 - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:04 PM

      I love the grainy film, too. But even then, if I have my choice between some history show on TV or an actual game, I’m going to pick the actual game every time. The game definitely comes first.

      • grumpyoleman - Aug 29, 2013 at 9:30 AM

        Why did they run so funny back then lol

    • stlouis1baseball - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:09 PM

      You nailed it Rays. Well stated.

    • sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:35 PM

      But if baseball was invented today, there would be no moms and dads concerned with teaching it to their kids.

      I think the premise is almost right: baseball IS popular because of its history. Not necessarily MLB history though. I think many (most?) people like baseball because they feel some connection in it to their own personal past. We all played as kids, and watching the pros reminds us of our own youthful summer stickball, whiffle ball, baseball softball etc memories. Or maybe it is memories going to a game with our own moms and dads, or playing with friends who have since scattered away from our lives, or sitting next to a radio with a grandparent.

      Baseball at its core is a slow-paced game, with short bursts of action in between long pauses that we can fill as we like. Perhaps come of what we love and remember about the game is the stuff we do in the in-between moments.

      • clydeserra - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:38 PM

        of course, the same holds true for basketball and football., if it were invented today, there would be no parental, tv or newspaper tie in

      • sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:46 PM

        True, but NFL style football is something many of us have never played. Whiffle ball and MLB baseball are almost identical sports. NFL and sandlot 2-hand-touch are second cousins, twice removed.

        I think many people have nostalgic connections to basketball, but it didn’t catch on in mainstream culture in quite the same way. Maybe an urban v. rural thing (baseball seems more universal, where basketball needs SOME intrastructure)…but I am just spitballing here.

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      • raysfan1 - Aug 29, 2013 at 8:45 AM

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  2. innout10 - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:23 PM

    The same could be said of any sport…Name one sport that has been created in the past 15 years that is more popular than a long-standing traditional sport… Just doesn’t happen.

    • El Bravo - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:24 PM

      Same can be said about religions. Think about it.

    • gibbyfan - Aug 28, 2013 at 8:04 PM

      What about MMA……Not a huge fan but have read that it has surpassed a number of sports in fan base, including boxing.

      • rmcd13 - Aug 28, 2013 at 8:22 PM

        MMA isn’t a new sport, though. People have been hitting each other for entertainment since the dawn of time.

  3. El Bravo - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:24 PM

    Sure and I love pie b/c of it’s rich, delcious, sweet and buttery, flaky crust history.

    • kcroyal - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:41 PM

      I literally just are a piece of homemade, delicious cherry pie, and I thought to myself “this shit would be disgusting if it hadn’t been around forever.”

      Thank god, because this is some really good pie.

  4. megary - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:28 PM

    Not sure what a “national” poll would look like, but my experience has been this: in general, kids love to play baseball and kids love to watch football.

    • greymares - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:47 PM

      kids love to play baseball because except for health reasons every kid has at some level. there has been less kids entering the contact sports because of parental objections

  5. bwolfsohn - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:39 PM

    I think the definitive answer is here from Bob Newhart:

  6. jasonwinter - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:40 PM

    I remember a bit on ESPN a long time ago, probably around the 1994 World Cup, speculating on why soccer was big in every country except the U.S. The theory was basically the same. Like baseball, soccer is mostly slow-paced and — from a strictly visual aspect — can’t compete with faster, harder-hitting sports like football, basketball, and hockey and that, if not for its decades of tradition, baseball would flame out in the U.S. the same way soccer largely has/had.

    I think that might be a better comparison. Yes, big soccer events do draw in the U.S., but they’re well behind the other, more established pro and college sports in this country. I think that might be the ceiling for the “new, slow” game of baseball in the U.S., once it established itself after a decade or three.

    • greymares - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:51 PM

      I agree i am the owner of 4 season tickets to the AAA. Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs and i attend more than 1/2 of those games on my own, because my kids and grandkids just don’t have the interest.

  7. papichulo55 - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:49 PM

    If you accept the International Olympic Comm. definition of Chess and Bridge as ‘Sport’, you could argue that several very popular video game titles can meet challenge of being more popular than some older, more traditional sports. It wont be too long before these simulations, and their ‘fantasy’ companions take over.

  8. mrpinkca - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:52 PM

    Somebody should give this man the Nobel Prize in Trolling.

  9. bills399 - Aug 28, 2013 at 5:54 PM

    I think baseball is one of the only sports that would look as close as it does today if it was just “invented”. For instance if Naismith invented basketball today the hoops would probably be 12 feet as opposed to 10. I also think if football was invented today it may look more like the CFL in regards to the field itself.

  10. godsmacked1 - Aug 28, 2013 at 6:24 PM

    As much as I hate to say it, the slow pace of baseball would bore today’s generation and fall flat. I’ve watched the game for 45 years, and I can honestly say I can’t watch a few innings at a time without surfing the channels, even during games with “good” teams. My boys have no interest in it, and are more in tune with hockey’s fast pace, Nascar and the NFL. I love the game, but there are reasons why it’s now America’s number 2 sport, and the pace of the game is one of them.

    • bh0673 - Aug 28, 2013 at 6:44 PM

      The pace is tough and my kids do hate baseball on TV but do love going to games and I still hold out that as they grow old they will appreciate the sport one day even on TV. As a kid the sport was slow and on TV not captivating in any sense of the word but we still followed because of the hero’s of our day.
      All the game would need is one of historic games to rope them in. A Babe Ruth called shot (which I have seen the footage of and there was no way he called anything he was jawing it up with the Cubs bench) a Bobby Thompson, Joe Carter, Bucky Dent home run type of game and the slow pace goes away and the interest grows.

  11. hojo20 - Aug 28, 2013 at 6:32 PM

    I like to play baseball and do roto baseball, but today’s games are endless and it makes the sport overall boring. There’s no way baseball would be a big thing if it started now.

  12. bh0673 - Aug 28, 2013 at 6:34 PM

    I believe the history does play a major part but even without the history I think the game would succeed. Lets face it, for me growing up in the late 60’s seeing Mantle play in Yankee Stadium on a field where so many greats played before him had an impact on me growing up and made me appreciate the game. From my first game in 1968 till 2008 although the seating area had changed the corridors of the old stadium were the same I grew up going to, hearing Bob Shepard’s voice from 1968 till he became to ill in 2007 knowing he had been around since Joe DiMaggio’s last year as a player, it was always special to go to a game. My kids were fortunate to have experienced the old stadium and my younger daughter got to go to the last game played there, so from that perspective I would agree the history played an important role in the love of the game as well as passing it on to the next generation.
    As far as the game itself I think it would catch on if created now, I still love going to a game, whether it is the Phillies single A team in Lakewood NJ of the Yankees double A team in Trenton or any major league stadium there is something about going that still makes it fun even when the game isn’t. On the radio it has a rhythm that is great on a relaxing weekend and with 162 games the opportunity to catch a game almost every night. Whether it is the old grainy films of Ruth or Gehrig or the days of Mantle, Mays, Reese or even the steroid years after the 1994 strike that brought out the fans in record numbers and back to the game you can’t discount the effect history has had. I look at soccer and all I see is the ball being kicked back and forth with little scoring sort of hockey on grass with no where near the action, yet it is a very popular sport worldwide. Football is football a sport that has action but I do hate the cold weather if I am going I go early in the season. It was fun when the Giants trained a few miles form my house. as well as the Knicks. Speaking of basketball it seems it has changed since the late 70’s and just doesn’t feel the same to me. I haven’t gone in years but baseball I have been a season ticket holder for a long time and go often.
    Would baseball be the same as it is I think probably not but would still find an audience way north of volley ball and tractor pulls. The sport would succeed and succeed well.

  13. papichulo55 - Aug 28, 2013 at 6:35 PM

    No, baseball would not be as popular if it were invented today. As an American sport, baseball has lost the popularity contest with football and basketball, with American athletes. Years ago, the best American athletes played baseball. That is not true today. As a startup-sport, the core fans from the family and friends would not match the levels of past generations. Willie Mays would have been a PG for the Celtics. Mickey, an MMA superstar, and Babe would be slinging the pigskin for the Eagles….

  14. amehta256 - Aug 28, 2013 at 6:43 PM

    Quick answer: no! The sport is too slow and requires minimum level of fitness to participate.

  15. cjvirnig - Aug 28, 2013 at 7:20 PM

    And what? If American football were only invented today, it would still be hugely successful? I don’t buy it. Baseball is one of the few sports that actually has a FUNDAMENTALLY logical premise: 1 guy throws a ball and another guy tries to hit it with a stick. Soccer: guys try to kick a ball into a goal. Golf:a guy hits a ball with a stick.

    I like football as much as the next guy, but fundamentally, it makes MUCH LESS SENSE than baseball. And, quite frankly, it makes much less sense than most other sports, too.

  16. crackersnap - Aug 28, 2013 at 7:23 PM

    Baseball would not be as popular today had it been invented today, but would it be as popular 100 years from now as it is today?

    One thing is for certain, if baseball survived 100 years starting from today, there would be an entirely different appreciation of the math.

  17. ctony1216 - Aug 28, 2013 at 8:39 PM

    Look at the popularity of baseball in places where there’s no nostalgia for it, someplace like Australia for instance, and you might get some idea of what the popularity would be like if it were “invented” today.

    Or, look at the popularity of baseball when it was “invented” in the mid-to-late 19th century. Within about 25 years or so, it was a national sport with a World Series.

    • umrguy42 - Aug 28, 2013 at 10:48 PM

      Setting aside pacing issues, lack of history, etc. – my thought would be, *could* it be as popular if invented today, given all the other options people have for their entertainment? You had a game in the mid-1800s, which quite a few Americans would’ve been exposed to during the Civil War and then brought home with them, spreading popularity in a time with no football, no basketball, no NASCAR/F1/Indy/etc., no Olympics, even. It was something your local paper could write about, and you could read about it, even if you couldn’t go to the game.

      Today, there’s a ton of other sports, let alone TV shows/movies to watch, video games to play, internet bloggers to troll and/or complain about, etc.. How would it stack up versus your other options?

  18. thebigtim2012 - Aug 28, 2013 at 9:17 PM

    To the commenters suggesting that no new sport nowadays is anything more than a niche sport that’s not wildly popular you are in fact wrong. My evidence the lingerie football league. The defense rests your honor

  19. fearthehoody - Aug 28, 2013 at 9:36 PM

    Mlb is my #2 love in sports, but yes its pretty damn boring at times. I believe Homer put it best, “I never realized how boring baseball is without beer.”

    • nbjays - Aug 29, 2013 at 6:34 AM

      In defense of baseball, Homer (and many like him, I suspect), would likely find sex boring without beer.

  20. bills399 - Aug 28, 2013 at 10:17 PM

    people who keep saying there is more action in football do realize they are wrong, right? When the ball is in play there is more second to second action than there is in football. Plus football and basketball can be pretty damn boring, especially the NBA. NBA basketball isn’t even watchable these days, its god awful.

    • nbjays - Aug 29, 2013 at 6:35 AM

      I like George Will’s take on the NFL, that it combines the two worst elements of American society: violence and committee meetings.

  21. notapsychiatrist - Aug 28, 2013 at 11:17 PM

    Professional baseball came of age during the Golden Age of Radio. Baseball has the right amount of action, and the right pacing, to be adequately described in real-time. The focus follows the ball; the pitcher, the batter, the fielder. Usually these players are all separated enough that there’s no complex interactions, nothing hidden or difficult to describe. There usually is only one thing going on at a time, or if there are multiple things going on at once, then they can be communicated quickly, and the mind’s eye fills in the details. The defensive players are fairly consistent from day to day, and usually play the full game with maybe 1 or 2 substitutes, so you always know who’s playing shortstop without the announcer having to tell you. Baseball is the perfect radio sport. Hearing a game on the radio is not really much worse than watching the same game on television. It is perfect for having on in the background while doing work, or while driving.

    Furthermore, the baseball season is perfect for radio. Your team plays almost every day, throughout the summer, usually at about the same time of day. I know that when I was growing up, with my dad being a big baseball fan, baseball games on the radio were pretty much the constant soundtrack to the summer. It becomes a daily habit. You don’t have to set aside a time to listen to baseball games; the consistency of the schedule means that they just become integrated into your everyday life.

    Professional football, on the other hand, really became big during the growth years of television. There are 22 players on the field, many of whom line up differently roam freely around the line of scrimmage. Each of those 22 players has the chance to interact with any of the other players on a moment-to-moment basis. Deception is a big part of the game, with bootleg plays sometimes fooling the spectators as well as the defense. While I have listened to my share of football games on the radio, it’s distinctly not as fulfilling as watching them on TV. The offense changes formations on every play, and players come and go from the field constantly. Are the receivers lining up left or right, is the linebacker coming up or hanging back, are the corners close or far, etc. Every player will be doing something, and it’s very hard to perceive everything that’s going on, much less to describe it in real-time. And with the schedule having only a relatively small number of games, you can dedicate the time to follow your team for one game a week and sit in front of the TV to watch. It’s never in the background like baseball; it’s front and center. Your football team takes up all your CPU cycles for one game a week; your baseball team is like a background process, constantly running, but only demanding your full attention in short bursts.

    (I won’t really go into basketball, but I think that it’s safe to say that it lies somewhere in between baseball and football, but definitely more on the TV-oriented end. Hockey is more TV-oriented.)

    So, that’s my thesis. I think that the popularity of baseball had everything to do with the dominant telecommunications medium of the time. I don’t think that baseball could become as popular today, with the dominance of television.

  22. udub - Aug 29, 2013 at 12:03 AM

    This story is flawed. It seems to be written as a slam against baseball, but in reality it could probably be written about any sport. If you are evaluating any sport in terms of being invented today you have to try to imagine the world without that sport. Imagine, for example, basketball being invented today. The sports world would be primarily focused heavily on baseball and football and then along comes this weird sport that is played on a floor instead of grass where all people do is bounce a ball up and down trying to drop it into a hoop 10 feet in the air. People would definitely think it was strange. If say football were just invented there wouldn’t be any of the history of college or pro football and people would be shocked at how violent it was compared to our big time favorite sports of basketball and baseball. With all we know about head injuries, etc. now it would be hard to convince a lot of people to start playing this crazy new game called football.

  23. pillowporkers - Aug 29, 2013 at 11:23 AM

    I think due to the money of the big sports nowadays, you could say that about any new sport. They wouldn’t have the funding for many to take it seriously. I don’t think basketball, football, or any of those sports make it big if they were invented “today”.

  24. gloccamorra - Aug 29, 2013 at 6:49 PM

    Baseball became popular as an outdoor participatory sport before radio and TV, when the only outdoor entertainment was the annual county fair and traveling circus. In fact, when baseball was first called America’s Pastime, the biggest spectator sport in America was polo! Which came first, the professional New York Giants or the Polo Grounds?

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