On Oct. 31, 2008, a massive sea of people swarmed into Center City in Philadelphia, their numbers estimated to be from one to three million. Schools and offices throughout the metropolitan area were mostly empty as all sorts of people, young and old, short and tall, male and female, rich and poor, flocked into Philadelphia in massive numbers.
What historic, earth-changing, unprecedented event could have attracted so much attention and appealed to such a diverse audience? It must have been more crucial than Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that drew 400,000, or maybe even equal in importance to the Muslim Hajj in Mecca that annually draws no more than 3 million people.
This gathering, a million-man march in its own right, was the 2008 Phillies World Series parade.
The notion that a sports celebration rivaled, or even eclipsed, the attendance of many of the most crucial events in history seems almost inconceivable. Some might view it as regrettable, and maybe even deplorable, that we live in a world where people care more about sports than about history, politics, or other things related to the “real world.”
Yet, at the same time, even the greatest of American heroes and leaders, all who have plenty of “real-world” issues to worry about, aren’t immune from baseball fever. Even Abraham Lincoln was known to attend baseball games and be the loudest fan in the stands, long before baseball became a national spectacle.
So why exactly would America’s leaders spend their time at a baseball game? For the answer to that question, one must look back no further than to Yankee Stadium on Oct. 30, 2001, when George W. Bush threw out the first pitch before a Yankees playoff game.
The City of New York had been severely shaken by the recent Sept. 11 attacks, yet when Bush carried out that vestigial, ceremonious act, the city, and the nation, were suddenly overcome with an overwhelming sense of pride and hope.
Even with Bush’s reputation having been tainted since that fateful night, the image of him throwing out that first pitch is one of the most poignant ones of this decade.
As it did for New Yorkers and for all Americans that night, baseball exhibits an extraordinary ability to bring people together who might have nothing else in common. Only in a baseball stadium will you see two complete strangers acting as if they’ve known each other their whole lives.
An immigrant who is completely unfamiliar with America can learn how to play baseball and all of a sudden feel a powerful connection to 10's of millions of other Americans.
Baseball has also played an important role in American history. It served as a proxy for the Civil Rights movement when Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His playing in the majors made millions of oppressed African Americans think, “If Jackie Robinson was able to break down the race barrier in baseball, maybe I can break down the race barriers in my own life.”
Once one learns about the rich history of baseball in America, the notion that the Phillies’ parade had an incredible turnout becomes less far-fetched. In fact, it seems to make perfect sense.
With the power that all sorts of professional sports (such as baseball) have had in American history, culture, and in the American way of life, it’s no wonder that we Americans have come to love them so much. America and professional sports were a match made in heaven.
Nobody could have put it better than Harper’s Weekly did in 1857:
“We would rather chronicle a great boat race…or cricket match… than all the prize poems or the orations on Lafayette that are produced in half a century…”