The guantlet, returned

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The guantlet, returned

 

Earlier today I challenged Mark Juddery to back up the claim in his new book that baseball is the most overrated sport.

Tonight, he offers his answer, via email, presented without editorial comment:

Here are a few words written just for the Baseball Bookshelf site. (Well OK, it’s basically a reworked version of the book chapter… but I’m sure you’ll agree that my reasoning is sound and give up baseball to find another hobby.) Please let me know when it’s online, so I know to change my name and go in hiding.

Mark

* * *

It seems that there has been some controversy over me naming baseball as the most overrated sport. How dare I demean America’s national pastime in an American-published book, from my home land of Australia where few people even play baseball.

Actually, it wins that title because the book’s published in America. Here in Australia (and in most nations), nobody rates baseball very highly at all. Over here, the most overrated sport is cricket. We care about who wins the World Series, even though, in most of the world, nobody could care less. A “proper” cricket game is quiet, slow-moving, and lasts for days. I believe that the winner is the spectator who stays awake the longest. “I watched a cricket match for three hours waiting for it to start,” quipped Groucho Marx.

In America, nobody has been willing to stay awake through a game of cricket. Instead, the title of Most Overrated Sport belongs to baseball, a sport that is related to cricket. Not that I dislike baseball. I played it a few times at school, and enjoyed it more than cricket. (Then again, I enjoyed algebra more than cricket.) But like cricket, it isn’t nearly as important as its fans – or their nations – seem to think.

How highly do you guys rate it? Well, back in 1977, a group of US sports editors and writers were polled on the greatest male athletes of the century. The top 15 was comprised entirely of Americans – and five were baseballers (including the top two). Baseball was easily the most represented sport on the list. Perhaps this says less about the greatness of the game than the narrow-mindedness of sports writers back in 1977 (or any other time).

But then, this is a game where the ‘World Series’ is played only by American and (in more recent years) Canadian teams. Even the World Cup events of hockey, rugby and rock-paper-scissors (yes, that’s a real event) invite competitors from more than two nations. Hey, even World Series Cricket has more nations than that! But in baseball, many fans tend to forget the rest of the world. For the past century, the sport has boasted a few ‘all-American heroes’– from Jackie Robinson and Joe DiMaggio to perhaps your best-loved sportsman, Babe Ruth. It is one of the few sports whose ‘national heroes’ were a bunch of guys who only played against their compatriots.

This means that Ty Cobb (1886–1961), as one of America’s most gifted players, also gets to be called a “national hero”. Cobb was more than just a ball-player. He was also an unhinged, violent sociopath who would beat up his wife, fellow players, newsmen and on one occasion, a crippled fan. He pushed a chambermaid down the stairs (possibly because she was black and he was, allegedly, an appalling racist). Only through baseball (or on special occasions, warfare) could such a creep ever win national hero status.

How tough are baseball players anyway? Back in 1982, researchers worked out the physical demands of various sports, putting them on a scale from one (for more relaxing – if no less skilful – sports like billiards, golf and water-skiing) to 10 (Tour de France cycling) and beyond (the super-tough pursuit of decathlon went off the scale). On that scale, baseball made it to a relatively wimpy three – slightly tougher than cricket, on par with roller derby and scuba diving (if that’s actually a sport), but not as tough as most other sports. Whatever their salary, the average baseballer isn’t as tough as the average ice-skater, fencer, surfer or jockey.

What’s more, despite being America’s national sport, baseball isn’t even American. It was probably invented in England, where it is first mentioned (as ‘base ball’) in 1744. This is a sensitive issue – so sensitive that, in 1907, former National League president A. G. Mills devised a myth that it was invented in 1839 by Abner Doubeday, who would go on to be a Civil War general. (The real General Doubleday, one of Mills’ classmates at West Point, had gone on to a magazine writing career. Baseball was not among his topics.)

Happily for those who take it seriously, baseball has widened its horizons since the days of Babe Ruth. It even became an Olympic sport in 1992, when Cuba (whose dictator, Fidel Castro, was a former elite baseballer) won the gold medal. The US didn’t field its strongest players, who were too busy making millions in the (ahem) World Series. Still, like surprisingly many Olympic sports, it’s far from “international”, and is only a major sport in Japan and (some of) the Americas. In fact, it was removed from the Olympics program after 2008. Curling and synchronized swimming can stay; baseball can’t.

So enough of the all-American obsession, not to mention the way baseball is so often used as a metaphor for life. “If I have to enjoy another self-important spew on the lofty significance of this national pastime that is past its prime, I’m going to hurl,” wrote Sports Illustrated journalist Michael Silver in 2001.”The people who try to sell baseball as life need to get one.”

So there you have it. One of the great things about this country is that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. And, truth be told, Mr. Juddery makes some good points, and I thank him for contributing to the debate.

For more of his interesting insight, visit his website and the book’s blog .

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