The Lure of Old-Time Baseball

The lure of old-time baseball is not hard to understand. History has a stronger hold over baseball than it does over any other major American sport, a fact which naïve nostalgia alone cannot explain. Of course some baseball followers are prone to romanticizing the past simply to recall the flower of their own youth. But the durability of baseball’s past is much more deeply grounded than any simple psychological mechanism. First, baseball’s rapid ascent in American culture from the end of the Civil War to the roaring ‘20s both reflects and represents a golden age in the self-assertion of the American people. Almost single-handedly, baseball in this period constructed the edifice of sport in America, and ensured the centrality of sport in American popular culture to this day.

Second, the character of old-time baseball produced achievements that the current version of the sport has great difficulty replicating. Deadball era players hold many of the most fundamental records in the sport, setting daunting or even unattainable standards for current-day players. Baseball followers understand many of these records as true accomplishments, not merely the product of the distinct conditions of the deadball era. The heroic achievements of the period were no accident, for the unchallenged dominion of baseball guaranteed the sport a near monopoly over the finest athletes of the era (Jim Thorpe spent as much time in professional baseball as he did in track & field or football).

Next, old-time baseball required a greater variety of skills. Pitchers strove to master spitballs and other freak pitches; hitters had to drive a less lively ball; fielders coped with much smaller gloves; base runners had to be more aggressive. To a meaningful extent, in modern baseball power has displaced some of the dexterity, speed, quick thinking, and teamwork in the sport.

Finally, the unceasing scrutiny of the media these days strips much of the personal flavor out of baseball, and all other sports. The heavy admixture of drifters, brawlers, cheaters, and derilects on old-time teams enriched their character. But—for better or worse--the journalism of the day covered up scandalous behavior in favor of hero worship.