U.Va. Law Professor Asks, Is MLB Dropping the Ball?

Oct. 30, 2006 – Fans of the St. Louis Cardinals celebrating their team’s victory in the 2006 World Series may be startled to hear G. Edward White pose a simple question: Has baseball struck out as America’s national pastime?

In his 1996 book, “Creating the National Pastime: Baseball Transforms Itself, 1903-1953,” White examined the early 20th-century forces that shaped the sport.  In recent years, the U.Va. law professor and baseball fan has observed developments that have damaged the game and threaten its place in American sports culture.

White shared his concerns about “Baseball at the Crossroads” at a talk on Oct. 14 — the third of five “More than the Score” lectures organized by the Office of the Provost in collaboration with the U.Va. Alumni Association. The lecture series was created for alumni visiting Charlottesville for home football games on fall weekends. The talks are free and open to the public.

White comes by his interest in sports honestly. He played in the outfield as an undergraduate at Amherst College. He has coached the girls’ soccer team at Charlottesville High School. And he has competed in doubles squash.

But baseball holds a special place in his heart. In recent years, Major League Baseball has been flashing some encouraging signs.

“Ballparks are to some extent full,” White said. “Winning teams fill the stands even though ticket prices are high. TV contracts continue to be written. The labor situation is stable.”

But signs of trouble have emerged as well. One of them is competition from other sports.

“Most schoolchildren today are not playing baseball as they were 50 years ago, some of them are playing football or basketball instead,” White said. “When I was in high school, there were no women’s sports. Soccer, lacrosse and tennis, which are popular now, weren’t offered then.”

Another issue is the nature of baseball at a time when middle-class parents worry about their children’s tender psyches.

“Baseball is not an attractive sport for many young people to play because the action is centered on the pitcher and the batter,” White said. “There is little motion on the field. There is a high level of difficulty. Baseball has a hard ball. A small bat. And the fielding and hitting are not intuitive.  Most young children are not good at it and so they fail and they fail publicly.

“Compare that with soccer,” he said. “The kids run around on a field. They’re largely anonymous. Some of the good kids break out of the pack. But no one is stigmatized in the same way that someone is striking out with everyone watching.  It’s no surprise that soccer is a reflexive sports activity that professional people introduce their children to.”

The result is that with fewer families introducing their children to the game, fewer adults have played the game. This affects the popularity of baseball as entertainment for adults. “The sport is now only one among many offerings,” White said.

Add to that the lack of gender diversity in the game: baseball is played primarily by boys and men. “Compare that with soccer,” White said. “Girls are capable of playing soccer at a very high level, just as they play tennis or golf at a very high level. That’s another disadvantage – there are no professional women in baseball.”

Other issues have a major impact on the game’s current popularity and hold implications for its future popularity as well.

“The large market franchises have more purchasing power [for players] than the smaller markets,” White said. “The question of market size is not just the population attending games in person, but also those watching the games on TV and listening to the games on the radio. The Yankees get the largest revenues from TV, not just because it’s a large metro area, but also because of the cachet of the Yankees. New England cities pick up the Yankees as part of a cable package and that adds to the team’s revenues.

“So, what’s the problem?” he asked. “Free agency. Nearly all players have contracts that expire after one, two or three years. Then the player is released and goes on the free agency market. Players have learned to go on the market after a very good year. Also, they have strong incentives to negotiate the terms of the next contract in a free agency year. Free agency means that when a contract ends the large market teams can outbid the small markets teams for free agents. It’s no surprise that the Yankees contend nearly every year.”

Then, there’s the “s” word. Steroids.

“Baseball could not have managed an issue less well than it did steroids,” White said. Citing the 1994 baseball strike and lockout, which resulted in the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years, he said, “The owners worried that fans would not come back to baseball. It was right about then that baseball players started to hit a lot of home runs.

“The physical shape of baseball players changed,” he said, pointing to players like Mark McGuire, who broke Roger Maris’ single-season homerun record in 1998, and Barry Bonds, who is vying to break Hank Aaron’s career homerun mark of 755. “The number of home runs these players were hitting versus [their hitting percentages] early in their careers went up,” he said. “There were rumors about changes in their physical shapes.”

But baseball as an industry did nothing.

“The players union did not want testing,” White said. “The owners figured these home runs are putting people in the stands.” It got so bad that Congress held hearings, essentially telling the industry that if they didn’t do anything, Congress would impose legislation.

So, the question is, what will baseball do? The answer is, it’s still not clear.

“If you want to invalidate steroids records, how do you do that?” White asked.
“The steroid problem is embarrassing for baseball and it is largely insoluble.”

Yet another issue confronting the sport is its changing racial and ethnic composition.

From the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, increasing numbers of African-American players appeared in the game. But beginning in the 1970s, those numbers began to fall and the number of Latinos began to rise.

“The increase in Latinos is simply a result of baseball recruiting worldwide, particularly in Latin America,” White said. “These players, many coming from poor countries, have strong economic incentives to sign up at an early age. And the teams take their chances and sign these young players for relatively little money. That’s a nice part of the story of baseball – it’s more inclusive than it used to be and it’s more inclusive of Latin Americans than it used to be.

But why have the number of African-American players declined?

“There is competition from other sports for African-American players,” White said. “Football and basketball are more attractive to them. While the number of white players on NBA rosters and NFL rosters is very small, African Americans are flocking to those sports, dominating them. It is thought they can make more money in those sports.”

The pity is that in recent years, baseball has tried to show it cares about African-American players.

“[Major League Baseball] retired Jackie Robinson’s number (42) and they’ve been doing better recently in recruiting African-American managers,” White said. “But baseball is not doing a good job of selling itself to African-American males as a sport. And it is losing out on good athletes. And as a result the sport is not as representative of American society as it was.”

Each of these issues is troublesome for the future of the sport. In his 1996 book, White predicted that the position of baseball in American sports would decline in the coming decades. Nothing he has seen since has changed his mind.

“Baseball has been behind the curve,” White said. “It needs to be more ahead of the curve.”

It’s as if the sport itself is in the bottom of the ninth inning, down by three, and the bottom of the lineup is coming up to bat. The odds are long, but in baseball, “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”