It's October and the boys of summer are heading for the World Series Fall Classic. So it's fitting to ask, what is it about this ball-and-stick game that is so deeply embedded in our culture -- with influence well beyond the actual sport of baseball?
For one, it's been around a loooooong time. According to the prodigious Teaching Company's audio or video course, Turning Points in American History, Prof. Edward T. O'Donnel says the first published mention of 'baseball' happens in 1791 at Pittsfield, Mass. Perhaps fearing broken windows, the wise townies pass a law banning baseball from being played so close to their town meeting house.
But it's in New York City in 1845, that baseball, as we know it is hatched. And it has nothing to do with Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, N.Y. That's myth. Founding father credit goes to twenty-five-year-old volunteer fireman and baseball player, Alexander Cartwright. He's the anal retentive who writes it ALL down -- all the rules like how many strikes, balls and outs in an inning, how many innings, how many on a team, the diamond shape of the field and on and on. Apparently everybody likes what he codifies because most of these rules remain unchanged to this day -- except the one about "no swearing, spitting or gambling." The actual first recorded baseball game happens in 1846 in Hoboken, New Jersey.
As lawyers would say, let's stipulate to the fact that baseball is not the No.1 spectator sport in America. That's football. But baseball is THE ultimate American sport -- which is why we call it 'the national pastime.' No other sport is so infused in our everyday lives. For instance:
It's the only sport to have a universally popular song. If you don't know Take Me Out to the Ballgame you're probably not from this planet.
It's the only sport with a popular poem -- "Casey at the Bat" -- which turned into a popular film and an opera.
And it's the only sport that generates the phrases and expressions that we use every day. For instance:
When referring to numbers we say it's 'in the ball park' or 'ballpark figure'
When something lasts so long, it's in 'extra innings.'
We talk of things being 'big league' or 'bush league'
We make sure we 'cover all the bases.'
In conversation, somebody throws you a 'curve ball.'
When we do well on a test, we 'hit a home run' or 'knock it out of the park.'
Politicians play 'hardball.'
Politicians often get 'softball questions.'
An expert is 'a heavy hitter.'
Towards the end of a long negotiation, we're 'in the ninth inning.'
A nutty idea comes 'out of left field' or it's 'off base.'
If you can't make a meeting, you ask someone to 'pinch hit' for you. Or you ask for 'a rain check.'
Learning something quickly is getting it 'right off the bat.'
A weirdo is called a 'screwball.'
We 'touch base' with people.
A major situational change is 'a whole new ball game.'
And of course, baseball gets into our sex lives such as 'getting to first base' and 'scoring'!
Then there's baseball's influence in show business. Time Magazine's Greatest of the 20th Century edition lists Abbott and Costello's routine, "Who's on First?" as the best comedy sketch of the twentieth century.
Did you also know that Jackie Robinson was not the first African American in the sport? That honor belongs to Moses 'Fleetwood' Walker in 1884. And, at least 50 African Americans played professionally prior to 1890 -- before Jim Crow and discrimination set in.
Baseball is the only major sport that has no clock, no time limits. As the Yogi of Berra says, "It ain't over 'till it's over."
Walt Whitman writes well over 100 years ago, "It's our game, the American game." Indeed, it is.
Baseball is just one riveting 30 minutes out of a 48-lecture course beginning with America's Great Epidemic of 1617 and ending with The Age of Terror and the 911 Attacks. For armchair historians, this audio course is premium material.