Small Ball

I only knew one of my grandparents, my mother’s mother. She was born in 1891, long before the first World Series was played, but had grown up in an era when baseball was clearly the national pastime.

She loved the game, and it was something she and I had in common. We would watch a game on TV on Saturday afternoon, and sometimes she would even play “catch” with me in the yard. Back then it seemed as though everyone was interested in baseball.

My friends and I were certainly no exception. When the weather was nice we almost always played outdoors, and more often than not it had something to do with baseball. If there were only two or three of us we would play catch, but whenever possible we would collect enough guys for a pickup game.

The minimum number of players was six, which allowed for a pitcher, a first baseman and a roving outfielder (the team at bat would supply a catcher). It was a lot better with eight or 10, though I don’t think we ever reached the regulation number of 18. We never had, nor felt any need for an umpire.

Another thing we never had was an adult. In all those years I don’t recall anyone’s parents ever showing up for any reason. We made our own rules and enforced them. There was an occasional minor injury, but I don’t remember any fights. About the worst thing that ever happened was when Billy Hollahan hit a ball so far that it broke a windshield in the school parking lot.

We never had a minority kid or a girl, either, in the small-town America of 60 years ago. We did have a wide diversity of economic background and athletic ability, and I can honestly say that we were indifferent to the former and never excluded anyone for the latter.

Times have changed. About a year ago, The Sport and Fitness Industry Association published data on the decline of participation in team sports in America. According to the study, only 45 percent of kids were playing a sport regularly in 2008. By 2017, that number had dropped to 37 percent.

I’m sure that some of the reasons for the long-term trend are the same culprits that have had so much effect on the toy business. Kids have the same number of hours they’ve always had, but some of those hours are now devoted to video games, Internet surfing, social media, texting, and 500 television channels.

Then there’s the notion that childhood is shorter than it used to be. Our culture exposes kids to adult pursuits and pastimes at a much young age than it did in 1960, and there is a natural appeal to anything that you’re not supposed to be doing. It’s hard for me to believe that kids can be too sophisticated to play, but sadly that may sometimes be the case.

But there is another factor reducing participation in sports that is even more disturbing, and that would be money. The SFIA study found that children from low-income families are about half as likely to play team sports as those from households with income above $100,000. Money, in fact, is the single largest indicator of whether a child will play sports.

Kids don’t play pickup games anymore. They play in leagues, and their goal in recent years has increasingly been to make it in onto the more selective “travel leagues.”

These highly organized leagues are expensive. There are uniforms, equipment, transportation, officials, coaches, field rentals, insurance, trophies, and things we couldn’t have imagined 50 years ago, like videographers. More and more often, individual parents have the additional cost of private instruction as well.

Part of the reason that affluent parents are willing to spend serious money on sports has to do with college. Most of them aren’t stupid, and they are well aware of the odds regarding a successful career for their children in professional sports, which are about the same as finding a polar bear in the swimming pool.

There is a reasonable chance, however, that they could win a full or partial scholarship to college, and given the dizzying rise in tuition, the investment could pay off quickly. Failing that, at least a solid performance in one or more sports is a credential that can help gain admittance to a better school.

Even if college is taken out of the equation, children who play team sports have advantages over those who don’t. As a group, they are healthier, get better grades, socialize more easily and achieve more financial success.

It’s hard for a confirmed capitalist like me to say this, but I think we need to find ways to level the playing field. In a nation which has been dividing more distinctly into haves and have-nots, sports is supposed to be one of the things that belongs to all of us, and that helps bind us together. Especially baseball.

In popular mythology, baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday in 1839, and first played in a cow pasture in Cooperstown, New York, now home to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Doubleday was a Union general during the Civil War. He fired the first shot in defense of Fort Sumter, played a significant role at Gettysburg, and went on to achieve a variety of things after the war.

There is no evidence that he ever had anything to do with baseball, and in fact wasn’t named its father until 15 years after his death. The game has clear roots in Europe, particularly the English game of rounders, and the first historical reference to it dates back to 1791. The town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, passed an ordinance that banned the playing of baseball within 80 yards of the town meeting house. (Perhaps they had their own Billy Hollahan.)

By the 1840s we know there were baseball clubs around New York City and Boston, and the first recorded game under semi-modern rules was played in Hoboken, New Jersey, on June 19, 1846. The Gotham Club beat the Knickerbockers, 23 to 1.

The Civil War did a lot to popularize the game, standardize the rules and spread baseball throughout the country. At the end of the war there were 100 clubs. Two years later there were more than 400.

From that day to this one, baseball has continued to be the most popular sport in America in terms of participation, with around 25 million people playing some form of it this past summer. Part of its beauty has always been its very American quality of accepting everyone, large and small, rich and poor.

Several years ago, Major League Baseball created an initiative called “Play Ball” through which it works with more than 200 mayors across the U.S. to encourage kids to play baseball. Its message is that you don’t need uniforms, or umpires, or nine players on a side. All you need is a ball, a bat, some gloves and an open space.

Nor do you have to build it for them to come. A vacant lot, or a cow pasture, will do.

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