Catching Up with Mark Dyreson

How did baseball first become our national game?

Historically, baseball was clearly the American national pastime from the 1870s through the early 1960s. It seized that role from prize fighting and horse racing after the Civil War because baseball successfully marketed itself to the middle-class mainstream—including women and children—as the U.S. became a modern urban-industrial nation. Meanwhile, horse racing and prize fighting escaped neither immersion in working-class male culture nor deep connections to drinking and gambling. That history in part explains why gambling is still the "original sin" in baseball and why Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader, is not in the Hall of Fame.

Add to that history the facts that baseball was designed as an intentionally and explicitly national game to distinguish it from cricket, and that baseball's early promoters cleverly (if a-historically) disconnected it from older traditions of British folk bat-and-ball games, and you arrive at a deeper understanding of its role as an "American" pastime. In the same era that Mark Twain and others demanded an American literature distinct from English literature to confirm cultural—as well as political—independence, baseball became an American national lingua franca to celebrate American separateness and exceptionalism in an epoch where Great Britain reigned as the global superpower.

Is baseball still the quintessential American sport?

From the centennial to (almost) the bicentennial of American nationhood, baseball was the most popular game to both play and watch in the United States. In 2011, it holds neither of those distinctions.

As early as the 1920s, baseball began to lose relative market share to other American pastimes, especially in that era to college football, but also to other emerging spectator sports from basketball to roller derby. Sometime in the 1960s, professional football (which began in the 1920s as the poor-stepchild to the college gridiron circus) seized from baseball by all objective measures (attendance—especially when averaged per game to correct for differing numbers of games, TV ratings, revenues, etc.) the mantle of the leading American pastime.

Since the 1960's, college football, college basketball, and professional basketball have drawn television audiences that surpass those of Major League Baseball. In the last decade even NASCAR and MMA (mixed martial arts) sometimes draw larger TV audiences than baseball.

From that perspective, football, especially the NFL brand, has clearly overtaken baseball. Indeed, most scholars would now list a trio of American national pastimes, football, basketball, and baseball, with the old national pastime clearly in third place and NASCAR coming up fast to challenge it.

Examining the American pastimes in terms of active participation, particularly among children, soccer has climbed to the top of the American pastimes heap to rank next to basketball, while the number of kids playing baseball has declined significantly over the past half-century. Ironically, while football ranks as the top U.S. spectator sport, the number of children and youth participating has declined precipitously in the past few decades.

However, market share, television ratings, and active participation are not the only measures of a nation's pastimes. More kids grow up now playing soccer than baseball, but no one (not even MLS advertising gurus) argues that soccer has surpassed baseball as an American national pastime. Baseball remains at the center of American culture and memory. Baseball evokes nostalgia for "simpler pasts" at the movies and in the new retro-ball parks that have sprung up at major and minor league sites.

I attended the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians a few weeks ago. In the packet distributed to every delegate was a catalog for a major publisher (Bedford/St. Martin's) that depicted an antique baseball glove and ball on its front cover, designed to evoke even among professional historians (and without using a single word) a feeling of history and heritage. Ironically, the catalog contained not a single book about the history of American baseball, though a rich literature on the subject now flourishes in both popular and academic presses. Looking at sources other than market share to gauge national pastime status such as bookstore shelves, Netflix cues, fantasy sports league participation numbers, or the nostalgic ramblings of pundits and academics in Ken Burns' documentaries, it becomes clear that baseball is still one of America's leading national pastimes. Football and basketball have yet to produce literary or cinematic treatments that equal those inspired by baseball. Remember the Titans has nowhere near the cultural cache of Field of Dreams or Bull Durham, and basketball has only given us mind-numbing pablum like Semi-Pro—with the exception of the brilliant documentary Hoop Dreams.

Do you have a favorite professional baseball team or player?

I grew up in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado long before the Southwest had any major league teams. When I lived in Colorado, the Denver Bears were my team; as I recall, they were the AAA farm team for the Minnesota Twins and later the now-extinct Washington Senators. When I moved to Albuquerque, they had the Dukes, the AAA farm club for the Los Angeles Dodgers. I went to their games when they were a minor league power, with Tommy Lasorda managing and Ron Cey, Dave Lopes, Burt Hooten, and Charley Hough starring. They went on to fame in Los Angeles so I became a bit of a Dodger fan. In high school I moved to Tallahassee, Florida, where the Atlanta Braves were on our local cable system via WTBS. I became a big Hank Aaron fan in the days when the Braves had great home run hitters (Aaron, Davey Johnson, Darrell Evans) but crummy teams.

What has been the biggest change or development in your field over the years?

The biggest change has been the tremendous growth in this new historical sub-field. The history of sport emerged in the 1970s with the creation of a couple of journals, and the publication of a few ground-breaking books. Since then, the field has exploded, and hundreds of journal articles and books appear every year that expand the horizons of the study of sport in human societies.

What hobbies do you enjoy most in your spare time?

I confess that I am one of the fans whom I study. The joke in my family is that when I watch a football game on TV or go to a baseball game with my kids that I'm "working," and that I write-off my ESPN cable bills and subscription to Sports Illustrated as professional expenses on my taxes. I am also addicted to pick-up basketball, as no amount of joint pain following a game has led my brain to move my aging body toward a healthier form of exercise. My wife diagnosed my addiction after I decided to play a few games at Rec Hall about an hour before I was scheduled to appear on a live MSNBC program on Olympic bid scandals. Of course, I got poked in the eye during a game and was bleeding profusely from a cut on my eyelid—a malady the make-up people vainly tried to cover with copious amounts of make-up in between questions from Lester Holt. Afterwards, I tried to defend my choice to engage in my habitual behavior as sane and rational, at which point my wife discovered I was delusional.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of research?

The biggest misconceptions are that sport is somehow disconnected from the larger social and political conflicts of human culture, and that it is ephemeral: "mere amusement." It's not. The same dynamics that attract historians to more traditional subjects engage scholars who study sport. For nearly two centuries, modern societies have been consumed by a passion for sport. People invest enormous amounts of time, money, and emotional capital on sport. Analyzing why they do that, and what it means, is our challenge in the field.

What are some of the most interesting research collaborations you've had the chance to work on here at Penn State?

Historians generally work solo, and before I came to Penn State in 1998 I had never collaborated on a research project. However, at Penn State I've had some fantastic graduate students with whom I have explored and written essays on a wide variety of subjects—from the emergence of Super Bowl Sunday as a national holiday to the recovery of the legacies of the African American medalists. And from the 1936 "Nazi Olympics," which had been lost in Jesse Owens's enormous shadow, to an analysis of American sport in the Great Depression, to an investigation of the influence of the 1932 and 1984 Los Angeles games on the evolution of the modern Olympics.

Last Updated May 31, 2011