The World Series does not consume the US as it once did. But baseball still offers a window on the best and the worst of America
Baseball has long seen itself as America’s game, a game as great-hearted, humble and fundamentally decent as America itself. And for the better part of the 20th-century, at least in terms of the game’s popularity, baseball was indeed America’s game, and its biggest stars were famous in a way that athletes simply aren’t famous anymore. Fans in the 1920s traveled hundreds of miles just to see Babe Ruth, and the New York Daily News hired a journalist to write about Ruth, and only Ruth, 365 days a year. The most famous players of later eras – like Ruth, they tended to be Yankees – became not just athletic icons but national figures of myth. That they tended to be human in all the familiar unflattering ways – Joe DiMaggio was an icy, exploitive jerk; Mickey Mantle a self-destructive alcoholic for much of his life – was never allowed to jeopardize the legend. In an era before television ratings, the World Series was not just the nation’s most popular sporting event, but something like a national holiday.
This hasn’t been the case for some time, and this year’s World Series – which starts on Tuesday and features one of the country’s most famous teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers, against the Houston Astros – is unlikely to change matters. The NFL, in all its Trump-ian shamelessness, has been the most popular league in the United States for more than a decade. The NBA, which has the youngest and most diverse fanbase of the major US sports leagues – it has the highest TV viewership among African Americans and the second-highest among Hispanics – seems to have a more credible claim on the future.