On Sept. 22, 1966, at one of the last Yankees home games of that season, there were only 413 fans in attendance at Yankee Stadium. In perhaps the most dramatic and sudden fall from greatness in the history of American sports, the team that defined the word "dynasty" became irrelevant; just two years removed from their 29th World Series appearance in 44 years, the Yankees finished in last place in 1966.
So profound a sight it was to witness 64,587 empty seats in the mammoth ballpark in the Bronx, that legendary broadcaster Red Barber described the scene in vivid detail to those tuning in on television. Always the defensive, paranoid organization, the Yankees quickly fired him the following week for exposing the inglorious visual of a vacant ballpark occupied by a team that no longer created buzz in the great city.
Though they were still a dreadful team in 1966, the Mets had overtaken the Yankees by mid-decade; if not in sheer fan numbers but in terms of excitement and of more representing the youthfulness that would come to be the hallmark of a turbulent decade. Mets legend Tom Seaver was signed as a free agent in April 1966 and that season also marked the first appearance in the major leagues of one Nolan Ryan, who started his multi-decade career with the Mets. The Mets' colors, in stark contrast to the Yankees' august grey and dark blue, were an odd hybrid of the former New York National League teams the Giants and Dodgers, as bright and colorful as was the palate of their ugly-but-charming Shea Stadium.
Indeed, the '60s had taken hold. And the Yankees were an ideal - if obvious - sports metaphor for the rapid changes that were taking place nationwide. After all the Yankees, like Eisenhower and new consumer appliances, had defined the 1950s. And baseball was still unquestionably the most popular sport in post-war America.
One has a feeling that if the utterly brilliant Mad Men attached a sports team to Don Draper it’d likely be the Yankees. Yet the only baseball reference that is repeated on the current season – which happens to take place in 1966 - is that of a Mets pennant hanging in the office of Layne Price, the British executive who has come to appreciate his new country. There’s a quietly eerie quality to the pennant as it looms over certain scenes, a harbinger of the massive societal changes that were about to come – in fact, that were already taking place.
By 1966, the season of the first Super Bowl, football had begun to nearly match the supposed national pastime in popularity, and so began baseball’s gradual but inexorable wane in influence that continues to this day.
Of course, the decline of baseball is so often discussed that it’s become a passé notion in itself, like bemoaning the lost glory days of radio or live theater. But the truth is apparent – fewer American kids are playing the sport. The decline of participation in African American youth is perhaps most disturbing (Sporting News columnist David Steele wrote a compelling piece on the topic Monday).
During the first decade of the 21st century, the number of kids aged 7 to 17 playing baseball fell 24 percent, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. And in 2010, the latest year for such figures, the number of kids aged 7-11 playing baseball continued to drop. The total numbers for kids aged 7-11 playing basketball, soccer and baseball:
Considering the overall population of the United States has increased nearly 10 percent since 2000, the decline in kids playing baseball is even more dramatic.
Yet this participation gap doesn’t translate to TV viewership as obviously far more Americans watch baseball than soccer. But with such a massive disconnect from the numbers of those who grow up playing baseball versus those that watch it, will it breed a less sophisticated fan base, who understands less of the many nuances of this slow sport?
Whatever the numbers say, the anecdotal evidence can also appear overwhelming. Kids kicking soccer balls around is a far more common sight than that of young boys – or girls - with oversized gloves playing catch. Even in suburban areas that are blessed with far more open spaces for baseball fields as opposed to urban regions, soccer seems to be the sport of choice for most young kids.
Most cite the fact that parents are urging their kids to be involved in exercise-intensive sports where there’s little waiting around like there is in baseball. And one can’t blame that line of reasoning as it’s good for kids to be exhausted from working out. And baseball can be excruciatingly dull to play or watch.
Yet what so many parents don’t understand is that, despite the un-aerobic quality to baseball there are myriad other benefits. True, the over-romanticization of baseball is a tiresome and cringe-worthy theme for many. After all, so many actually despise the game and scoff at the idea that the sport is any more of a teaching tool than other games.
Conversely, soccer is the easiest of sports to teach: kick the ball, pass the ball, score a goal. And that’s the genius of soccer and makes it the ideal starter sport for so many children and perhaps the best avenue to engender an appreciation for sports in young children.
Yet baseball, unquestionably, is the sport that most accurately mimics the quotidian rhythm of the lives we live; seemingly endless stretches of waiting around that are punctuated by a few thrilling moments. Additionally, baseball is also very hard to play. Learning to catch and hit don’t come nearly as easily as kicking a ball does to most kids. And add in the endless rules and variables that baseball presents and it’s a daunting challenge for children to both learn and play the sport.
But it is for these reasons that kids should be encouraged to take up baseball. It instills a degree of patience and thought that are absent from so many youth activities, sports or otherwise. And that’s part of the problem, as baseball is nearly heretical to the way most kids grow up today, with constant sensory stimulation and little time left for contemplation and meandering.
Is baseball on its way to becoming a niche sport? Will it be relegated to the status that hockey currently merits in the United States? It seems doubtful this will happen anytime soon but the numbers don’t lie – those kids who forgo baseball now will likely not develop partisan rooting habits for pro teams.
But there are still places where baseball predominates. Where I live, on the far east side of Manhattan, on any given spring and summer weekend the sports image one glimpses most is of dozens of kids, clad in cleats with bat and glove in hand, walking to the baseball fields along the East River. This is a welcome sight for me as I have a 2-year-old son who will see the older kids in our neighborhood dressed for a game and will likely want to do the same in a few years.
Maybe baseball isn’t as popular in New York today as it was in the aforementioned 1966 - the year I was born – but there are still kids who choose to pass their recreation time playing an often unbearably slow game that yields little immediate reward. This gives me hope.