Baseball no longer a supergiant but it is still the most American of sports

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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 Americas 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 games popularity, baseball was indeed Americas game, and its biggest stars were famous in a way that athletes simply arent 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 nations most popular sporting event, but something like a national holiday.

This hasnt been the case for some time, and this years World Series which starts on Tuesday and features one of the countrys 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.

Joe DiMaggios marriage to Marilyn Monroe came at a time when baseball players rivaled film stars for fame in the US. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

An estimated 40.05 million viewers watched the climactic Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, and it was the highest-rated World Series game in 25 years. That audience was 70% larger than the one for the last World Series Game 7, in 2014, but the 2016 series also featured two teams that hadnt won a World Series in generations: the Chicago Cubs ended their 108-year championship drought, and in so doing extended the Cleveland Indians to 68 years. The most important thing to know about those numbers is that they more or less line up with those of games during the first and second weekends of last years NFL playoffs. Meanwhile, the estimated viewership for last seasons Super Bowl was down on the previous year and still trounced the World Series figures: 111.3 people million tuned in to watch the New England Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons.

Baseball is still fantastically profitable MLB revenue came in at around $10bn in 2016, the 14th consecutive year of growth but its ratings and self-presentation and downcast broader vibe suggest that it is in decline. In baseballs tendency to discuss the present as a pale echo or sad perversion of baseballs past, there is the unmistakable whiff of a codger done wrong (its obsession with a period in history in which African Americans were brutalized under Jim Crow laws may, as Chris Rock has suggested, have something to do with baseballs lack of black fans).

Some of this is a specific tic inherent to baseballs discourse, but there is also something to it: the game is no longer the dominant American sport, and seems to view its future with a weird wariness. This has long been baseballs way, and its still plain to see in the grudging half-measures that the league has taken to deal with glaring problems: longer games are blamed for putting off younger fans, while there has been a steep decline in the number of African American players in the big leagues. Until their bottom lines are bloodied a bit, baseballs power elite have traditionally been disinclined to change.

Theres something very American about this refusal to change, and also something very much of this particular reactionary, sour, Trump-stained moment in the nations history. But there is promise, here, albeit of a kind that baseball, for its own peculiar reasons, may be reluctant to acknowledge. For all its cultural backwardness, baseball has routinely been ahead of the nation as a whole in important ways, if not always for the most enlightened reasons. While American politics are seized by one partys attempt to stop history in its tracks, baseball is already modeling the polyglot, diverse future that Trump was elected by promising to prevent. As opposed to the NFL, where the overwhelming majority of players are American, the best teams to have featured in this seasons postseason are dizzyingly diverse nine nations were represented on the defending champion Chicago Cubs 40-man roster, and that diversity is something they have in common with such American League powerhouses as the Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros. The future is coming for baseball, whether baseball likes it or not.

Baseballs future will not be quite like its past, but it would be strange and worrying if it were. Before baseball can enjoy the renaissance that may indeed be just over the horizon, though, it will need to get right with what it actually means to be Americas National Pastime in 2017. There is an important truth in baseballs understanding of itself as a chunk of prime Americana, but its not an easy one. In a real sense, baseballs future tracks with Americas. In both cases, theres some tough reckoning to be done.

When Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, he ushered in an era of great black players. But the number of African American fans and baseball stars is on the decline. Photograph: Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images

It makes some sense that, in a sport so devoted to tradition, the future would first present itself as a threat, or a problem to be solved. Go far enough back in baseballs history into the games actual disreputable, exploitive, wildcatting past, not the shelf-stable official one and the same story repeats itself one generation after another. A century ago, baseball was ragged and corrupt and unfinished, the province of gamblers and drunks. Ed Delahanty was the American Leagues defending batting champion when he died, drunk, in a fall from a railroad bridge in Niagara Falls in 1903; in 1919, gamblers infamously swung the outcome of the World Series by bribing a critical mass of players on Charles Comiskeys brilliantly talented and wildly underpaid Chicago White Sox. During the years in which baseball first established its spot in the American psyche and for many years after, it was not seen as a respectable way to make a living, and not just because there were many better paying options out there.

As a result, baseball built itself into Americas game the same way that the United States built itself into the nation it has become through the enriching assimilation of different immigrant populations willing and able to do the jobs that previous generations no longer wanted. In baseball as in the United States, this had a lot less to do with any high-minded ideals than it did with the blank logic of the free market.

If you look at the names of the guys playing baseball, late 19th-early 20th century, theyre Irish and German, the baseball writer and historian Steven Goldman told me. As they assimilated and started going to college and presumably getting real jobs, these give way to Italians, some Jews, too. The usual American paroxysms of bigotry and nativism another national pastime slowed this process. The color line that kept black players out of the game for generations was shameful both for its ugliness and its longevity; subtler cultural bigotries kept Asian and Native Americans off the nations ballfields, and laws like the 1924 Immigration Act kept other people out of the country entirely.

And yet, over time, a rude and backhanded meritocracy grudgingly and intermittently brought itself to bear. This changed the shape and color, and style of the game, and in so doing made it better in ways great and small. This is how it works, here, when its allowed to work.

In baseball, in 2017, it is working. It is not working perfectly, and around the edges it is not necessarily working at all; Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones, who is black, was racially abused when playing at Bostons Fenway Park just a few months ago. And yet it is inarguably working, both in the specific sense that there have been some great, and great fun, teams in the postseason and in the broader sense that baseball is growing in countries around the world. As the best players from those countries make their way to the Major Leagues the game has changed and opened to accept them. There are innumerable points of friction, naturally, and the general grim grouchiness of baseballs (white, American) establishment naturally hasnt helped matters, but when has it ever?

For all the petty debates about excessively exuberant bat flips after home runs or unseemly post-strikeout gesticulations, the players that have brought these things to the game from the more ebullient baseball cultures of Cuba or South Korea arent going to stop coming. The game will change as a result. It already has, and its already brighter and stranger and stronger and more fun for it. The best players stretch the game because it is their nature to do so; Shohei Otani, the 23-year-old Japanese prodigy who is likely to come to the Majors next year, presents just such a challenge, because he is already both the best pitcher and one of the best power hitters in Japan. There hasnt been a two-way prospect like him in many decades, and so there is no real template for where and how hell fit into baseball as it presently exists. The game will figure it out, and change and grow as a result. Again, this is how it works, when its allowed to work.

Venezuelas Jose Altuve has helped the Houston Astros to this years World Series. Photograph: Elsa/Getty Images

A while back, a video did the rounds on Twitter that looked a lot like the future of baseball: a Pakistani pitcher named Ihsan Ullah throwing a nasty, darting 92mph fastball in an international competition against Korea. As it turned out, Ullah didnt amount to much as a pitcher, the video was from the 2010 Asian Championships. But the history of baseball and the United States suggests that it may well be someone who looks a lot like Ullah a person from a place where baseball is only beginning to take hold, with a talent that the game will have no choice but to accommodate. Baseball uses what is at hand, Goldman says. These days it casts a very wide net. In the most basic sense, the sport cant afford to do otherwise; if it starts to close, or shrink, then it has also started to die.

So far, it hasnt. Immigrants will change the face of America as they always have, and we may as well give them bats and let them play our game, because thats a positive form of acculturation and assimilation, just as it always has been, Goldman says. I dont think its too grandiose an overstatement to say that baseball naturalized [past generations], taught them Americanism. The United States is currently locked in a heated and distressingly circular argument about what that means, and what kind of country it is and should and will be. Theres reason to fear that we may be stuck in this dark and deafening loop for some time.

But in the next week, Americas erstwhile pastime will offer a window onto a possible American future. Change comes, however uneasily and unexpectedly, and then keeps coming. Its no longer the most popular American sport, but baseball in its grudging growth and cautious ongoing reconciliation with a future that cant look like the past is still the most American, for better and worse. It is a notoriously difficult game to predict; there is an ungovernable randomness at the very center of it. And yet despite all that, despite its distrust of the future and glib fetish for the past, despite its contradictions and despite itself, somehow, it works.

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