Although I’ve declared baseball the “king of team sports,” I would agree with anyone who says that baseball is past its prime. When was that prime? Arguably, it was the original lively ball era, which by my reckoning extended from 1920 to 1941. The home run had become much more prevalent than in earlier dead-ball era, but not so prevalent that it dominated offensive strategy. Thus batting averages were high and scoring proceeded at a higher pace than in any of the other eras that I’ve identified.
In 1930, for example, the entire National League batted .303. The Chicago Cubs of that season finished in second place and batted .309 (not the highest team average in the league). The average number of runs scored in a Cubs’ game was 12.0 — a number surpassed only by the lowly Philadelphia Phillies, whose games yielded an average of 13.8 runs, most of them scored by the Phillies’ opponents. Despite the high scoring, the average Cubs game of the 1930 season lasted only 2 hours and 5 minutes. (An estimate that I derived from the sample of 67 Cubs’ games for which times are available, here.)
In sum, baseball’s first lively ball era produced what fans love to see: scoring. A great pitching duel is fine, but a great pitching duel is a rare thing. Too many low-scoring games are the result of failed offensive opportunities, which are marked by a high count of runners left of base. Once runners get on base, what fans want (or at least one team’s fans want) is to see them score.
The game in the first lively ball era was, as I say, dynamic because scoring depended less on the home run than it did in later eras. And the game unfolded at a smart pace. That pace, by the way, was about the same as it had been in the middle of the dead-ball era. (For example, the times recorded for the Cubs’ two games against the Cincinnati Reds on July 4, 1911, are 2:05 and 2:00.)
Baseball has declined since the first lively ball era, not just because the game has become more static but also because it now unfolds at a much slower pace. The average length of a game in 2014 is 3:08 (for games through 07/17/14) — more than an hour longer than the games played by the Cubs in 1930.
Baseball is far from the only cultural phenomenon that has declined from its peak. I have written several times about the decline of art and music, movies, language, and morals and mores: here, here, here, and here. (Each of the foregoing links leads to a post that includes links to related items.)
Baseball is sometimes called a metaphor for life. (It’s a better metaphor than soccer, to be sure.) I now venture to say that the decline of baseball is a metaphor for the decline of art, music, movies, language, and morals and mores.
Indeed, the decline of baseball is a metaphor for the decline of liberty in America, which began in earnest — and perhaps inexorably — during the New Deal, even as the first lively ball era was on the wane.
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See also “The Fall and Rise of American Empire.”