Baseball: America's old pastime
Fifty-one years ago was the start of a slow downward spiral that would change the national identity of America itself. No, it was not the oncoming Vietnam situation or the future rise of former President John F. Kennedy. It was "The Greatest Game Ever Played": Giants vs. Colts for the 1958 NFL Championship. Before there were Super Bowls, Alan Ameche practically collapsed into the endzone during the first sudden death playoff game in National Football League history. Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry and Frank Gifford were all on the same field. An NBC employee ran onto the field to create a distraction when the national TV feed went dead, allowing audiences enough time to see Ameche's game winning score.
This ushered in the new era, one where the NFL would become the dominant organization of all sports, throwing baseball, basketball and hockey into its dust. It did not take its now-seemingly rightful place at the top in the immediate future, but this event did begin its steady climb to the top of the mountain. This supremacy continues to this very day, with men around the country declaring week one of the NFL season to be a national holiday and making "Madden" one of the most popular football simulation video games. It seems people today assume that football was always king — with college football a close second. But things were not always this way, as baseball had a presence similar to that of soccer from the late nineteenth century all the way up to the '50s and '60s.
Baseball glory days were back before steroids, elbow surgery and Bud Selig were part of the game. Athletes played for the love of the game and it resonated with the fans. They lived in the same neighborhoods, went to the same corner stores and sent their children to the same schools. Some even worked in the same places in the off-season, as their salaries were not enough to sustain a family for an entire calendar year, a stark contrast to the highest-paid athletes of any North American sport. They were all part of the same community.
Baseball could unite a community like nothing else, not even what college football does for many campuses today. New York was pitted in a three-way battle, usually with Brooklyn versus the Yankees in the World Series. The Dodgers and Yankees united races, religions and all those with differences — something football today cannot do with a greater percentage of fans rooting for winning teams rather than their own hometown bums. Dallas and Pittsburgh fans are sprinkled throughout the country, based on their winning in the past (the Cowboys), the present (Steelers) or their respective traditions. While there are Yankees and Red Sox fans everywhere, they usually prosper in failing markets like Baltimore and Tampa, whereas Cowboy and Pittsburgh fans are everywhere, including here where the Giants are coming off a recent Super Bowl and the Eagles have been the winningest team in the NFC this decade.
Fans would get locked into pitcher's duels like nothing else. A 0-0 game was the most exciting game in sports. Pitch after pitch could be life or death. One greatly pitched game could make a legend, like Johnny Podres one base running error made Fred Merkle into a punch line for the rest of his life. Roberto Clemente and Jackie Robinson are revered to this day like nobody except Muhammad Ali among the Hispanic and black communities respectively. Baseball was like no other sport in terms of how much one event could change everything and be remembered in history at the same time.
There was another incident in 1958 that destroyed what little innocence was left in baseball after the Black Sox scandal of 1919: Walter O'Malley moving Brooklyn's own Dodgers all the way out west. The team that symbolized and represented their community more than any other was sent away to what seemed like oblivion at the time, with no other team past the Mississippi River prior to the move. A community was destroyed in the name of business, making baseball lose its greatest asset.
Baseball would still have its moments before football took over, such as the 1960 World Series or the Mickey Mantle versus Roger Maris race to 61, but it was inevitable. O'Malley made business too much of the game, destroying the community feel, and Ameche and Unitas turned football towards its modern era.
Today the NFL and BCS college football lead the way for all sports, obliterating every other sport — whether it be with fantasy sports, gambling or just how much every single game matters. But baseball will always have its own special place with me, with where Joe Buck should be, the walk-off home run and mobs at home plate.
I will always remember Jim Leyritz's three-run home run to tie game four at Atlanta in 1996 far more fondly than anything Brett Favre ever did for my Packers, and I think that says it all.
Matthew Torino is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science.