Friday, May 06, 2005

Football vs. Baseball

As the 2005 NFL Draft draws to a close and the Cincinnati Bengals draft yet another bust (witness Ki-Jana Carter, Akili Smith, David Klingler, Peter Warrick) I was confronted on another blog with a foolish contention that baseball is somehow a superior sport than American football. So I decided to analyze the two sports side-by-side and offer up a detailed and objective, or not so objective, juxtaposition of America’s two most popular sports.

Baseball can trace its origins back to the days of William the Conqueror in England around 1085. Throughout the last thousand years games that resembled baseball have been mentioned in literature and historical texts. There was even mention of a game called “base” in letters home from Valley Forge during the American Revolution. Jane Austin mentions in her classic Northanger Abbey, “it was not very wonderful that Catherine should prefer cricket, base-ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country, at the age of fourteen, to books”. The first organized baseball club in America was the New York Knickerbockers in 1842. Alexander Cartwright and Dr. Lucius Adams formulated the original rules in 1845 that form the foundation of modern-day baseball. The first league was established in New York during the 1850’s. Baseball was a diversion for prisoners of war during the Civil War and the first paid professional league was started in 1871 in New York City. In 1903 the first World Series was played.

In 1823 a game resembling modern-day American football was played in merry old England. The game was quickly adopted in the United States on the collegiate level. Schools such as Harvard and Princeton played as early as the mid 1800’s but organized games weren’t played until after the Civil War. In 1860 in Boston the first high school football games took place. These early contests were a hybrid of rugby and soccer and it wasn’t until 1873 that rules were set to paper. During the late 19th century a man named Walter Camp influenced the adoption of a whole new set of rules. The father of American football, Camp, reduced the field from its original dimensions of 140x70 yards to the more conventional 110x53 yards. Camp also reduced the number of players per side from 15 to 11, developed a system of downs, and called for the center snap. By 1895 professional football had begun. In 1921 the American Professional Football Association adopted its first set of bylaws and expanded to 22 teams. In ’22 the APFA changed its name to the National Football League.

Both sports are literally replete with mythical moments that will live for eternity in the pantheon of American sports. Baseball has Bobby Thompson’s homerun off Ralph Branca in 1951 the now legendary “The Shot heard Round the World”. Football has Dwight Clark’s touchdown thrown by Joe Montana, a.k.a. “The Catch”. Baseball has the infamous ninth inning collapse of the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series against the Mets where Bill Buckner let a little dribbler slip through the wickets giving millions of Sox faithful nightmares for nearly thirty years. Football has “The Drive” where John Elway led the Denver Broncos on a game tying 98 yard drive with five minutes left to send the 1986 AFC Championship game to overtime. The Broncos eventually won and Cleveland Browns fans and Marty Shottenheimer have yet to exorcize the ghosts of that game. Baseball has Don Larson’s no-hitter. Football has Joe Montana’s last minute game winning drive in Super Bowl XXIII. Baseball has Sammy Sosa’s and Mark McGuire’s epic run at the once fabled 61 homerun mark and Cal Ripken’s consecutive games streak. Football has Dan Marino’s all out assault on the record books and Jerry Rice’s staggering numbers.

Both sports also have their fair share of super stars. Men such as Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Satchel Page, Roger Clemens, Sandy Koufax, and Steve Carlton are deities amongst fans of America’s pastime. Likewise, stars like Lawrence Taylor, Jim Brown, Dick Butkus, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, John Elway, Dan Marino, Barry Sanders, Ronnie Lott, and Reggie White will live on forever in the minds of football fans.

Some of the most colorful nick-names in sports were spawned on the diamond or gridiron. The Sultan of Swat, The Galloping Ghost, The Splendid Splinter, Crazy Legs, The Yankee Clipper, The Minister of Defense, Mr. October, The Rocket, Tombstone (the best nick name in sports history, IMO), Night Train, The Say Hey Kid, Dizzy, Stan the Man, Hammerin’ Hank, The Wizard of Oz, The Big Unit (sounds like a porn star’s name), The Assassin, Mean Joe, Broadway Joe, Sweetness, The Freak, and Prime Time became synonymous with the games’ biggest stars.

Where the separation between the two sports occurs is in the athletes. While the toughest feat in sports is hitting a baseball there really can be no argument that the best athletes reside on the football field. The likes of Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Jim Edmonds are great athletes but they don’t even compare to an even average NFL player or even those in college football. Players in the NFL routinely run the forty in 4.3 seconds or better. It says something when the best athlete to ever play baseball, Bo Jackson, was also a football player. While sheer athletic ability doesn’t translate to be being a gifted baseball player you must be a sensational athlete to play football. You must be physically strong and tough to even survive in the NFL but the same requirements cannot be said to exist for baseball. The main requirement for baseball is supreme hand-eye coordination, a feat which can be found in a professional billiards player.

We will examine the historical and societal significance of these two sports tomorrow then pass down a final verdict.