Saturday, May 13, 2006

Football v Baseball

Here's my most recent sports musing...

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 twenty 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 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.

There really is no disputing baseball’s historical significance in 20th Century America. Not only has baseball been a constant in the lexicon of our society it has been at the forefront of many turbulent and ground shaking events. The Black Sox scandal where members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox were accused, confessed, and eventually banned from baseball for life shook the foundation of sports. This event forever changed the way we viewed sports and tainted the reputation of the only significant professional sports league in America at the time. This sordid episode also shoved the problems of gambling and organized crime into the lime light.

However, the most important event in major sports history and perhaps in 20th century American history was Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball in 1947. Branch Rickey, then owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had the courage to do what no one else did, hire an African-American player to play the nation’s most visible sport on its biggest stage, in New York. Up until ’47 baseball had been a staunchly all-white institution while hundreds of gifted black players starred in the now legendary Negro Leagues. Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Pee Wee Butts, Smokey Joe Williams, and other gifted black baseball players toiled away in relative obscurity while their arguably inferior white counterparts dominated the major leagues. All this for the sake of racial segregation.

That is until a man with a vision, Branch Rickey, chose to make a historical statement. Jackie Robinson was not chosen because he was the best Negro Leaguer but because he was the best suited to endure the hatred that awaited him in the majors. Had the best player from the Negro Leagues been chosen the unbelievably talented and volatile Josh Gibson would have begged to break down the door for blacks in MLB but Rickey knew that Gibson’s arrogance and abrasiveness would have alienated the very fans he desperately wanted to embrace this experiment. And in Robinson Branch Rickey found the perfect marriage of talent and temperament. Robinson proved to be the right choice and he became the ambassador everyone hoped he would be. Jackie Robinson’s dignity and unflappable nature forever changed the climate of race relations in America.

Football has no such claim on historical significance, unless you examine its effects on American pop culture. The 1958 NFL Championship between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants is generally regarded as the first defining moment in sports television history and the moment when the NFL “arrived” on the scene. Since that night almost every major advancement in sports broadcasting has been pioneered in football. In 1970 the NFL and ABC struck a deal that would thrust football into the spot light forever. Monday Night Football drew huge audiences and massive advertising revenue. The marriage of football and TV was consummated, an arrangement that would vault the NFL into the position as America’s most watched, most followed, and most popular sport. The Super Bowl has become a cultural mainstay and a global phenomenon. It’s been estimated that over 1.5 billion people in 150 different countries tune in to what is arguably the single biggest sporting event on the planet outside soccer’s World Cup.

What is striking when you examine these two sports side by side is the overall health of the respective power structures. Since 1987 when the players union in the NFL was broken by a labor war with the owners (in 1993 after free agency was fully implemented the NFLPA was reformed as a union) there has been very little acrimony between players and owners. In fact not a single game has been lost due to labor disputes in the NFL since the ’87 strike. Since the 80’s the NFL has adopted a salary cap, comprehensive revenue sharing, a strict drug policy, and TV revenues and attendance figures remain steady. The NFL is now one of the strongest and most lucrative professional sports leagues in the world.

The same can’t be said about Major League Baseball. In 1994 baseball ceased operations ending one of the most exciting seasons in that sport’s history. Before play was stopped and the World Series cancelled for only the second time in one hundred years Tony Gwynn was making a run at .400 season average, Matt Williams was on pace to break Roger Maris’ 61 home run mark, and the Montreal Expos with the lowest payroll in the league were in first place. Only in the last couple years has baseball attracted fans on the scale seen before ’94. And trouble still looms large on the horizon. Last year baseball finally adopted some semblance of a drug testing policy but the specter of steroids threatens to unravel the fabric of the most hallowed records in the game. Barry Bonds’ 73 HR’s in 2001, Mark McGuire’s 70 in ’98, and Sammy Sosa’s 66 & 63 in ’98 & ’99 all come with significant baggage. The death of Ken Caminiti, the admitted steroid use of Jason Giambi, and the cloud constantly hovering over Bonds’ head suggests that baseball still has an extremely difficult time policing itself. This is due to a dysfunctional brain trust that is more bent on reaping the spoils of war than in preserving the sport. Bud Selig is a puppet of the owners and his arch nemesis Donald Fehr is the Don Corlione of the players’ union. These two have had more public spats than Al & Peg Bundy. Together Fehr and Selig have worked in concert to destroy whatever credibility baseball may have once had. Franchise success in baseball is largely due to deep pockets rather than to professional competency. Why else would the Yankees be able to compete year in & year out for a World Series trophy despite having possibly the worst minor league development system in the game? Simple, because George Steinbrenner has the deepest pockets in the league.

Baseball for the most part is a rich get richer kind of league whereas football has a genuine competitive balance. In order to compete in the NFL you need to be an astute talent evaluator, be a master mathematician, and relate well to fans and players alike. In baseball you need only have a fat TV deal, a gilded bank roll, and a willingness to shell out $2.5 million a year for an average middle reliever. In 1998 the NFL inked $17.8 billion in network television deals, that averages out to about $73.3 million per team per year. The average Major League Baseball franchise clears barely $11 million a year from network TV. Even if you factor in local television revenue the NFL still dwarfs MLB in the TV wars.

Another symptom of baseball’s dysfunction is the manner in which it flaunts its antitrust exemption. Baseball is the only major industry in America that has an exemption from antitrust laws. This means that teams can’t move without league approval, control of individual franchises can be stripped from owners (ask Marge Schott), and the league can contract teams at any time. Bud Selig flirted with this idea a couple years ago and the Expos and the Minnesota Twins were nearly wiped off the major league landscape. Instead the Expos were shipped to Washington D.C. to become the Senators. Another little ancillary effect of the antitrust exemption is that collusion amongst the individual teams has been commonplace, especially during the era of free agency. In the late 80’s the MLBPA filed three different grievances against the owners violating the anti-collusion clause of the 1976 Collective Bargaining Agreement. An independent arbitrator found that baseball owners were indeed guilty of collusion and awarded the players union a $280 million settlement.

When you view the picture as a whole you find that undoubtedly football is a better sport. You don’t find the acrimony between owners and players that exists in baseball, there is not the ominous presence of a massive steroid scandal that exists in baseball, and the athletes are superior in football. While baseball will always lay claim to being the more historically important sport the fact that the powers that be are a moronic band of nincompoops will always be, pardon the pun, strike one against our nation’s pastime. Strike two is the steroid problems baseball still refuses to address properly. And strike three is the nature of labor relations. The ’94 season was lost and it will happen again…guaranteed. Football is by far a more sound business entity with a more marketable product. I’ve weighed the merits, examined the history, and dissected the facts. The verdict is in and football is king.