Professional baseball started in 1869 with the Cincinnati Red Stockings, and it took only a few decades for fans and writers to start wondering if it was already dying. One hundred and fifty years later, they haven't stopped worrying that the sport was in trouble.
Last August, Sports Illustrated's Emma Baccellieri chronicled the long history of prophecies that baseball was doomed. In modern day, even before the pandemic, some of the most common refrains were that fewer and fewer people were going to games and that the average age of a baseball fan was going up every year, signaling a lack of new, younger fans and the inevitable end of the sport.
The first example of attendance concerns that Baccellieri cites is from 1905. Worry that baseball was becoming less popular than other sports in the country (still a common one in light of the popularity of the NFL and NBA, in particular), goes back to at least the 1920s.
I would be interested to see a similar look at the attitudes of society at large during times of trouble (if you know of a good one, by all means pass it along!) because it can be easy to think that whatever times we are living through are uniquely rough and might signal the end of a society or culture.
A couple of months ago, I read John Knowles' novel A Separate Peace, published in 1959 but set during World War II. The book is about the friendship of two northeastern boarding school students living under the shadow of going to join the war when they reached the right age. About halfway through, the narrator reflects on the frequency that he hears the phrase "for the duration," in reference to how long supplies will be short, how long events will be canceled, and so on. Until the duration of the war is over, much of life will be impacted beyond his control, and there's no way for him to know how long that will last.
He expresses weariness with being told over and over that the struggles, inconveniences, and evils of his time will continue "for the duration." There's powerlessness in being forced to resign himself to accept that he can't do anything to get life back to normal.
While reading that I felt like I could imagine myself sitting with the narrator. I've felt the same anger and frustration at the forced helplessness we are currently living through. Of course, at the same time, I had the advantage of knowing what the narrator doesn't — the timestamp for when "for the duration" will end.
Even without something as significant as a global pandemic, it's common for humans to be worrying over the same kinds of things, regardless of era. In Seneca's Letter 56, written close to two thousand years ago, he complains about how the noise and bustle of Rome make it hard for him to concentrate. Or there's Ray Bradbury's 1953 short story about humans and the distraction of their electronic devices.
Having a sense of the scope of history in the microcosm of baseball gave a sense of comedy to Baccallieri's writing last year. We've been silly, wringing our hands over the future of the game for over a century. Wrapped up in the moment of a single game, a few weeks, or even a whole season, it's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Baseball will persist through change and upheaval.
To a degree, we're not really any different in other areas of life. It can't be helped — no one's blaming people for the existential despair they felt during a world war or the same feeling they're going through now — but it's worth remembering that the broadness of history offers useful perspective.