What’s the biggest difference between tonight’s All-Star Game at Target Field and the midsummer classic played at the “Old Met” half a century ago, when the National League edged the American League 6-5 despite a home run blast off the bat of the Twins’ Harmon Killebrew that delighted the hometown crowd?
It’s not the size of the ballplayers, their paychecks or their egos. Nor is it the contrasting venues for the games. The most significant contrast is that the 1965 showcase, like most games back then, was played in the afternoon sunshine. With a 2:45 p.m. start time, the contest was over before dinner. This year’s call of “play ball!” won’t happen until close to nightfall.
Major league baseball has long been known as “America’s pastime,” a healthy diversion for kids of all ages. Back in the 1960s, young Twins fans would venture out to the Old Met, sit in the sun-drenched bleachers and hope to collect some autographs. Others would listen to Herb Carneal’s call of the game as they headed to the sandlot to imitate their local heroes — from hitters like Killebrew and Rod Carew to hurlers like Jim Kaat and Mudcat Grant.
However, with TV ratings and ad revenues taking precedence, baseball has become “America’s primetime,” with most games now played under the lights. So, baseball is America’s pastime all right — past the bedtime of many young fans. And children permitted to stay up to watch the conclusion of the All-Star Game will likely not be as privileged come school nights in October when the entire World Series is an evening affair. Compare that to the 1965 championship series, when games were scheduled in the daytime, which unfortunately meant that countless area youngsters watched with disappointment as the local nine lost in seven to the Dodgers.
With afternoon baseball a luxury of the past, many youngsters have filled the void with less healthy alternatives. Studies, including my own, have shown that juvenile crime and other problematic behaviors peak during the afternoon hours, particularly on school days, when far too many youngsters are bored and unsupervised.
What’s needed is a concerted effort to attract kids back to the sandlot. And this starts by nurturing their interest in what’s going on in the professional ballparks in their hometown and across the country. But as major league baseball has moved further away from the interests of children, youngsters have lost interest in the sport.
Since the 1950s, according to Gallup surveys, the popularity of baseball has declined for males of all age groups except those over 65, with the sharpest drop among the 18- to -29-year-old demographic. Youth baseball participation has diminished as well. Over the past decade, the number of kids aged 7 to 17 playing baseball fell 24 percent, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.
As baseball and other healthy diversions have become less accessible, today’s children have filled the entertainment vacuum with violence: Graphic movies and video games are always available on demand, anytime and anywhere. Even if parents attempt to control their kids’ entertainment choices, what positive and engaging alternatives do they have? In order to get children to tune out violence, we must give them something better, and just as appealing, to tune in.
So, it’s not that kids have abandoned baseball, but that baseball has abandoned the kids. I am not naive enough to suggest that we can bring back all the day games of yesteryear along with free autographs and half-price tickets for kids. But certainly, we could have a major league “game of the day” televised nationally, every day of the week during the summer months. Teams play day games when it suits their travel schedules. What about the schedules of star-struck 9-year-olds?
Without a doubt, kids and baseball go together like hand and baseball glove. Perhaps Major League Baseball should deepen its commitment to kids by gearing the schedule more to their timetables. When children are engrossed in our national sport rather than some hideous violence they encounter in a video game, we all benefit.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and is a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.