Basketball the new national pastime? Don't rule out baseball

June 30, 1993|By Ira Berkow | Ira Berkow,New York Times News Service

Uncle Sam, in his traditional star-spangled top hat and striped trousers and snowy goatee, and the Statue of Liberty, that distinctive femme with tiara and sandals, were sitting on stuffed chairs in their living room and watching television. "I must con-fess," said Uncle Sam to Lady Liberty, "I'm starting to prefer basketball to baseball."

This scene took place in a cartoon drawing by Mischa Richter in a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine.

Could it be that the sports tastes of America had so shifted that the National Pastime had moved into another era -- and crowned a new champ?

Could it be that we have so snipped away at our roots, and, certainly then, at our sense of ourselves to make such an admission? Could it be that we are more entranced now with Jordan and Barkley and the National Basketball Association finals and the league's draft tonight than we are with Mattingly and Young Griffey and Old Nolan and the baseball races?

Could it be that with the shorter attention spans brought on by television, with a need for quicker, metropolitan gratification, Uncle Sam is moving away from pastoral baseball?

Once, as Jacques Barzun wrote in the 1950s and which has been quoted unendingly, it was accepted with little question that "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."Must this be amended to basketball?

Not so fast.

"I think it's just a bandwagon effect," said Donald Fehr, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. "The NBA playoffs were exciting. But the baseball attendance figures don't indicate there's been such a change as that cartoon suggests."

Yesterday, for example, a headline in The New York Times stated that "34,582 Roar Their Approval of the Rout" by the Yankees over the Tigers at Yankee Stadium.

This on a slow Monday night in late June, and in a neighborhood that even the team's ownership subtly puts down.

While the figures might be somewhat misleading because major-league teams now announce tickets sold rather than the actual number passing through the turnstiles, it was still a big, buzzing crowd.

Attendance in the major leagues through games of last Sunday was 31,386,954, an increase of 24.8 percent over last season. While the two expansion teams, Colorado and Florida, have bulked up that figure -- the Rockies are averaging 56,000 a game, the Marlins 40,000 -- attendance when those two teams are not included is still 10.4 percent better than last year.

Attendance records in the big leagues have been set in six of the last eight years, and this will make it seven of nine.

Average attendance is about 30,000 a game. In the year that Barzun wrote his perceptions of baseball and country, 1954 -- often thought of as a heyday of baseball and the year in which the Say Hey Kid made the world's greatest catch -- average attendance was, surprisingly, only around 13,000.

The television rating for the Bulls-Suns series, meanwhile, was the highest in NBA finals' history, at 17.9 and with a 33-point share of the TV audience.

But it is still below even the lowest rating in history for a World Series, which was the 1970 Baltimore-Cincinnati five-game set, played in daytime and not prime time, which had 19.5, but with a spectacular 53-point share. For the last all-United States World Series -- Minnesota vs. Atlanta in 1991 -- the rating was 24, more than six points higher than the Bulls-Suns.

In marketing, Major League Baseball Properties is expected this year to sell nearly $3 billion in signature caps, mugs, wrist bands and other paraphernalia, the highest of any team sport.

But there are warning signs, to be sure: Television demographics tell us, for example, that in the young males sector of ages 12-17, baseball's national television viewership is down 24 percent from three years ago. And basketball is up 31 percent, and pro football up 16 percent.

While basketball and football have been marketed prodigiously better than baseball in recent years -- the baseball owners have acted not only as if they hate their players, but hate each other, and the fans, too -- and while basketball, particularly, lends itself to swift, sensational plays on a constant basis that baseball cannot equal, there remains a basic beauty and unfolding drama that is uniquely baseball. And, as of this writing, thoroughly satisfyingly, if we are to believe the numbers, to the American tastes.

And while basketball has become engrossing, baseball remains a potent attraction. It's just that the true baseball season starts later than usual nowadays -- after the NBA Finals.

LATE ORIOLES GAME

Last night's Orioles-Blue Jays game did not end in time to be included in this edition. A complete report can be found in later editions of The Sun and all editions of The Evening Sun.

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