It’s been about four decades since football surpassed baseball as America’s most popular spectator sport, and some people still haven’t gotten over it. We’ve all heard George Will (a loyal Redskins fan, by the way) make his oft-recycled crack that “football consists primarily of two regrettable elements of life — violence, punctuated by committee meetings.” Back in the 1970s, George Carlin did a routine comparing peaceful baseball with militaristic football (“In football, during the game in the stands, you can be sure that at least 27 times you were perfectly capable of taking the life of a fellow human being.”) And the 1980s saw a rash of articles and books praising the timeless purity of baseball as a sacred link with America’s collective pastoral origin myth.
This is not one of those articles. Instead, it’s about how baseball is the professional sport that best embodies conservative principles. The reasons have nothing to do with the game itself — the absence of a clock, the lack of penalties called by officials, the way fans can keep a ball hit into the stands, none of that stuff. Instead, baseball is the best conservative sport because it’s a testimony to the success of free markets and limited government.
Baseball is meritocratic. Only about 25 percent of the teams qualify for the playoffs, as opposed to more than 50 percent in most major-league sports. If you can consistently make the playoffs by finishing at .500, as is true in the NBA and NHL, there’s no real incentive to improve. But in baseball, if you want to play in the postseason, you have to find a way to make your team better.
Baseball is federalist; its central government is the weakest of any major professional sport. The NBA’s commissioner, David Stern, controls discipline, marketing, franchise shifts, and union negotiations with an iron hand. But Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, is a nonentity beholden to the club owners (of which he was one himself until recently). In 14 years as commissioner, his greatest accomplishments have been giving World Series home-field advantage to the league that wins the All-Star Game, and retiring Jackie Robinson’s #42 on behalf of all major league teams.
Baseball is sartorially libertarian. The NFL has extensive rules governing even the tiniest details of players’ uniforms; socks, for example, must be only white from the shoe to calf and only team colors from the calf to knee. In baseball, you can show just a sliver of sock at your ankles or wear them to the middle of your calf, like Alex Rodriguez and Orlando Hernandez, and no one will stop you.
Baseball handles immigration the right way, with foreigners recruited for specific skills and all legal requirements taken care of. The next time you hear that a player’s arrival at spring training has been delayed by visa trouble, think how much better America would be if every industry were so scrupulous with its workers.
Baseball is the closest thing in professional sports to a free market. Most sports are socialistic, with a salary cap that prevents competition based on spending. Like the tax code, these caps are fiendishly complicated and riddled with exceptions that create market-distorting behavior. In baseball there’s no salary cap. (True, there’s a “luxury tax” on payrolls that exceeds a certain amount, but at least it’s a flat tax.) To be sure, along with this simplicity and freedom to innovate go huge imbalances in payrolls between teams, yet baseball still manages to have at least as much parity as other sports.
Baseball has no affirmative action. Lefthanders are virtually disqualified from half of the fielding spots. You don’t like it? Tough noogies. If diversicrats ran baseball, they’d make half the games go around the diamond clockwise.
Baseball maintains a lean bureaucracy for its on-field decisions. Umpires make calls on their own, with no replay rule adding an extra level of officials whose only job is to supervise other officials. Contrast this with the NFL and NHL, where on-field and on-ice calls are subject to booth review during the game, and by bureaucrats in the league office. The result: Instead of arguing over whether a call was correct, fans and broadcasters wait several minutes and then argue over whether the video-review call was correct. Baseball gives you the human error in real time.
It’s risky to hold baseball’s leaders up as paragons of wise conduct. Just like politicians, they’ll always disappoint you; the steroids scandal is just the latest example. But for the most part, throughout its history, baseball has been governed according to conservative principles: a preference for simplicity and freedom, a reverence for tradition, and a bias against sweeping changes. The result is a sport that may not reflect America as it is, but does the best job of reflecting America as it should be.
– Fred Schwarz is an NR deputy managing editor.