Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Past Times of Pastimes

Everyone knows that baseball is this country's national pastime. Like hockey is to those in the frozen northern climes or soccer is to every other country in the world, baseball is an intrinsic part of American culture. But do you know how it became as such?

After the Revolution, Americans decided to "de-Englishify" themselves. Tea drinking? Too English! (Or at least too taxed.) Pass the other hot dirt water. Pronouncing the "h" in "herb?" English foppery! When a four character word begins with an "h" followed by a vowel in the form of an "e" shape followed by the letters "rb," it should be silent. Obviously. Cricket? So English that the Americans crushed even the knowledge of the sport as one would... well, as one would crush an actual cricket.

However, the need to hit small objects with sticks proved too strong to resist. By the 1800s, they found a new game in which you throw something really fast at someone and they hit it back at you as hard as possible. This wonky interpretation of cricket's more restrained nature ensured that any American unfamiliar with cricket's rules will be physically incapable of playing it since we are hard-wired to try to smash the ball out of whatever field we're in. Well played, founding fathers. Well played.

By the mid-19th century, no other sport was played besides baseball. Absolutely none. So when the 1850 census asked "which sport do you feel is the national pastime?", it came as no surprise that 100% of the citizens responded: baseball. And there you have it.

I am, of course, only joshing you. They don't ask your favorite sport on the census.

Here is what really happened. Around 1856, a group of New York journalists were completely enamored with baseball. So enamored that they began referring to it as the "national pastime." Considering the nation was soon to head into a brutal civil war and that New York City was about as different from the rest of the country as you could get (ask someone in the Nebraska Territory what the best sport was, they'd probably say killing bison), the idea of a national commonality was tenuous at best.

Oh, and did I mention New York was pretty much the only place with baseball teams at that time. So, you know, the claim may have been a bit of stretch.

Whether or not the statement was even close to true doesn't matter. It got stuck in the nation's collective consciousness and became true. Fast forward 150 years and baseball is such a fixture in our society it's pretty much untouchable. True, there are some differences. The players have lost some weight (and some vices) while gaining more muscle and money. But ultimately it's still 9 people in a field trying to catch a ball.

Our other national past time isn't as safe from structural change. What's the other national pastime? Bowling, of course. Hey, if a few journalists in New York can claim baseball's supremacy, why can't I stump for another sport?

Since the 50's, the bowling alley has been a part of the American landscape. Built in what seems like every city across the country, these cavernous places filled with the noise of crashing pins and loud voices were home to a truly democratic sport. You didn't need to own any equipment or even be particularly in shape. You show up, put on some rental shoes and throw a ball down a lane. It was suitable for people of all ages and abilities. It was a big deal for a while.

Then it wasn't. Bowling's popularity waned and the alleys, though still frequently used, began developing a threadbare quality about them. Many went under and got re-purposed. (For those of you familiar with the Safeway on Stevens Creek and Lawrence, guess what that sign use to promote.) Others, like Moonlight Lanes, kept plugging along and slowly modernizing.

A few years back though, someone got the idea to model bowling alleys after drug induced fever dreams as a way to drum up business. Black lights everywhere, big screen TVs directly above neon pin sets, loud music, and high per game prices. While walking into an older alley was like stepping back in time, the new lanes were an ultramodern horror show where everyone has ADHD and glows in the dark. Too much, too fast.

I mention this because up in San Francisco, the last real bowling alley in the area is closing next month. Two new lanes are opening shorty after. A 12 lane affair right next to AT&T Park and a six lane alley in the Mission. In other words, there still won't be any functional lanes available. Sad face. Remarkably, the South Bay still has quite a few alleys left.

I suppose, in the end, this is why baseball has held such a grasp as the dominant sport in America. It requires some talent some and basic equipment, but nature provides the space to play it. When the rains stop for the year, you go outdoors and start a game. Bowling, unfortunately, will always be subject to economic whims and trends making its place in society unstable. Oh well, there's always lawn bowling.
posted by jw