(QUIZ: Which great classical composer is that on the left of the photo above? Answer at the end of the blog entry.)
One of the Boston Globe‘s best-known columnists had a thought-provoking piece on a beloved institution in yesterday’s edition. From his vantage point, the columnist saw an institution in decline, one that no longer occupies the central place in our culture that it once did. Too slow for the kids and their short attention spans, inconveniently scheduled for working folks, watered-down by attempts to make it more popular, its market share plummeting, it just isn’t the same as in the good old days, i.e., when the columnist first fell in love with it fifty years ago.
Classical music, right?
Nope. Baseball, in particular the World Series. Oh, the game still pulls in high revenues, as Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy says in the column in question (“World Series isn’t what it used to be“). But its biggest event, the “fall classic,” has earned record low TV ratings by some measures this year. Alas, the National Pastime, as baseball has been known for a sesquicentury (which should be a word even if it isn’t), the sport of poets, professors and Ken Burns, has fallen far behind football — loutish, violent football — in popularity. What is the world coming to?
Then I got to thinking: how would Shaughnessy’s column been different if it had been written by a classical music columnist? The two institutions, baseball and classical, do share some of the same issues of aging audiences and inability to keep up with the times, though baseball’s travails are nowhere near as serious as classical’s.
For one thing, while Shaughnessy views the current state of the game without rancor (“I blame no one. It’s evolution.”), a classical columnist would more likely rail against the forces that led to its decline. You could, for instance, see attempts to popularize the game as actually contributing to its downfall, as Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott did for classical music in a piece I took on in this old NEPR blog entry. Frankly, baseball does have Kennicott’s counterpart in fusty traditionalists like NBC announcer Bob Costas, whom I recently heard praising National League baseball (which does not employ the designated hitter) as being more “textured” than its American League counterpart. How many sports fans do you think like one sport more than another because of its “texture?”
Or perhaps the classical columnist would place the blame on the fans themselves, especially when a bunch of them leave the stadium in large numbers when the pace of the game decelerates to a slow drip — because of course, they’re not intellectual enough to appreciate such subtle aesthetic pleasures as the incredibly awesome double switch. No doubt all these supposed “fans” want are cheap thrills like home runs and strikeouts — you know, the exciting parts of the game that appeal to crude American tastes. Well, we superior connoisseurs of “inside” baseball know better, don’t we, Alex Ross? (My rebuttals here and here).
Hey, I know — how about our classical columnist issue a stirring call to teach baseball in the schools? After all, since we smart people know that baseball is so much better than the crappy sports the kids are fed today by the corporate media, we should insist that even in times of budgetary austerity (not that we’ll ever tackle the systemic problems that make it so expensive to educate our kids), we prioritize and pay for school programs in the One True Sport. That will make fans for life out of them, right? Well, probably wrong in most cases, but not for want of trying.
What our classical columnist would be unlikely to do, based on what happens when classical critics and other scribes actually write about classical music, is to pull back, take Shaughnessy’s long view, and suggest ways that baseball can reform itself from the inside, rather than insisting that its fans get with the program. Yes, this is changing, though too slowly. Well, if classical media types want to make themselves even less relevant than they already are, in parallel with the music they’re attempting to shelter from reality, they should keep doing what they’re doing. It’s working.
Meanwhile, for anyone who wonders why a music-loving guy like me should bother with the trivial pleasures of baseball or any other sport anyway, check out this piece, also from yesterday’s Boston Globe, by retired sports columnist Bob Ryan. And for a further and (compared with yours truly) smarter comparison of classical and baseball, here’s an excellent piece from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang.
(QUIZ ENTRY: None other than Charles Ives, star pitcher of the Hopkins Grammar School baseball team. The teammate’s name is not known.)