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Berger’s Burg: Baseball’s shining star dims for Americans as years pass

The Ball once struck off,/Away flies the Boy,/To the next destin’d Post,/And then Home with Joy! — First mention of baseball in print in 1744

Did you know Hoboken, N.J., was the site of the first official baseball game in 1849? That baseball was played as far back as our Civil War in the 1860s? And baseball had been played in the New England colonies as early as the 1740s?

In 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional baseball team. The National League was formed in 1876; the American League in 1901. And admission was just 25 cents.

Twenty-five of the players in the early years were voted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1896. The salary cap for ballplayers was $2,500. Only one umpire worked the game. The rules underwent constant change to balance the war between pitcher and batter. In 1884, to help the pitcher the underhand pitch was superseded by an overhand one and the batter no longer could instruct the pitcher where to throw the ball.

The pitcher’s mound had been 50 feet from home plate, but in 1893, to help the batter, it was moved back to the present 50 feet 6 inches. Why, you ask? Because when the new rules were written, a leaky pen was used and an inadvertent ink spot was thought to be “6 inches.”

The ballparks, made of wood, were a constant hazard. Dexter Park, built in the 1850s and on Jamaica Plank Road — now Jamaica Avenue — in Woodhaven, was used for baseball in-between horse racing. There was also a sandlot field in 1900 on Northern Boulevard and 100th Street. Ebbets Field in Brooklyn opened in 1913 and was abandoned in 1958 when the owner, Walter O’Malley, took the team west because there was more money to be made in Los Angeles. Brooklyn is still in mourning.

The baseball newspaper men of the day popularized the game and made fans of their readers. Interestingly, the game played in 1896 is essentially the same one played today. Why am I telling you the facts of life about baseball? To prove the sport was born, bred and nurtured in America and all of our best athletes strived to become major leaguers.

The 2010 baseball season is underway amid odes and flair. But is it fair to say baseball deserves the accolades? Measured by popularity, participation or skill vs. other nations, baseball is an American pastime whose time is past.

Once, whoever wanted to know the heart and mind of America was encouraged to learn baseball. Today, foreign readers are referred to professional football and auto racing — both of which trump baseball in television ratings.

Major League owners like to boast attendance at their games, except for the recent recession, has increased. But with the disappearance of hundreds of minor league and semi-pro teams, interest in baseball and attendance has plummeted.

Soccer has superseded baseball in suburban parks and basketball has replaced stickball in the cities. Gone are the days when 25,000 often turned out to watch a New York City high school championship game.

Baseball’s popularity has fallen here but has risen in other countries. In the Caribbean, youngsters yearn for their first baseball glove and in Japan there are two national high school baseball tournaments that fill Japanese television and 40,000 fans turn out for practice sessions by the national team.

A decline in American dominance on the field has accompanied the decline in national interest. It is not merely the welcome entry into the major leagues of Dominican stars such as Albert Pujos and David Ortiz or Japanese stars such as Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui. Years ago, Babe Ruth led touring teams to Japan and the Caribbean, where they promoted baseball and won games against host teams by lopsided scores.

Today, when the best teams from different countries play each other, the Americans lose. Even with teams led by Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, the Americans did not even make the finals. Baseball’s decline on the field and in the homes of the United States may be partly explained by the increasing American taste for sports that offer fast-paced and violent action.

Americans still want to believe our baseball stars are the best. But, following Japan’s recent thrashing of Cuba, even Fidel Castro said the Japanese have the best team in the world.

If a real World Series were played today between the champion team from Japan and our New York Yankees, you know which team I will bet my house on.

Contact Alex Berger at timesledgernews@cnglocal.com.

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