Jerry Cohen explains why baseball has become America’s pastime, but soccer strikes out with U.S. audiences

Jacob Cohen

As Americans settle down to celebrate the Fourth of July weekend, BrandeisNOW thought it was a good time to ask American studies professor Jacob (or Jerry, as his students know him) Cohen- whose course on sports in American society has as devoted a following as the Red Sox- why baseball has become a part of American identity, while the rest of the world’s favorite sport- soccer- doesn’t score as much interest in the U.S. 

BrandeisNOW: Baseball, to use the cliché, is as American as apple pie. But as Americans will be watching the Red Sox and other Major League clubs on the diamond this weekend, much of the rest of the world is focused right now on the World Cup. Why has the U.S. embraced baseball, while soccer is still not considered a major spectator sport here?

Jerry Cohen: Clichés are trivial, but this frequent figure of speech is profound.  Jacques Barzun, a Frenchman and a great cultural historian who was provost at Columbia for many years, once wrote: "anyone who wishes to understand America, must first understand baseball," just as, in the same academic spirit, Clifford Geertz, the noted cultural anthropologist, once wrote that anyone who wishes to understand Bali, must first-understand cock-fighting.

Your question assumes that someone simply decides individually to like something because it appeals to them. That’s very American of you, but I don't think things work that way. I would ask your question differently: why did Americans beginning more than a century-and-a-half ago, decide, quite suddenly as it happened, to play, and view, and intensely recount and recall, and devote passionate loyalty to, and memorialize, memorize, mythologize, and be mesmerized by baseball? From the very earliest days it was dubbed the American pastime, our sport, the creation of our spirit, and, this was essential; it had to be different and it had to be, to use a term in some disrepute today, exceptional. Read the accounts of immigrants, in this land of immigrants. See how quickly they learned to obey cultural orders, to imbibe new traditions.

So, in answer to your question, I would say we love baseball because we have loved it, and because we know how to, and knowing how to takes a tremendous amount of learning and training so deep that we don't even notice it. In hundreds, if not thousands of ways, it reminds us of ourselves. I'm sure the love of soccer worldwide can be explained the same way, mutatis mutandis.

BrandeisNOW: Baseball is a slow game, and we celebrate when a pitcher throws a no-hitter; so why, then, is soccer criticized by some Americans for not being exciting enough because it's low scoring and “slow?”

JC: Well, there is this difference. Many of the soccer games in the World Cup competition end up with no scores whatsoever. In the early rounds there are many ties and teams often play precisely to achieve a tie. I think it is difficult for Americans to fancy that. Soccer is played against a clock, and baseball is not. Of course, watching the World Cup, we learn that the precise length of a soccer game varies slightly depending upon the accumulation of so-called penalty minutes. For some reason which, as a foreigner, I simply do not understand, the spectators and the players cannot know exactly how much time remains at the end of the game; only the officials know that. And, even more infuriating, those officials can make game-deciding decisions and are under no obligation to explain the basis of those decisions, during or even after the games. You can't argue, if you feel you have been wronged, because you are not even told the basis of the decision against you. An official doesn't even have to say what rule he thinks you have broken. And the officials make little notes about the players in a note pad that they carry, but the contents of these documents are apparently classified. Soccer spokesmen say that the game prefers the eternal mysteries generated by these features because it makes the game more interesting, and creates delicious controversy over issues which cannot be resolved because there no effort whatsoever to get to the bottom of anything. 

It’s a matter of tradition you see, that outsiders, particularly Americans, can't be expected to understand. Consultation with electronic replays is considered vulgar. I think Americans are irritated by these features of the game; indeed I think the present calls, worldwide now, for replay review, for greater accountability, for, as we love to say in America, transparency, or, as we also like to say, justice, shows an American influence on the world's view of its favorite sport. If they start taking our advice we may change our view of soccer.

BrandeisNOW: Will there be increased interest by Americans in soccer because of the World Cup? And how much would that potential interest have grown with a longer U.S. run in the tournament?

JC: There was a bump after the American women's team did so well in a recent Olympics. There would be a bump, I suppose, if the American team got into a showdown final like the hockey game with Russia in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Perhaps the hundreds of thousands of young people who are sort of playing the game may produce future spectators. I watch the little kids playing on Saturday morning and it seems to me to be like a gym class group exercise.  I root for the Brandeis teams, men and women, go to some games, and greatly admire Coach Coven. But college soccer generates very little spectator interest. I know that student athletes love the game, and I love that they love the game. I hope I am wrong in my belief that the sport has little prospect of becoming "big time" in America.

BrandeisNOW: As a scholar who studies sport in America, are there any benefits for you living in Boston- a city that strongly supports its professional sports teams?

JC: Boston is indeed a great mecca for professional sports, although not professional soccer or arena football or lacrosse. But Boston is disinterested in college athletics, and therefore is not a representative sports town. Boston College is a national power in basketball and football, but by and large, sports fans here, unlike other venues around this land, are not interested in college sports. Remember, big time collegiate competitions draw much larger crowds in much larger stadiums than do professional contests. But not in Boston.

BrandeisNOW: Is there anything sports-related that you do to celebrate the Fourth of July- whether it's watching or playing?

JC: On the fourth, I love the events on the Esplanade: the concert by the Boston Pops, the magnificent fireworks display, and the playing of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," which is treated like the national anthem. Hundreds of thousands of participants, for one night at least, loving America and not feeling at all apologetic about that. The conductors of the orchestra usually wear a Red Sox cap. It’s an American tradition. Like baseball.

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