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Jewish World Review July 20, 2001 / 29 Tamuz, 5761

Bob Greene

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They called it the National Nerve Tonic -- THE national pastime?

A more astute commentator than I once pointed out that it's not baseball. The national pastime has not been baseball for many years now; the national pastime is watching television.

That's not a judgment on the relative merits of the two activities--it's simply a fact. The one thing that Americans do more than anything else to pass the time is to stare at television screens.

It was once different -- it had to be, when there was no television. And documents on file at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., provide a fascinating glimpse into the period in our nation's history when baseball truly was considered to be America's favorite way of passing free time.

There is a letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt -- dated Jan. 15, 1942 -- addressed to Kenesaw M. Landis, commissioner of baseball. (Landis' office address, by the way, was 333 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago.)

Landis had written to Roosevelt the day before, asking whether major- and minor-league baseball should be shut down because of World War II.

"I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going," Roosevelt wrote back. "There will be fewer people unemployed [because of increased work in war-supply factories], and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before.

"And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.

"Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half and which can be got for very little cost. And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally."

What Roosevelt was saying was that baseball should go on not for the sake of the players, or for the continuity of the game -- but because ballgames would give Americans something to do with their hours away from the job. It would give them their pastime.

An advertisement in the Sporting News of July 29, 1943, sponsored by the Spalding Sporting Goods Co., made the same point. It featured a photo of the face of an obviously tense man, with the headline: "I gotta relax."

The ad quoted the harried citizen as saying: "All work and no play. If I could only . . ."

The ad offered a suggestion: "Why don't you take in a ball game? Get out in the sun and let your skin soak up some Vitamin D. The ring of base hits will be music to your ears, balm to your mental muscles. . . . Brother, Uncle Sam wants you to relax. And baseball lets you do it -- completely -- without losing one hour from your job.

"P.S. -- Baseball games throughout the country are scheduled so workers may attend at least one day a week, without interruption to war work."

At the end was a tagline: "Baseball . . . the National Nerve Tonic."

It seemed as if baseball was being presented not as one recreational option among many -- but the almost mandatory American way of spending a few hours. We'll end with this World War II-era editorial from the Sporting News:

"War broke loose on many fronts in America this week -- war in which no quarter is asked and none expected -- but instead of a war of rifles, bayonets, cannon, machine guns and airplanes, it is a battle of bats and balls. Instead of casualties, there are runs, hits, strikeouts, assists and putouts. Instead of conquered territory being the goal, the capture of a pennant is sought. And when each day's battle is over, the citizens can go home to a wholesome meal and enjoy quietude and peace and the remainder of the day. . . .

"Little wonder, then, that Americans look to baseball as its national pastime -- something as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar and as an outlet to which they can turn to ease jangled nerves in times of crisis, or to give expression to their exuberance in periods of high spirits.

"People must have a vent for their feelings -- they cannot keep them pent up. The game always has served that purpose and in the present moment of uncertainty, it stands ready to fill that role again. . . .


Now . . . what's on TV tonight?

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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