America’s Game: Opening Day as a National Holiday

opening day

As a rabid sports fan, it’s natural to spend far too much time browsing my favorite sites, blogs and forums to read the newest gossip, hot topics and the like. One of the more interesting propositions this winter and spring has been the idea of baseball’s Opening Day as a national holiday. The movement is largely tongue in cheek and in true American fashion, backed by a giant corporation like Budweiser. Still, is the idea THAT far-fetched? Sure, we’ll never get off work or out of school for Opening Day. Unfortunately, as we near the Final Four, we’ve probably spent all of our sick days on March Madness, too. Still, there’s a little bit of merit behind the movement, as off the wall as it may sound. Considering we’re just dreaming here, it’s not a bad idea at all. It’s one of the most American ideas I’ve heard in a long, long time.

A unique footnote to the history of baseball is its inception probably didn’t take place in America. English literature as early as 1774 references a primitive version of what we Americans call baseball and this iteration of the game made its rounds in Europe, to mild fanfare, before being transplanted to the Americas.  In the early to mid 1800s, America became fascinated with the game, adopting the Knickerbocker Rules, which laid out the earliest set of rules that shape the game in the United States for centuries to come. The United States is a relatively young nation, we don’t have the luxury of European nations with thousands of years of history.  In the world of professional sports, baseball reigns king in longevity. When it comes to team sports, Americans have been attempting to hit a ball with a bat professionally longer than any other sport in our nation’s history. The National League was founded in 1876, a century after our nation gained its independence. It predates almost every professional sport in the country by such a large margin that disputing baseball’s claim as America’s sport, despite newfangled inventions like Nielsen ratings, is almost foolish. Baseball has been with America through more ups, downs, middles, changes, revolutions, regressions, depressions, recessions and anything else you can muster than any other sport, period.  Whether the stock market is up, down, the world is at war, the world is at peace, we’re doing the Macarena or tweeting, only one sport can say it’s been there the ENTIRE TIME and that sport is baseball.  Given the prominence baseball has had in the American way of life, why is it so crazy to think Opening Day should be a holiday?

Cincinnati Red Sox, circa 1869.

Now, let’s put this argument into some perspective. I’ll be the first to admit that dedicating an actual national holiday (federal or otherwise) to a sporting event is a disservice to the holidays we cherish each year. It’s intellectually dishonest of me to find a way to compare to baseball’s opening day to the 4th of July, Veteran’s Day or Thanksgiving. Still, there’s a handful of days we mark on our calendars and clear our schedules for that aren’t officially recognized by our government, or schools or place of employment (unfortunately). For some of us, we’ve spent a little too much time in front of a TV these past few weeks watching basketball when we should have been working. We’ve all called in sick the day after the Superbowl and the day after Thanksgiving might actually have jumped Thanksgiving itself in terms of importance to a huge chunk of our country. Outside of religious holidays, America likes to celebrate days that appreciate the rich and diverse culture we’ve created for ourselves in such a short time. We love to celebrate the things we universally hold dear in our culture and way of life. Baseball is one of those things, it’s a game that is ours as a nation, regardless of where we’re from, what we look like or who we vote for. I don’t know how you can appreciate the history of America without at least adding a footnote about baseball, it’s impossible. It’s the one sport that transcends the confines of a stadium and is woven into our nation’s fabric, whether we like it or not.

There is well over a century of baseball Americana to study and its rituals, myths and legends have been handed down from generation to generation of Americans dating back to the late 1800s and into the information age. Baseball was likely the incubator for the rabid sports culture we harbor as Americans. One that makes us cling to our franchises, faceless multi-million dollar corporations that we’ve turned into some form of religion, by turning our teams into symbols, with unique cultures and identities. A Giants fan does not stand for the same things as a Dodger fan and vice versa and nobody would dare tell you differently. It was baseball that created the bitter rivalries in the Northeast between New York and Boston, St. Louis and Chicago and even inside city lines in places like Los Angeles. Other sports have followed suit and maybe sports like football have more outwardly rabid fans, but a lot of these rivalries wouldn’t exist if the other American sports didn’t have the instructions laid out by baseball on how to hate an opposing team’s fans. In fact, many other professional sports rivalries mimic those already established in baseball. Considering professional sports are a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States, shouldn’t honoring its forefather be something of note?

jackie robinson

Baseball also holds the distinction as being one of the first institutions to break the racial barrier in our country. Segregation was a cruel, unjust and irrefutably despicable part of our country’s history. The legend of Jackie Robinson is arguably the most important story in baseball history, but it’s also a way in which a player transcended his sport in a way which may never, ever, happen again. Jackie Robinson is not only immortalized as one of the game’s best players, but he’s a hero, an icon, a pioneer and baseball was the vehicle through which he helped change attitudes this nation had on race relations. While most of our country couldn’t fathom the concept of a desegregated country, it was baseball that took a chance that only the military had attempted and began to have black and white players play on the same team. Perhaps unlike the military, more Americans were subjected to watching black and white players live and play together to no consequence, setting an example for many to follow, be it in Brooklyn, or sandlots and schoolyards across the country.

Today, on a much smaller scale, Major League Baseball continues its tradition of diversity by housing more international players than ever before. Nearly 30% of MLB players are Latino or Hispanic – many arriving to the United States from nations like Cuba and given the opportunity to play the sport at its highest level. The game itself has jumped our borders, too. Baseball is played professionally to packed stadiums in the Caribbean, parts of Central and South America, South Korea and Japan. Through the World Baseball Classic, MLB has accentuated the global reach of baseball, fielding teams of MLB and professional stars from around the world to compete internationally. The cultural and ethnic diversity in baseball is unmatched in American professional sports and as a nation, we should be proud of the long history baseball has in embracing diversity and inclusion. Has there been another sport played in this country that can stake claim to playing such an important role in social change? In a world where we maintain sports as being trivial, baseball has played an integral part in changing the identity and attitudes of our nation’s people in a manner much more important than any scoreboard.

First Baseball Game In New York After Terrorist Attacks
Mike Piazza and the Mets helped in healing New York and the nation shortly after 9/11.

Jackie Robinson’s contribution to the game is unparalleled, but many of the game’s biggest stars were also heroes well outside of the ballpark. Baseball’s long history in the United States means games have been played during some of the country’s most difficult and uneasy times. On one hand, like many sports, baseball has provided us a distraction from the problems we face everyday in the real world, but in another sense, the game’s contributions have been much more direct. The National Baseball Hall of Fame has kept records on military service of former baseball players, staff and executives, a tradition that dates back to Morgan Bulkeley, owner of the 18th century franchise Hartford Dark Blues and the National League’s first president, who himself was a veteran of the American Civil War. Other Hall of Famers that have served our country in time of war: Ty Cobb (World War I), Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams in WWII and Willie Mays in the Korean War. Baseball lent more of its most legendary players to the armed forces than any other sport in American history, likely at a great cost to the quality of the game and the league’s finances. Given the strong connection baseball has with our country’s history, it wouldn’t seem right any other way.

The deep patriotism woven into the baseball diamond didn’t stop at the trail of World War II. After the September 11th attacks, it was baseball that lifted the spirits of thousands and served as a symbol of American resilience and strength in the face of adversity. On September 21st, 2001, the New York Mets played the rival Atlanta Braves in Shea Stadium – the city’s first professional sporting event since the fall of the World Trade Center. Among the pre-game ceremonies were a touching rendition of “New York, New York” by Liza Minnelli and services honoring the city’s firemen, law enforcement and first responders who had given their lives in the line of duty. It was the game that evening that would eventually be burned into our memories. In one of the most poignant sports visuals of all time, the Mets, down by a run, went ahead for good after a crushing home run by the legendary Mike Piazza over the center field wall. The stadium’s 42,000 plus fans began to shower the hometown heroes with a boisterous chant of “USA”, almost in an act of proud defiance, proving to the world that New York, and the United States, were going to be more than okay. The game between two bitter NL East rivals provided the city a much-needed distraction, but the Mets heroics perfectly encapsulated the raw emotion that the sport of baseball is capable of conveying in a way that couldn’t be copied in other sports. America’s pastime has a special way of captivating our hearts. Whether it was fighting in the Pacific in WWII, or helping heal wounds in New York City, no sport can say it has been as pivotal a part of the American experience.

Is it that big of a stretch to think baseball deserves at the least, a small foot note on our calendar? To honor a sport and a day so rich in symbolism, American pride and history? It’s the end of a long, dreary and cold winter as we enjoy another 162 games in the sun. It’s the beginning of America’s game, for the 145th season. We don’t just enjoy baseball, our parents do, our grandparents and their great grandparents did too. In a country where our tastes and affections change at the drop of a hat, what else has stood the test of time like baseball? Opening Day should be a holiday, whether our government says so or not, because we’ve already decided it’s a day worth skipping school, calling out of work, or if we’re forced to work, spending all day flipping between scores and imaging our team winning the pennant in October. Sure, we’ve heard about how baseball has dragged behind football and the NFL in popularity. How the season and game is too long, too boring to hold our attention in the cable age. “It’s regional,” “it’s too old timey”…we’ve been through ups and downs, baseball is no different from America in that aspect.

These past few years, we’ve seen many of our childhood heroes exposed as cheaters, liars and turned into villains. To that, I say, when the rest of America’s pro sports are getting close to celebrating their 150th birthday, they’ll have taken their fair share of lumps, too. And if those sports can get to baseball’s age and stature and still attract Presidents, movie stars, star athletes and the like to drop the first puck, flip a coin or wave a flag, so be it. Eventually they might be immortalized in songs, movies, books, Broadway plays and museums like baseball too. Until then, let’s continue to embrace our game, because embracing baseball is embracing America, dammit! Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but this Opening Day will be a holiday in my home and will remain one for years to come.

Enjoy the season.