By David Hauser
Who is baseball’s biggest star (or even biggest stars)? This would be a silly question to ask in basketball and football. To an enthusiastic baseball fan though this probably sounds like a simple question: the names Kemp, Verlander, Pujols, Jeter, Votto, Hamilton, Fielder, Trout roll off the tongue with the ease and efficiency of an effortless Joe Mauer crack of the bat. But I offer this follow up question, would your mom or your girlfriend or wife be able to pick even one of these guys out of a visual lineup upon hearing these names?
Consider it the “metric of mom,” an advanced scientific measure developed by an overtime working, coffee induced, crack team at Cal Tech…or maybe not very empirical at all. Science notwithstanding, it is an excellent place to start when talking about transcendent figures in culture. Is someone so big that they defy age and gender in their gravitas?
Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Eli Manning: I think it is fair to say they are known by grandmothers, much less mothers. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard: yes, yes, and yes in passing the mom metric. We could probably even safely toss Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Drew Brees, and maybe even Aaron Rodgers into this category after their triumphant past few years. However, I cannot come up with a single baseball player that I could say with 100% confidence that my mom would be able to identify by name or face (the closest I can surmise would be Evan Longoria, but only because he was cruel to Bree about her new husband and his practicing of cutting edge new exercise methods such as pole dancing).
Here is a simple truth: Kris Humphries has better name recognition than Albert Pujols by moms and wives/girlfriends. Maybe this is not even particularly surprising considering Humphries is more well-known for his 72-day stint as reality-TV husband of Kim Kardashian, than for his impressive efficiency for collecting rebounds on the hardwood. However I would go one step further and say that Humphries is an overall larger superstar amongst all ages and across both genders than Albert Pujols (the most productive power hitter in Major League Baseball over the last decade, a man who is fair to mention in the same breath as Ruth, Aaron, and Mays as one of the greatest ever to play the game). And I have proof.
This is the point in the column where I had Tyra Banks’ former cosmetic production team slap a fat suit on me and headed into the streets looking like Louie Anderson to ask 100 random people in the streets this question Family Feud style. Unfortunately, it is the hottest summer in recorded history and I started to melt like the millions of thirsty and dying stalks of corn across the Midwest. Instead, using a much simpler method the Google Trends Database pumped out the following data in oh…about 0.26 seconds.
The graghs below display raw numbers of google searches across the entire population within the United States (men and woman, young and old, everybody). Frankly there is no better method in the 21st century to measure “star power” than trends from google searches or social networks. If lots of people are searching your name, you must be relevant for someting. The internet has its flaws, but it is undeniably a populist medium.
In 2011 Kris Humphries had 400% more searches for his name than Albert Pujols. While Humphries may have only been thrust into this binge of google searches because of his association through marriage and subsequent divorce to Kardashian, it was not as if Pujols had an irrelevant year. In 2011, Pujols won the World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals, then moved to Los Angeles (not exactly a small media market) and signed the 2nd largest contract in baseball sports history for a mere $240 million. Pujols never had greater star power than 2011, yet Americans googled Humphries 4x more often than Pujols.
Alright, so we proved that baseball cannot compete with E! television and Ryan Seacrest Productions in terms of popularity. But does that really mean that baseball is losing its star power? The google trends continue to say yes.
Below is a “star power snapshot” of google searches from the current year of some of baseball’s biggest and most relevant stars (Matt Kemp and Derek Jeter) compared with the biggest stars (Kobe Bryant and LeBron James) of the NBA.
It is is not even close. Matt Kemp, even bolstered by his own E! television connection in former girlfriend Rihanna, living in Hollywood, signing his own $160 million contract, and having one of baseball’s most statistically historic months ever (his April) is searched for drastically less than both Kobe and LeBron. LeBron is sought after on the Internet 2000% more often than the dazzling 5-tooler Kemp.
The same goes for football stars versus baseball stars. Look at this google search graph from 2011.
Mind you, Peyton Manning did not play football in the calendar year of 2011 and people still searched for him over 3 times more frequently than Josh Hamilton, the anchor to the AL Champion Texas Rangers. Justin Verlander was so dominant in 2011 that he became the first pitcher to win the MVP award in 20 years, yet he was dwarfed in terms of internet curiosity 13 times over by Tom Brady.
I did not just cherry pick certain athletes to compare ballplayers with either. The same data pops up if you plug any major baseball star next to stars from the NFL or NBA. Simply said, baseball does not have the star power it always has. The NBA and NFL are saturated with stars. The most recent NBA renaissance has arguably more superstars than any other era in the league’s history – LeBron, Kobe, Wade, Durant, Rose, Howard, Carmelo, Nash, CP3… Football, while maybe not at the peak of its star power in terms of individual players, still manages to produce massive stars because of the league’s overall religious-like following.
Baseball has tremendous and unique talents never seen before spread across the league. Joey Votto is so precise and succinct with his swing that he amazingly has only hit the ball foul into the right field stands once in his career! Rookie Mike Trout has put up such staggering numbers this year that it led one rival manager to “put him down” by saying, “I mean, yeah, but he’s no Willie Mays.” Yet these guys, and baseball stars at large, are just are not as ubiquitous in broader society as they used to be. The narratives and personalities seem to be there, but there are no “superstars” in baseball right now.
Which raises a broader question, is baseball becoming a niche sport, more hockey than football? This seems sacreligious to suggest considering the place of baseball within the annals of American History, but it certainly seems possible.
Major League Baseball has fascinating stories and athletes, but young people simply seem less interested in ballplayers. What is causing this dearth of star power within our nation’s original pastime, the likes of which have never been seen before? Here are a few hypotheses:
- Trading cards
- Did I mention YouTube?
Being a fan means something bigger than watching the game or listening to post-game interviews and analysis. It’s about being totally consumed by the star. Posters, shoes, cards, video clips, obsessively collecting and consuming anything you get your hands on related to that star. As I age I recognize this: the only people with enough free time and disposable income to obsessively consume and collect (and not be considered a complete lunatic) are teenagers. Young people define our stars. Mock Justin Bieber if you will, but young girls turned him from a YouTube homemade videographer into a name that grandmothers recognize. Whereas I have yet to meet a 45 year old man with a poster of Warren Buffett on his wall (although I do look forward to that day).
The larger systemic problem for baseball is that it struggles to invade the youth consciousness. I am 29 years old. I am just barely old enough to have still collected baseball cards. Collect is not a strong enough word, I worshipped these cards and the men on them, just like Mac worships Chase Utley in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I would collate and categorize the cards a new way every week just because I found them so fascinating. The statistics on the back of the card, the (supposed) rarity of certain cards, the ability to feel like you touch the universe of baseball and hold it in your hand with these simple cutouts of cardboard all made this sport ever the more mesmerizing.
Better than even cards, was being able to wear your athlete’s shoes. This is obviously still the case, as Nike seems to be making a dime or two every financial quarter. Yet wearing baseball cleats and your athlete’s favorite colored stirrups to middle school does not exactly ooze coolness. While the basketball shoe industry continues to basically prop up an entire league with the NBA, marketable baseball shoes (w/o cleats) seem to have gone the way of the dodo bird. I still remember begging my mom to buy me a pair of Bo Jackson’s shoes, because, hell, Bo knew what I should wear. In the mid 90s Reebok even placed Frank Thomas at the front of their campaign to help popularize “The Pump.”
But then digital cable and the Internet came along and kids realized there was cooler stuff to do than collect baseball cards. The shoe industry also discovered that basketball shoes are the only athlete branded shoes with genuine street cred. Thus over time, baseball stars have become ever so slowly and gently less relevant and able to crack the mainstream. And more importantly, less adept at staying meaningful within youth culture.
Baseball may be America’s oldest pastime, but it is no longer its most popular pastime. With the under-20 crowd there is no better way to pass the time after school (or frankly during school) than mindlessly perusing YouTube clips, old and new. In a true head-scratcher, Major League Baseball decided to ban and remove any licensed Major League Baseball content from YouTube…because, you know, engaging a young audience isn’t important or anything. Whereas sports leagues like the NBA have fully embraced the new wave of digital media, thus allowing youngsters to marvel at grainy videos like MJ and Dominique Wilkins in dunk competitions from yesteryear and to stream new content instantly creating a viral attraction to the sport. Blake Griffin is the consummate 21st century superstar and he was made on the Internet.
Major League Baseball should be building up Angels star Mike Trout with ever the same marketing model, yet they fail because kids are not rushing home from the bus to navigate on over to “MLB Advanced Media’s” homepage to share videos with friends. YouTube is a universal language for kids, yet Major League Baseball insists on only allowing video content to stream through their own site. This goes against everything we have learned from the Internet: if something is viral (such as YouTube popularity) don’t try to fight and start your own similar service (see: Google Plus vs. Facebook or Bing vs. Google).
As a result, young stars from basketball and football rise up and young baseball stars have limitations to their growth as superstars. Check out this latest YouTube example with two corporately created “viral videos.” Pepsi Max rolled out its Uncle Drew ad campaign featuring the Cleveland Cavaliers Kyrie Irving dolled up and balling in an old person suit and it went off like gangbusters, 13.6 million views in little over the last two months. Similarly, Gillette created a cool CGI’d video of an Evan Longoria interview where he catches a screaming line drive with his bare hand all while not looking at the ball and saving the female journalist from a broken face, yet it has only accrued 7.2 million views over the last 14 months. Longoria, more the veteran than Irving, is certainly a star, but is simply not breaking through the American consciousness with the same vigor as stars in other sports.
Baseball is missing out on all the underlying cultural nuggets from off the field that make being a fan so much fun. While Fantasy Baseball does offer an intense and consuming off the field fan experience, it requires a great deal of dedication and time, qualities that make it difficult to access for younger fans. For baseball to once again breed superstars it must learn how to better fit within the fast pace of the Internet age. Some might go as far to suggest that the pace of the game itself is its ultimate demise as it is simply too slow to survive in the broadband-paced, multitasking nature of the modern age. While there may be some truth to this, I still think that young fans or old can and will remain captivated by the poetry in motion of the diamond. Immerse yourself in one true and intense pennant race and you are hooked for life.
While baseball is not going anywhere, it is just not as culturally important as it was in generations past. It feels like there should be some kind of intervention to bring baseball back to the top of the sports world where it belonged in the 20th century, America’s most triumphant century. Baseball has served as such an important marker of milestones throughout this country’s history. But things change. Newspaper box scores are no longer the universal sports source code they once were. The World Series is no longer the Fall’s biggest event, as any given Sunday bears better ratings than baseball’s annual classic. And baseball stars are no longer the stars of the sports world.
While there is an element of sadness in the changing of the sports landscape, there are more than enough baseball zealots (and even casual fans) to keep the sport moving along. Attendance numbers are still up, television revenue is comfortable for the sport, and the Bill James followers have created entire new e-communities to worship and study the game of baseball. The wonderfully ironic thing is that there is perhaps not a sports fan base better suited for downsizing, as these new e-communities relish being a part of “inside baseball” and not having posers within their tent. Furthermore, the shrinking of the sport allows the diehards and hanger-ons to revel in the nostalgia of lost idols and enhance the mythology of baseball.
Yet for me it is not the lessening importance of historical statistics or even the diminishing stars that I mourn. It is seeing an object that has meant so much in the formation of lifelong relationships slowly lose its relevance. It is the shared passion and daily summer routine of following baseball that entire relationships between fathers and sons (daughters, too) and siblings are built upon. There is a provincial language (one word names identifying your regions’ ballplayers), shared within communities, that provides an excuse to take a moment from our busy lives to strike up a brief conversation with a neighbor. A conversation that always starts in about baseball, but always turns into something deeper. All of this makes people feel apart of something bigger than themselves and this is what makes baseball special. I guess it is just surprising to notice. The death of the baseball superstar had not been something I expected to notice or come across in 2012 or really ever. Baseball may no longer be a sport of superstars, but one hopes at least it continues to maintain its special place in the relationships within communities and between fathers and children. Just don’t expect it to be a sport that keeps moms engaged anymore.
 Before I dive deeper, let me cut you off- yes, I am fully aware that lots of women watch sports and know of athletes. This is not meant to be some derisive or misogynist piece about woman not knowing much about sports. Some men read tabloids too, but the average man could probably tell you a whole lot less about TomKat’s breakup than your average woman. These gender splits are not particularly interesting though, because we are already aware of these patterns of behavior and cultural consumption. What is interesting is when an athlete gets so big or a celebrity so ubiquitous that both genders are familiar with their successes and whereabouts. Back to the interesting stuff.
 Derek Jeter, despite his older age and slowly atrophying skills, remains the most popular and searched for ballplayer