Are you a baseball fan or a football fan?
Every year the sports media spend a lot of time and energy arguing about whether most Americans are one or the other. I think it's a silly argument for two reasons. First, it should obvious that most sports fans are both; the seasons don't overlap all that much, making it fairly easy to catch the end of baseball and the beginning of football.
Second, it seems to me that no one who claims to want to know the answer to that question ever frames it in the right way. People who do surveys, for instance, phrase it like "Which sport would you rather watch on TV, baseball or football?" Football always has and always will win this argument. For the overwhelming number of football fans, television is the only way they have of following the sport. (A few years ago I saw the results of a study by Major League Baseball's "Blue Ribbon Panel" that indicated upward of 95 percent of pro football fans had never seen a game live.)
For most baseball fans I know, TV isn't the sport's lifeblood but just another way — along with radio, the Internet and going to the game in person — of keeping up.
Here's another way of framing the question on the subject: Would you rather see your local team in the World Series or the Super Bowl? I don't have scientific evidence to back this one up, but two years ago I called the sports desks of the biggest papers in cities that have both NFL and MLB teams and asked, "Which would the fans in your city want to see?" In New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Minneapolis and San Francisco, the answer, overwhelmingly, was the World Series.
The reason the Super Bowl scores so much higher than the World Series in TV ratings is because many baseball fans tend to lose interest once their team is eliminated from the possibility of going all the way, whereas a great many people who tune in the Super Bowl did not watch a single regular season football game all year. (After all, the Super Bowl is a party event).
Here's yet another question to consider: If you're a fan of both baseball and football, which sport do you read most about? Judging from the number of books on both sports that are published every year, I don't think there's any question that the answer is baseball. In publishing, there is a canard that "Football books don't sell." This is nonsense, since several good selling books on football are released every year.
But football has yet to inspire any book that has sold so many copies or remained as enduring as Roger Kahn's classic about the Jackie Robinson-era Dodgers, "The Boys of Summer," or that has been as irreverent and influential as Jim Bouton's "Ball Four." Football has yet to produce any work as cerebral and stimulating as Bill James' baseball abstracts or historical baseball books.
And there are no works of fiction on football that even approach the literary quality of Ring Lardner's "You Know Me Al," Bernard Malamud's "The Natural," and Kevin Baker's "Sometimes You See It Coming."
I've written several books on football, including "Football by the Numbers" and a biography of Bear Bryant, "The Last Coach," but I don't think football will ever have the literary equivalent of the books I just mentioned. Football fans — I'm not talking about all of them, just for the most part — don't seem to have the time to read books about the sport. Or is it that they don't have the interest? Their involvement with the game pretty much ends when they switch off the TV. (I mean, of course, pro football fans; college football fans will read just about anything that has their school's logo plastered on the cover.)
For fans, each season's crop of baseball books is like a literary Christmas. Here are some of this year's treasures.
→Inside the Baseball Hall of Fame (Simon & Schuster, $35) with photos of such treasures as Dizzy Dean's Stetson hat, the "Wonderboy" bat from the film "The Natural," the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented to catcher Moe Berg for his work as a spy during World War II, the promissory note from Babe Ruth's sale to the Yankees, and the Ted Williams G.I. Joe doll wearing an Air Force leather bomber jacket holding a Louisville Slugger bat. Perhaps there are the equivalent treasures for football, but has anyone bothered to collect them?
→The Victory Season by Robert Weintraub (Little, Brown, $26.99) leaps off the page like a newsreel, re-creating the baseball season of 1946, when America's World War II wounds began to heal.
→The Summer of Beer and Whiskey by Edward Achorn (PublicAffairs, $26.99) is set in the summer of 1883 when an enterprising German-born brewer buys a baseball team for the sole purpose of selling more beer, creating a match made in heaven,.
→Color Blind by Tom Dunkel (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25) tells one of the great untold stories about baseball history, one that almost sounds too good to be true, about an integrated semi-pro baseball team in Bismarck, N. D., during the Great Depression.
→Trading Bases: A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball by Joe Peta (Dutton, $27.95). A funny and stimulating account of a former stock trader who applies his Wall Street philosophy and knowledge of baseball statistics to try to beat the betting line. (You don't have to know or like either stock trading, baseball stats or gambling to enjoy the book.)
No other sport can offer such infinitely rich perspectives of its history and lore. Football season lasts from the opening kickoff to the final seconds of the Super Bowl; baseball's is year-round.
Allen Barra is a best-selling author of numerous books, including the forthcoming "Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age."