Democracy and Baseball

Democracy and baseball: two great American traditions, although we don't usually think of them as going together. But if we did combine them, what might we learn?

It was an imaginative promotional gimmick. Early this season, Mike Veeck, independent baseball league executive and part-owner of the St. Paul Saints, hosted an “umpire-less game.”

Was the runner safe or out? The tough calls were crowd-sourced.

Mike Veeck is the son of Bill Veeck, legendary Hall of Fame team owner and crazy baseball promoter. In August, 1951, Veeck the elder hosted “ Grandstand Managers Day, ” allowing fans to vote on game strategy. Before that game, fans even voted for the starting line-up. And here’s a tip for improving democratic turn-out – everyone who voted got free game tickets.

At the stadium, the crowd - 1,115 “ managers ” - received placards with a green “yes” on one side and a red “no” on the other. Throughout the game, Veeck’s staff asked the fans questions like “Steal?” or “Infield Back?” Meanwhile, to symbolize his uselessness, the real manager sat on top of the dugout in a rocking chair.

It’s revealing that Grandstand Manager’s Day is one of Veeck’s best known and most-imitated stunts. It reminds us that although Americans enjoy a good show, we’re also consistently willing to take part, as well.

When it comes to democracy lately, many of us think of it simply as bad TV – a lot of fighting and nothing accomplished. It even gets lousy ratings. With Congress recently receiving its all-time-low approval rating of 9 percent, it looks like we’d love to banish most politicians to a rocking chair on top of the dugout.

But just as no two ball games are alike, democracy takes many forms. And studies show that when we ask citizens to take part in face-to-face decision making – and their participation really makes a difference – democracy’s ratings soar. Most participants in deliberative, empowered groups - like juries and community planning projects - not only enjoy the experience, but report that they’d like to be involved more often.

There’s something about giving participants real decision-making power that makes us all less grumpy. In this year’s Umpire-less Baseball Game, manager Greg Tagert said, “What slows the game down is the constant arguing about balls and strikes. I think we took that element away, actually.”

Of course, a certain level of maturity is required for deliberative democracy. For instance, Veeck’s game this year featured “juries” on the first - and third-base lines - fans deciding close plays. Nice idea, except the jurors got bored and abandoned their boxes by the sixth inning. Maybe the juror pool should have been wider than the local East Tonka Little League.

Adding democracy to baseball is a fun stunt; but maybe what we really need is more baseball in democracy. Or at least, more of what baseball stands for – working together at a human pace; being friendly even with members of the opposite team; being a good sport.

Bringing more people into decisions, and more decisions to the people, might bring some of that neighborliness back to democracy. And then more voters might be singing, “Take me out to the ball game!”

This post first aired as a commentary on Vermont Public Radio on July 11, 2013. You can listen to it here.