Is Baseball Funny?

Baseball has nothing but tragedy and time.

One of my earliest baseball memories is not of attending the park with my family, playing tee ball, or even any games at all. Instead, it’s watching “Baseball: Funny Side Up” on VHS in my grandparents’ basement (a Youtube version can be found here).

It was one of those baseball blooper tapes that were seemingly ubiquitous in the 80s. I feel by both aesthetic of the production and from knowing my grandfather, he must’ve obtained the tape for free somewhere– a Sports Illustrated subscription gift, maybe.

A quick eBay search confirms a hunch: baseball blooper tapes were much more common than other sports (football seems to be in a distant second). Why is that?

Is baseball funny?

I don’t mean “do funny things happen in baseball,” because of course they do (how else would they have filled up hours of those tapes, after all).

Assume you attended a crisply played game, with no errors (errors themselves are very funny) nor any on-field antics. Would it still be humorous?

Let’s operate under a definition of “funny” that’s something like, “the unserious being treated seriously.” You see it in improv comedy, where one ridiculous suggestion just keeps getting “yes and’ed” until it no longer resembles its initial form. It’s a Weird Al song about lunch meats. A satirical article that treats the self-important as just important.

It’s that context in which baseball is different from other sports, or even other forms of entertainment. Baseball takes itself extremely seriously.

“Red ass” (a particularly wound up or high-strung manager) is part of the known lexicon of baseball, and managers from time to time certainly do their part in performing a role for the benefit of the fans, and possibly their teams. Managers losing their cool on umpires are simply playing the “straight man” that allows us the audience the opportunity to find humor in the rest of the game. Look around the next time a manager is ejected. Does anyone seem unhappy about it, other than the manager himself? Compare that to say, a basketball coach receiving a technical foul, where the home crowd is furious–exasperated, even!– that their coach has been reprimanded. No, in baseball, the managers and umpires are playing parts in taking the game too seriously, so that we don’t have to.

This is not a criticism of baseball, as we all take it seriously to some extent. We participate in booing the player who used to play for our team, but now has different clothes on. We study, cite, and argue about history, as if two hundred years of recorded history is some kind of sacrosanct archive of capital-T truths. I know of many non-baseball fans that couldn’t pick Mike Trout of a lineup that will get certificates of their child’s first baseball game from the team guest relations booth in a way you never see elsewhere (“baby’s first musical!”). Baseball is set apart as something to be taken solemnly.

And yet, in the midst of all the seriousness, attention to detail, and determination of seeing players be their very best there are clues that this isn’t life or death. Players have pockets, for one. Sometimes they keep food in there! Right there, they take some sunflower seeds out in between pitches– pitches that might mean a hitter watches it go by and strikes out, or could completely change the course of the inning, game, or season by reaching out and poking that slider between the right and center fielders!

The cool casualness in the midst of chaos, speed, and violence is essentially this “this is fine” gif in real-life, kinetic form. It’s difficult to imagine a world-class sprinter winning a gold medal, only to have their phone pop out of their pocket, but it’s happened in baseball.

I’m sorry, but that is hilarious. 

Routine plays can also undercut the Serious Game. I love when there’s a little slow grounder to the first baseman, and the pitcher rushes to cover first. Here are three players who have dedicated their lives to being the best athletes; impossibly faster and stronger than anyone in the stadium except each other. They have sacrificed untold hours and years of their lives to be the very best baseball players in the world, skills honed and bodies trained so precisely that they can routinely do things that no one else has done in their lives. And yet! Here on this soft grounder, the first baseman underhands the ball to the pitcher covering first.

“Here you go buddy, whoop!”

It’s the same motion I may make tossing my keys on the counter. It is deeply casual in a moment when all three players involved are scrapping and clawing every inch.

Baseball combines that informality with seriousness better than any other athletic diversion. Famously, it also offers more failure than any other recreational pursuit.

Another common definition of comedy is that it’s tragedy, plus time. Baseball has both in spades. I believe this is why there are so many more baseball blooper videos. It’s already hard to succeed; the main action and purpose of the game is for the batter to hit the ball and reach base safely– it’s rare. The main action in other games– gaining yards in football or scoring in basketball, for instance– are the norm. It’s not a novel observation that baseball is a game of failure. That failure is, though, what makes baseball funny.

Baseball requires two seemingly opposing things to be happening at the same time– absolute commitment and attention to detail, and failure. The best hitters in the world are that because they’ve put more work into it than anyone else, and yet– all that work gets them is, at best, a successful outcome less than half the time. Shakespeare couldn’t write a better tragedy. Every ballplayer is Sisyphus, constantly rolling that boulder up a hill, knowing they’ll never reach the top.

Those two aspects of baseball– the commitment and failure– also give it a unique opportunity to be funny. We can enjoy those bloopers and momentary lapses from players in a way that feels better– I don’t think we’re laughing at them so much as laughing with them. Moreso than other games– I can make a basket, I absolutely cannot hit a home run– I think we have an innate grasp that the baseball things are so hard, we and (even if not in the moment, later on) the players can find humor in the situations. “That’s baseball,” we think.

We expect opera performers to be good 100% of the time– if they mess up, it’s not funny in the moment, and you feel bad sitting in the audience. Baseball players don’t have the same (impossible) expectation, so when they forget where they are, it’s funny without being mean.

And baseball at the professional level is begging to be funny in its mundanity. It’s every day for six months! That much time on your hands practically screams for humor, and players are willing to oblige us.

One of the lasting memories I remember being amazed by from the “Funny Side Up” video was the “hot foot” prank, where players attach a handmade device that can be lit on fire to an unsuspecting teammate’s shoe. I don’t think it’s any more understandable to me now than when I was five. Imagine that happening during a soccer game! In baseball though, it was (at least at one time) commonplace enough to be known as a “prank” and not “so dangerous oh my gosh what are you doing are you crazy.”

So baseball has tragedy, and plenty of time on its hands.

This shouldn’t trivialize baseball, or our interaction with it. To the contrary, the best performances include drama, triumph and failure, and humor all. If baseball were simply clowning, I doubt it would be very funny. Conversely, if baseball were nothing but life and death, where every batter batted his exact average and every fielder made each routine play, we would not find it fulfilling.

But we ascribe real stakes to the game– actual and real outcomes that matter to us and the players– that allows us to find humor or sorrow every day.

Baseball– through its highs and lows, and unexpected nature– is funny. It couldn’t be so if it wasn’t also so serious.


Feature image by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter) / Photography by Frank Jansky, Dustin Bradford & Mark LoMoglio / Icon Sportswire


Sean Roberts

Sean Roberts is a baseball columnist for Pitcher List. His work has been featured on Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, and October. He's still getting used to the DH in the national league. @seanroberts.bsky.social

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