NBC's baseball cheer
Baseball - the all-pervasive, all-American pastime - is moving from the TV sports department into the TV entertainment department . . . on NBC anyway. But the special The Game And Its Glory: Baseball's Hall of Fame (NBC, Saturday, 10- 11 p.m.) might have fared better if it had been switched into NBC News, where under the aegis of NBC News president Reuven Frank a more balanced portrait of the national sport in its present major-league form might have resulted.
If you are already a fan, you'll probably cheer this program. But if the American obsession with today's brand of baseball is a bit of a puzzle to you, this hour-long love affair with bats, balls, and mitts will do nothing to explain it.
Hosted by actor Donald Sutherland, who admits to a boyhood passion for the Brooklyn Dodgers, this compilation of old sports newsreels combined with a walking tour of the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y., pulls out all of the stops in its determination to evoke not merely nostalgia but a kind of worship of the game. ''It's almost like a church, isn't it?'' says Mr. Sutherland, his voice echoing mysteriously as he enters the Hall of Fame. ''Even the acoustics are impressive.''
Produced by Major League Baseball Productions, written by Mark Durand with the cooperation of the Baseball Hall of Fame, this NBC special is basically a promotional film that has nothing but adulation for the world of professional baseball. Nostalgia hits a home run, pitches a no-hitter, bats .400 as Mr. Sutherland recalls Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner - and even Abner Doubleday, who allegedly ''invented'' baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown (although there is a hint that perhaps it evolved from the British game of ''rounds.'')
Never does Mr. Sutherland suggest that the sport has become big business, earning millions of dollars per year for players and for managers and owners who are sometimes very materialistic in their approach to the game. Nowhere is there even a suggestion that, as in the case of tennis and other professional sports, baseball has somehow lost its sporting innocence, indeed that sportsmanship has become a hindrance too often replaced by exclusively commercial interests. Not once does this exploitation film ever try to delve into the sources of sports obsession, the elements of which are also responsible for the sometimes crass commercialization of soccer, football, and tennis.
It is only when the Hall of Fame plaque that honors Jackie Robinson is passed that there is even the slightest mention of the fact that for so many years professional baseball discriminated against black ballplayers. Criticizing baseball or even a film about baseball would in some circles seem treasonous, like putting down apple pie or hotdogs. But amusing and entertaining as ''The Game and its Glory'' may be to some baseball enthusiasts, in its veneration of a popular but currently flawed sport, it perpetuates the growing tendency toward total acceptance of athletic commercialization which, in the long view, probably does a great disservice to sports and sportsmanship.