Sometimes it seems easy.
When Bobby Orr was skating for the Bruins, Boston was a hockey town.
Sorry. Hawkey Town. Yuh. Likewise last spring, when The Cup came home.
When the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004, Boston was a baseball town. Some of the baseball fans in the town felt disoriented and unsure of how to behave, since it had been about seven hundred eleven years since the Red Sox had won a World Series, but who could doubt that when they did win, Boston was a baseball town?
When the Patriots win the Super Bowl, which they seem to be on the brink of doing for the fourth time since 2002, Boston is a football town, even though the Patriots don’t play there.
During Larry Bird’s run with the Celtics, Boston was a basketball town, although the city eschewed that distinction during the unprecedented run of championships anchored by the incomparable Bill Russell, for reasons Mr. Russell explores in his admirable autobiographies.
But is it really that simple?
Major League Baseball is ancient, at least by American standards, and the Red Sox, in a slightly different manifestation on Huntington Avenue, were present at the creation. Their hold on the populace is based on tales of crushing failure told by grandfathers whose grandfathers witnessed the perverse sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees.
The enormous popularity of pro football came about as a consequence of the marriage of the NFL and television. The Packers, the Browns, the Colts, late of Baltimore…teams like those are the allegedly legendary and heroic ancestors of the current national pastime’s heroes; the Patriots, nomads during their early days, are the very embodiment of nouveau riche. Can their draw on a crowd, even a crowd of big-bellied, shirtless men who’ve painted their chests in patriotic stripes, compete with the claim of a team whose history extends back to the sinking of the Maine, never mind the Titanic?
These are questions for tavern disputes, and the great thing about them is that they cannot be resolved by reference to experts or computer-generated models. These questions are as eternal as they are weightless…at least until somebody who thinks Boston’s a baseball town hits somebody who thinks Boston is a football town over the head with a hockey stick.