Friday, June 26, 2020

Is Baseball Indestructible?

In 1953, near the absolute zenith of its popularity, major-league baseball went on a 20-year bender, doing just about everything it possibly could do to destroy itself.

Think of it:  over the following 20 years, the majors tore down, sold off, or gutted every single one of the beloved, "green cathedrals" of the sport, save for Fenway Park and Wrigley Field (Cleveland's "Mistake by the Lake" never was beloved, by anyone.)

In their place, the sport built exactly one ballpark of reasonable beauty and appeal in that time, in Chavez Ravine.

Almost every place else, the game was forced into interchangeable, cookie-cutter, multipurpose stadiums, often in the suburbs.

In those same years, baseball allowed teams to pick up and change cities nine different times, usually for no greater reason than that they saw a chance to make a little more money in the very short run.  That didn't usually work out.  Chasing after white people as fast as they could, the owners frequently moved from the largest markets in the country to midsized auto cities that could not possibly sustain them.

Sure, it wasn't such a big deal that the St. Louis Browns went to Baltimore, or that the Braves took off for Milwaukee.

But the movers included some of the most beloved ballteams in the country, the Giants, the Dodgers, and the Philadelphia Athletics, who not only went to Kansas City, but promptly converted themselves into a de facto farm team of your New York Yankees.

And so it went.  One bad move after another, that showed how little most major-leaguers owners understood about the future of television, urban centers, transportation or, most of all, the game they controlled.

Again and again, baseball expanded into cities that weren't ready for it, with people who had not put together a competent organization.  Looking at you, Seattle Pilots, Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres, Washington Senators II.

Fans were treated to artificial turf, domed parks, Disco Demolition and Nickel Beer nights, and some of the worst uniforms ever devised (Can you say "baby-blue double knits"?).

Most of the minor leagues were simply obliterated.  Sound familiar?

In addition, the owners tinkered obsessively with the rules, installing the DH, shrinking then expanding then shrinking the strike zone, raising and lowering the mound, and ultimately turning play into something frighteningly close to the mind-numbing, "three true outcomes" of today.

All right, so the DH was a good idea.  But pretty much everything else the Lords of the Game tried—all in the name of making baseball more appealing—sucked.

I mean, you had the White Sox wearing shorts.  The Yankees came within a hairsbreadth of falling into the swamps of Jersey.  We're just lucky we didn't have to see Charlie O. Finley's orange baseball.

And what happened?

The game came back, better than ever.  From 1975-1994—when they tried their best to destroy it again, over money—baseball was not only incredibly exciting, but about as diverse in its style of play as we are ever likely to see.

Batters who could hit over 50 HRs, batters who could nearly hit .400.  Great starters, great relievers; 30-complete game seasons, and 50-save seasons.  Base stealing, fantastic fielding.

Pretty much everything.  And good, quick, snappy play to boot.  World Series that regularly went seven games, and league playoff series that were usually thrilling.

Sure, baseball was never again going to supplant pro football as America's new favorite game—something that says more about us as Americans than it does about baseball.  But the fans responded.  Attendance and TV ratings both blasted off to record levels.

What went right?

Well, breaking down the color line just before they went loco was a really good idea.  Black, Hispanic, and the first Asian players all got to play in the bigs, which blew up the talent pool.  The game itself just kept getting better and better, even as all its trappings sucked.

Free agency also helped.  It forced out many of the most underfunded owners, and forced others to up their game.  And the game was accessible.  You still had day-of-game tickets, many seats still cost less than going to a movie, and you didn't have to pony up serious cash just to watch them on TV

And then they blew it again.

Can baseball come back this time?  Is it really as indestructible as it seemed when we were growing up?

I don't know.  But it can't go on like this.


el duque said...

I think there is a chance that baseball IS indestructible, that nothing these fools can do will kill the golden goose. But I could be wrong. Professional cornhole is coming.

13bit said...

Let me know if you want me to help set up the zoom thing. We could actually have a zoom room as a regular feature for games. Who needs to do it just once? Is anybody that busy these days?

JM said...

MLB and the owners will consistently find new ways to alienate fans and shoot themselves in the foot. It's what they do. All in the chase for the almighty buck, which can backfire badly and distort the game itself.

Mr. Jolly

Anonymous said...

If Baseball's resurgence began in 1975 then it can be tied to the return of its two most important franchises. We are on the cusp of a similar situation what with the Yankees and Dodgers as perennial playoff teams for the near future (Such as it is)

As far as the game's survival goes.

The next step for MLB will be when virtual experiences are perfected. The NBA has a "court side seat" 3D platform already in use. This will eliminate the "covid" risk.

We are already talking about doing a version of it by zooming while watching a game. I've been doing a lamer version with my buddy using Skype for years. I used to do it with my Dad over the phone.

Eventually they will price by view. And IIHIIF can talk about what we want to pay to "sit together"

Doug K.

HoraceClarke66 said...

You make a good point, Doug K. I believe the 1978 World Series ratings were the highest baseball ever had. They haven't reached that since.

It also helped that, in the previous Three True Outcomes era, we were talking about superstars. The match-ups were amazing. Koufax or Gibson or Marichal would throw a pitch or two at the head of Mays or Aaron or Frank Robinson, and send them diving into the dirt. Then they would get up and hit a 400-foot home run. Or strikeout swinging on a blazing fastball.

That one-on-one drama beat the current fouling off of six pitches, then taking the 3-2 pitch around the knees that the ump does or does not call correctly.

HoraceClarke66 said...

Also, the game just has to be more accessible. If you could never go to a movie without buying a ticket six months in advance, at $50 a pop even for a bad seat, movies as we know them would cease to exist.

Baseball has decided that it is a Broadway show. It's not. It's a movie. It needs to act like it.

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