Sorry, the Summer Game Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Major League Baseball’s spring training is upon us.   Sports journalists are loading up to pepper fans with predictions about the season—who will contend, who will flop, who will come out on top—and also with commentaries about the knotty issues facing MLB as an enterprise.  What should be done about competitive imbalance?  How severe should the sanctions be against clubs that use spy cameras and other high-tech dirty tricks?  Is the ball juiced?  Should imaging devices be introduced to help plate umps call balls and strikes?   Is the ban on PEDs working?  How can the games be shortened?  Are new steps needed for fan safety?  Important problems all.  None of them, however, should worry management, players, and fans as much as the demographic rot creeping into baseball’s very foundation, its allure as a spectator sport.   The game has a dwindling appeal to anyone who isn’t a man—more specifically, a Caucasian man— born in the middle decades of the 20th Century.  Old white guys—that’s the well-documented profile of today’s baseball fan.  Fewer and fewer Americans match it. 

Who put the National Pastime on what looks like a dead-end path?  And why?  The who is the franchise owners and the MLB executives working for them. Over the span of half a century, they have given the sport a succession of nips and tucks and full-on facelifts, producing some recognizability problems for a once stunningly beautiful game.  The why is more complicated, but the biggest share of the blame goes to an ironclad orthodoxy prevailing across multiple sports, one that is especially damaging to baseball. This orthodoxy calls for intensifying the spotlight on the postseason—and elongating it in the process—mainly so that the television rights to dramatic, high-stakes playoff contests will rain cash.  What no one wants to acknowledge is that this approach is only possible by leaching attention and interest from the regular season, the lifeblood of any sport.

For most of its history, baseball was “the summer game,”  the American spectator sport woven out of sunshine more than any other.   The nickname still fit reasonably well when the peerless Roger Angell borrowed it to be the title of the collection of baseball writings he published in 1972.  Not anymore.  Now, baseball is the game of a different part of the year—the part when frosts finish off gardens, raked-up yellow leaves do their square dances in chilly winds, bowls of hot soup make the perfect supper, maybe some early snowflakes fall from gray clouds.   Late October is what it’s all about, when the sun slips meekly out of sight at afternoon rush hour and darkness holds a controlling share of the sky and the mood.

The truth is that baseball no longer really has a regular season. What’s called the regular season is a drawn-out audition through the spring and summer.  At stake are roles in the actual performance, which is the postseason.   The postseason has warm-up acts—the wildcard games, division series, and league championship series—and then the top billing, the World Series.  The majority of ball clubs go home after the auditions, forgotten and irrelevant.  As the warm-up acts unfold, more clubs disappear, having achieved almost as much pointlessness as the first group.  Finally, two teams emerge, one from the National League’s playoffs and one from the American League’s, to square off for all the marbles.  Seven months of preliminaries are over at last.  The curtain can go up on the main attraction.  And it does, well into a fall evening.  The shivery gloom of a fall evening.

Looking for the summer game?   Sorry, says MLB.  The summer game doesn’t live here anymore.

This may sound like a strange way of talking about baseball today.  Is the game in 2020 really so different from what it was in the past—what it has been since its early days?  Hasn’t the regular season always been a lengthy, grueling qualifying trial for the right to go to the playoffs and compete for a championship?

Actually, just a few decades ago, the regular season was the league playoffs.  The outcome of the season’s 162 or (until 1961-62) 154 games directly determined the AL and NL champions.  Whoever stood at the top of the given league’s standings on the final day of the season was the pennant winner.  Period.  There was nothing preliminary about the games played in spring and summer; they were the sole vectors of triumph or failure.  Only in the event of a deadlock in the standings at the end of the regular season was it necessary to stage a short tie-breaker series, like the one whose abrupt conclusion almost everyone has heard a euphoric Russ Hodges declaim on the endlessly replayed radio clip—the impromptu playoff held in 1951 between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, decided in the third game’s ninth inning by Bobby Thompson’s home run off Ralph Branca.  “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!  The Giants win the pennant!”

That’s how things worked throughout the long period of structural stability enjoyed by the big leagues from the dawn of the 20th Century into the age of color television.  In 1900, following a shakeup, the National League fielded eight teams; it would grow no larger until 1962, when the addition of the New York Mets and the Houston Colt-45s (soon renamed the Astros) increased the league’s size to 10 teams.   The American League, newly created in 1901 with eight teams, also would not expand for six decades, first doing so in 1961, when the Los Angeles Angels and Minnesota Twins were brought into the fold. [1]  Once the leagues had gotten a taste of expansion and overcome their (ill-advised) inhibitions about admitting newcomers, they soon were ready for more.   MLB grew to 24 clubs in 1969, adding the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots to the AL, and the San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos to the NL.  In conjunction with this expansion, MLB decided for the first time to, in effect, siphon off some of the magic from the regular season.  The NL and AL were each split into two divisions—East and West.  In both leagues, a best-of-five postseason playoff would pit the East winner against the West winner.  Which club had performed better during the regular season was immaterial; the pennant went to the playoff winner.   The World Series, which previously had been the entirety of the postseason, now had company—a set of league championship series.

I remember the novelty—and thrill—of watching those first East versus West playoffs on television in 1969.  A high school kid at the time, I saw the Baltimore Orioles sweep the Minnesota Twins to claim the AL pennant, and the New York (“Miracle”) Mets take out their own brooms against the Atlanta Braves for the NL flag.  Both the Orioles, with 109 regular season wins, and the Mets, with 100, had amassed the best records in their respective leagues, so in the inaugural year the new-fangled playoffs produced the same pennant winners as the old system would have done. This created a comforting illusion of continuity for those uneasy with the departure from tradition.    Traditionalist winds were, in any event, not the prevailing ones in American society in the Sixties, and the enlargement of the leagues, 50% bigger than a decade earlier, seemed to cry out for the introduction of divisions, which were already in place in other major sports.  Divisional play, with teams’ schedules weighted towards their own division competitors, kept rivalries stoked.  It also kept more clubs in the hunt further into the season.  The latter factor has been the one with the most tenacious hold on the sport and the people who run it.  The 1969 reorganization doubled postseason participation from two teams to four (a sixth of the 24 total ball clubs).  Half a century later, MLB gives 10 teams (a third of the 30 total) the all-important invitation to the now super-hyped October tournament.  The Commissioner has proposed a further expansion of the playoff field to 14 teams, through the addition of more wildcard participants.   The regular season’s final standings, already a seriously devalued currency, may soon be junk.

People who call themselves baseball “traditionalists” can be annoying, unbearably so when they gush about a supposed golden age of the sport, which they often place in the 1950s and 1960s. They have plenty of reasons to be wistful about those bygone days—Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Mickey Mantle, Juan Marichal, Frank Robinson, Sandy Koufax, to name a few—but the era also earned a good riddance.  Marvin Miller’s successful court battle against MLB concluded, in 1975, with the elimination of the predatory reserve clause, which had effectively made players the indentured servants of ownership.  Thus was born free agency, which all by itself ensured that, whatever baseball might become, it would never be the same again.  More changes have piled on through the late 20th and early 21stCenturies—in such areas as communications technology, sports and entertainment media, baseball analytics, sports medicine, training techniques, scouting and player evaluation, and ballpark architecture and amenities.   Most of this was all to the good, as even hidebound traditionalists would acknowledge. That said, MLB can and should look to the past for ideas that might be adapted to contemporary realities.   Restoring the lost glory of the regular season should be at the top of the list.

The fan base’s emotional investiture in the regular season is peculiarly important in baseball, with its marathon of a schedule.  Baseball isn’t the NFL, whose entire regular season consists of 16 game dates.   MLB club owners have each sunk their fortunes into a whopping 162-game opportunity to attract eyeballs and turn a profit, particularly during the 81-home-game half of the schedule.  The question is whether they should hold steady with the wager they’ve been making—namely,  that future fans will purchase seats and buy cable or internet packages to watch an interminable qualifying process for the true desideratum—the tournament in the fall.    Or is baseball’s ebbing popularity a sign that the time has come to consider a different bet?

MLB’s leaders would find it hair-raising, for sure, to contemplate reversing course and putting the old luster back on the regular season. You can’t sugarcoat the fact that any such move could only come at the expense of the postseason, a scary prospect for the clubs and all their financial backers.  If the playoffs are compressed, with fewer slots available, won’t more fans lose interest in the season sooner?   Imagine a postseason of the pre-1969 version—nothing but the World Series.   Wouldn’t fans in droves tune baseball out by mid-summer, or even earlier, as their teams fell out of contention?  Never mind that the entire postseason would be, at most, seven games long, in contrast to the maximum of 33 games under the current (cha-ching) arrangement.    Is it conceivable that such a throwback form of the baseball season would somehow work to the satisfaction of stakeholders?

Not long ago, was it conceivable that craft beers would come out of nowhere to claim a huge share of a market that had been monopolized by the big brewing companies for as long as anyone could remember?   In the 1990s, Microbreweries versus Anheuser-Busch wasn’t much of a title fight.  It was more like a (very short) animated flick—a remake of “Bambi versus Godzilla.”  But times have changed, tastes have changed.  In the beer industry, Godzilla is back on his heels, staggering and steadily losing sales.  The giant conglomerates are out of sync with the Zeitgeist.   America is a troubled, skeptical land in a troubled, skeptical world, and people aren’t so receptive to rah-rah, mostly-cow-bell (or Clydesdale jangle) pitches.  They want something more than the vapid suds of the past, something well-made, with a distinctive character to appreciate, indulge in, and savor in the moment—for tomorrow you may die in a mass shooting or a climate catastrophe. The trend, of course, isn’t confined to beer.   No matter where you turn in the realms of food and drink, leisure, and recreation—from artisanal bread, olive oil, and yogurt to hiking, biking, and yoga—“smell the roses” is the watchword of the times.  Why not “smell the peanuts and crackerjacks” too?   Why not re-imagine MLB so that fans can get back to enjoying an ordinary mid-season game—enjoying it for what it is at the micro level, nine innings of competition between teams of the top players in the world?  It’s only a game, yes, but is the entire baseball season and its outcome so different?  It’s only a season.

If evidence for the powerful draw of the individual game is needed, MLB need look no further than its own farm system affiliates.  Attendance at Minor League Baseball games has boomed; 41,504,077 fans passed through the gates in 2019, a 2.6 percent rise over 2018, continuing the years-long surge in interest.  In most cases, these fans are not buying tickets because of postseason hopes or dreams of a title, but because of their love of that incomparable experience, an ordinary game at the ballpark.

Paradoxically, the MLB postseason itself would benefit from its own diminution in one very big way.   The old majesty of the World Series would return.  Its freshness and immediacy as a unique celebration of baseball at season’s end would be back, and the trophy would be all the sweeter.   As things stand now, MLB’s postseason tournament goes on and on, far into the part of the calendar when football is closing in on sports watchers’ full attention.  By the time the tiers of the AL and NL playoffs have finally identified the pennant winners, all but the most hardcore baseball fans begin to feel that they’ve had their fill.  The World Series awaits like a third slice of cake.   Enough is enough.   No wonder, then, that television viewership for the Fall Classic is on a dismal trajectory.   All five of the least-watched World Series were in the last dozen years.  Among them were 2018 and 2019, when average viewership was 14.125 million and 13.912 million respectively.  Compare the five most-watched World Series, which occurred consecutively from 1978 though 1982, attracting an average viewership that ranged from a low of 37.96 million (1979) to a high of 44.279 million (1978).  League playoffs did exist during those years, but they remained on the (by today’s standards) miniature scale of 1969, a single 5-game series for the pennant.

MLB needs to finally recognize that it has a postseason addiction problem, one that (as the Commissioner’s latest proposal again demonstrates) seems to need an ever greater fix. The vicious cycle is slowly destroying the game. The good news is that the addiction can be kicked. It must be, if new and younger fans are to be snared by baseball’s old, matchless charms. About the regular season, MLB will find that, if you value it, they will come.

As a postscript for numbers junkies, here are the attendance figures of the 10-team American League for 1963, a sample year I’ve taken at random from the period immediately before the start of divisional play era.  The teams are listed in order of finish, with final standings noted.

Ball Club                       GB                    Average Attendance     Total Attendance for Season

New York Yankees         —                     16,260                         1,308,920

Chicago White Sox       10.5                 14,307                          1,158,848

Minnesota Twins          13                    17,474                          1,406,652

Baltimore Orioles         18.5                 9,560                               774,343

Detroit Tigers               25.5                 10,148                              821,952

Cleveland Indians         25.5                 6,945                               562,507

Boston Red Sox             28                    11,710                              942,642

Kansas City Athletics     31.5                 9,412                               762,364

Los Angeles Angels        34                    10,199                            821,015

Washington Senators    48.5                6,612                               535,604

                                                                                                      909,485 (AL Average)

Flash forward 56 years. Here are the attendance figures of the 15-team American League for 2019.    The five clubs that made the postseason—three division winners and two wildcard teams—are listed first, followed by the 10 that did not.  The specific division within which a club competed is not reflected, although the second column refers of course to the numbers of games back within the team’s division.

Ball Club                       GB                    Average Attendance     Total Attendance for Season

New York Yankees         —                     40,795                         3,304,404

Minnesota Twins          —                     28,323                          2,294,152

Houston Astros             —                     35,276                          2,857,367

Tampa Bay Rays (WC)    7                      14,552                         1,178,735

Oakland Athletics (WC)  10                  20,521                        1,662,211

Cleveland Indians         8.0                  21,465                         1,738,642

Boston Red Sox             19                    36,107                         2,924,627

Chicago White Sox        28.5                 20,622                        1,649,775

Texas Rangers               29                    26,333                         2,132,994

Los Angeles Angels        35                    37,272                         3,019,012

Toronto Blue Jays         36                    21,607                          1,750,144

Seattle Mariners           39                    22,122                          1,791,863

Kansas City Royals         42                  18,267                          1,479,659

Baltimore Orioles         49                    16,146                          1,307,807

Detroit Tigers               53.5                 18,536                          1,501,430

Any attempt to compare raw numbers between 1963 and 2019 would be fraught with distortions created by the different conditions of the two eras, especially 1) the 70% growth of the U.S. population, plus MLB’s expansion to take in a Canadian fan base, in the intervening years; and 2) the precipitous drop in the number of day games on weekdays over the last half century.    Certain patterns that emerge from the two sets of stats, however, are worth pointing out.

In 1963, only four of the league’s 10 ball clubs failed to draw at least 90 percent (818,537) of the AL average total attendance (909,485). This was so even though the Yankees ran away with the pennant, outpacing their closest competitor, the White Sox, by 10 ½ games.  Most teams were effectively out of the race quite early, yet fans showed up in solid numbers. In fact, the Twins, who finished 13 games back, actually had a larger gate than New York.   Things were different in 2019, when nine of the AL’s 15 clubs fell short of the 90 percent (1,835,569) mark in average total attendance (2,039,521).  The shimmering mirage of the postseason, with its wildcard possibilities, failed to draw the kind of turnout up and down the standings that had been seen 56 years earlier.

Also instructive is the ratio between the pennant winner’s turnout and the median turnout for the entire AL.   In 1963, New York’s (average) game attendance was 16,260 or 1.59 times larger than the league’s median figure of 10,173.  In 2019, the Yankees’ (average) game attendance was 40,795 or 1.93 times larger than the league’s median of 21,044.

Greater parity in attendance (1963) is a sign of a more diverse and durable fan base; less parity (2019) is the opposite.

Endnote

[1]   Before these expansions, several franchises had relocated in the postwar years, beginning with the move of the NL’s Boston Braves to Milwaukee (1953) and AL’s St Louis Browns to Baltimore (1954), but these moves did not affect the size of either league.  Technically, the Twins came into existence in 1961 through the relocation of the Washington Senators to Minneapolis, not expansion.   A new, expansion Washington Senators franchise began play in the AL that same season.

George Angell, February 2020

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