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MLB All-Star Game: World’s Fair to Historical Footnote
Posted By Christopher Rowe On Jul 20 2010 @ 5:21 pm In MLB | 2 Comments
In 1933 it began as a corollary to the Chicago World’s Fair (“television” would be displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair along with jet packs and the grandparent of the microwave oven), showcasing the most talented players from the 16 Major League baseball teams. America’s Pastime was on display.
Since then, what turned into a bi-annual celebration of the game’s best players evolved into an event that occurred just once a year. The American and National Leagues developed identities as the annual game became a grudge match. Players rarely left teams – let alone leagues. There was no interleague play outside of the World Series and cities without two teams rarely had a chance to see stars from “the other league.” 1933 was a mere 30 years after the first “World Series.” There was only daytime baseball and most of the country still followed their favorite baseball team via newspaper because they couldn’t play hooky from work or school.
This was the Classic Era of baseball, a time when players belonged to teams, teams belonged to cities and baseball was truly the Great American Pastime – either in person or via the radio. New York had three major league franchises and was the crown jewel of the baseball world. Philadelphia had 2 teams as did Boston, St. Louis and Chicago. Granted, there was no Major League Baseball west of the Mississippi (just Pacific Coast League), the color barrier would not be broken until 1947 and both jet travel and television were in their infancy. The Modern Era was about to begin.
So the Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee (and set attendance records upwards of 2 million). Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds were deserted by 1958 when the Dodgers went to Los Angeles and Giants headed to San Francisco. The Philadelphia A’s moved to Kansas City while the St. Louis Browns actually moved EAST to Baltimore – being reborn as the Orioles. Soon relocation would be augmented by expansion as the Washington Senators would head west to Minnesota (reborn as the Twins) while an expansion Washington Senators replaced them in D.C.
The Los Angeles Angels saw how successful baseball was in Hollywood and became the American League counterpart of the Dodgers. Baseball gods returned National League baseball to the former Mecca of New York as the expansion Mets joined the stalwart Yankees five years after the Brooklyn Dodgers and Giants headed for the Gold Coast. The foursome expanded the major leagues to 20 teams (10 per league rather than the original eight) as the Houston Colt .45s (later renamed the “Astros”) brought baseball south of the Mason-Dixon line. It wasn’t until the Milwaukee Braves relocated again in 1966 to Atlanta that a second team would begin to take advantage of southern sunbelt migration. This was as significant as western migration but it also marked a realization of Major League Baseball’s version of Manifest Destiny.
Television brought baseball into the homes in a new and different way along with radio. Thanks to a national Game of the Week plus coverage of all World Series games, the 1960s saw baseball recover from the suburban migration and reinvent itself toward a broadcast market. Seven years after the Major Leagues had been expanded to 20 teams, they would expand again to a total of 24. The National League added new franchises in San Diego (Padres) and Montreal (Expos). Now there were three franchises in Southern California plus one in Quebec (America’s game invaded Canada, previously the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers prime minor league proving ground). Meanwhile, the former Kansas City Athletics’ relocated to Oakland, making them neighbors of the San Francisco Giants. Westward expansion progressed as the Seattle Pilots planted their flag in the Great Northwest and the expansion Kansas City Royals were adopted to replace the departed Athletics franchise.
Seattle didn’t respond so well to their initial expansion prize while Washington, D.C. was proving a mausoleum for baseball so re-relocation was again the answer. The former replacement Washington Senators were sent to Dallas to become the Texas Rangers, hoping to further mine the untapped markets in conjunction with the now Houston Astros. Seattle migrated to a former baseball hotbed, Milwaukee. The once Boston and now Atlanta Braves had flourished there during the 1950s and 1960s and so the Milwaukee Brewers brought the remnants of the Seattle Pilots to Wisconsin. Both relocated franchises were salvaged by their new fan bases.
By 1970, Major League baseball touched all four corners of the American Landscape. Jet travel was flourishing, the marriage of MLB and TV was secured and every franchise was somewhat profitable. Baseball survived suburban sprawl as well as transcontinental migration. On the field, most of the game remained the same, now with 24 teams thanks to 1960s expansion.
More changes loomed such as free agency, the designated hitter and revenue sharing but the biggest change of the day was the addition of divisions (East and West per league) and a playoff round of postseason to determine World Series participants. At the time, this was considered a “made-for-TV” event. For 100 years teams played 154 (later 162) regular season games to qualify for postseason play. Now the regular season could be spoiled by losing a best of 5 game League Championship series to qualify for the World Series.
Players still spent most of their careers with a single team or a single league and the All-Star Game (remember the All-Star Game??) was a celebration of baseball, an excuse for a Home Run Derby and a grudge match. It was an honor to be named to the team and most of the players wanted to play – and to win. Think about Pete Rose barreling over Ray Fosse to win the 1970 All-Star Game (look it up on YouTube for those younger fans) and it was evident that this was a competitive showcase. The All-Star Game was a rare opportunity to be on National TV so that even players on moribund teams had a chance to shine.
Soon changes would occur including the institution of a Designated Hitter in the American League (1973), Players Free Agency (1975) and another pair of expansion (Seattle Mariners & Toronto Blue Jays) franchises (1977).
Now with 26 teams (14 AL, 12 NL), the DH rules and free agency becoming commonplace, the All-Star Game began to look very different. Players could move freely not just from team to team but league to league, thus disassociating them from team identity. Also with 26 teams required to be represented, fans were not guaranteed to see the best players in baseball. Fan voting came along, ensuring that the most popular players were named to the rosters, leaving managers to name non-starters and their pitching staff. Over time, players named to the All-Star rosters began to view it as a ceremonial honor and frequently opted to not play in the game – or to take one at-bat and then retire.
The downward spiral continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s. Not until baseball embraced its past could it forge its future. New baseball palaces with modern amenities replaced multipurpose stadiums in tribute to ballparks of old. Further expansion occurred in 1993 (Colorado Rockies & Florida Marlins) and again in 1998 (Arizona Diamondbacks & Tampa Bay Devil Rays) and remained exponentially profitable.
By 1994 there was a players’ strike (also occurred in 1981, 1973 and had been threatened other years) but this one washed out the World Series, tarnished the All-Star Game and basically sacrificed the season. In 1995, the players returned to work but the 8 month work stoppage gave the game a huge black eye. This was in the throes of unrest at baseball’s helm when Commissioner Fay Vincent resigned in 1992. Alan H. “Bud” Selig had been active in the governance of Major League Baseball during his tenure as President of the Milwaukee Brewers. Selig led the Major League Executive Council when Commissioner Fay Vincent resigned on September 7, 1992.
In accordance with the Major League Agreement, which grants the Executive Council the authority to rule Baseball in the absence of a Commissioner, Selig became the central figure in Baseball’s power structure on September 9, 1992 when his fellow owners named him Chairman of the Major League Executive Council. As Chairman of the Executive Council, and then as Commissioner, Selig’s ability to rule by consensus brought about numerous dramatic changes to baseball, including:
Read that last point again. This was Selig’s effort to make the All-Star Game relevant once again. All of the campaigns claiming “This Time It Counts” was MLB’s attempt to improve ratings for the TV broadcast. The All-Star Game had ceased to be an event. Players didn’t want to play the game, or if they did it would be as limited as possible.
Other professional sports leagues (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLS, CFL, EPL have adopted All-Star games of varying types over the years. While most retain some form of the game, they have modified the format, timing, scheduling and participation to accommodate interests of the fan base.
The NFL scheduled their “Pro Bowl” after the Super Bowl for 40+ years to the point where players didn’t want to go (for fear of injury) or simply lack of interest. The NFL has rescheduled the game for the week between Conference Championship games and Super Bowl to VERY limited change in ratings.
The NHL has incorporated the Winter Olympics into their sport and a kind of international display of global talent, increasing the game’s exposure. In addition the NHL has altered the format of its non-Olympic All-Star showcases as a result.
As for the NBA, they have changed location of the game, added different peripheral events to showcase their players skills and incorporated another fan event pitting “rookies vs. sophomores.” Varying opinions exist as to which changes have been successful and which have been desperate.
Despite all this, Major League Baseball is still using the same basic format as they did in 1933 or 1953 or 1973. Take a rotating major league venue (adding profits to the location), assemble two rosters of some or most of the best players from each league (arguably the best or most popular players from the pool willing to play in the game) and attempt to create an environment where the game actually has some meaning.
No longer is it a grudge match of AL vs. NL. No longer are all of the best players from across the sport assembled (injuries or fear of incurring injuries, lack of interest, fear that a player’s contract will preclude participation). No longer are fans really caring that this game is played.
There is zero casual interest from non-traditional baseball fans, nor is there a lot of interest among baseball fans. In an age of video games, computer simulations and recreation of games we’ve never seen… perhaps the All-Star game is finally passé?
Maybe the answer is to name true All-Star teams (the absolute best players) and circumvent the issues of player travel, reluctance to play, fear of injury, etc. How about a computer generated simulation a la video game format? We have the technology to simulate player swings, pitcher motions and entire seasons of play so why not just broadcast a video game – or avoid the whole endeavor and cut our losses?
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