Is Baseball's All-Star Game Obsolete?

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Changes in the sport and society at large have made the mid-summer classic less and less relevant

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Reuters


Tonight is Major League Baseball's All-Star Game.

Who cares?

Let's set aside, I suppose, those players who are honored by the designation and who actually show up without pleading injury or other commitments—and the far larger number of non-All-Stars who get to enjoy a mini-vacation in the midst of the season's six months of games and travel. And also, at least in theory, the teams that will eventually win the American and National League pennants but who are unknown and unknowable of course at the moment—the teams that eventually make it to this fall's World Series where home field advantage will be determined by the league that won tonight's game. But it's hard to care about something that will only matter more than three months from now and that may not affect you at all.

But for the fans? It just doesn't seem to matter—as falling television ratings show—down by two thirds since the late 1960s and by half over the last 15 years alone—more than attest. And trying to make the game mean something by introducing the home field advantage payoff for the winning league in 2003 has clearly failed to stem that continuing decline. Last year's game attracted two million fewer viewers than the one in 2002—the infamous game that then acting commissioner Bud Selig called a tie when the teams ran out of players in extra innings.

And why should it? In truth the game is an artifact of a now-vanished era. Started as a Depression-era effort to hype interest in a sport whose fan base was crumbling amidst the economic crisis, the game belongs to a now vanished time when there was no inter-league play, when televised baseball was a scarce commodity (and pretty much confined to broadcasts of your local team or teams), when all-star caliber players tended to stay with one team during the primes of their careers, and if not with one team, then within one league. The last All-Star Game I recall really anticipating was that in 1976—a first chance to see "the Bird," the wonderfully eccentric rookie pitcher Mark Fidrych of the Detroit Tigers. Now, even assuming a second coming of such a phenom, he would be plastered across the cable television spectrum to the saturation point and beyond well before the "mid-summer classic" popped up on the home screen.

Then too there was once a significant difference between the leagues that made the game count for something, even in pop sociological terms. As outfielder Ron LeFlore (I think it was) once said, the American League was like the Republican Party and the more wide-open and free-playing National like the Democrats. And there was once some real demographic truth behind that perception—for years after Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color line for the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League in 1947, the National League was far more receptive to African-American talent than the American. And not-so-coincidentally, that diversity differential paid off at All-Star Game time. The American League won 12 of the first 15 games between 1933 and 1949, an then the Nationals won 33 of the next 43, including 11 in a row between 1972 to 1982. Those were results that resonated beyond the scoreboard.

I'm at a loss to find anything of comparable import or interest in the game nowadays. Is the only thing that baseball fans can look forward to looking back to the past?

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Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball and has written widely about the business and politics of sports. More

Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball (WW Norton). He has written about the business and politics of sports, the American left, Jewish and Israeli history, and legal affairs for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Journal of Sport History, Israel Affairs, The Public Interest, American Communist History, The National Pastime, and the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, and his work has appeared in several baseball history anthologies.

His article "Revising the Revisionists: Walter O' Malley, Robert Moses and the End of the Brooklyn Dodgers" was awarded the Kerr History Prize for the best article published in 2008 in the journal New York History; an earlier version of that article was presented at the Columbia University symposium "Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder" (March 2007) and received a McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award. He is the recipient of research grants from the Society for American Baseball Research and the Harry S. Truman Library Institute.

Fetter is a graduate of Harvard Law School and also holds degrees in history from Harvard College and the University of California, Berkeley. A native New Yorker, he attended his first major league baseball game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field on Memorial Day 1955 and some years later followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles where he has practiced business and entertainment litigation for the past 30 years.
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