The 'Subway Series' That Isn't (and Maybe Never Was)

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The Mets and the Yankees evoke a bygone era as they play one another this weekend. But is the past really as ideal as baseball fans make it out to be?

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So once again the Yankees and the Mets are squaring off in their by now-routine regular-season match-up. The games are made possible by baseball's embrace of inter-league play in its ceaseless (and largely unsuccessful) effort to cater to a contemporary sports scene that is far removed in attachments and attitudes from that in which it emerged as the "national pastime." But this rite of summer is hardly comparable to the long-lost era of the "subway series" it purports to evoke.

True, to the ever-dwindling tribe who lived through the golden age of New York City in the years between Jackie Robinson's debut in 1947 and the departure of the Dodgers and Giants ten years later, a subway series is the stuff of nostalgia beyond measure. Six times in that ten-year stretch, the baseball championship of the entire universe was settled by strictly intra-mural grudge matches, waged entirely within the precincts of Gotham. Brooklyn's Dodgers squared off against the Yankees of the Bronx in 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956; the Giants of Manhattan carried the National League's colors against the Yankees in 1951. But that era is gone—and it is gone for good.

For one thing, to call these mid-season games a subway series devalues the original meaning of the phrase. A "subway series" was then the World Series, the unforgiving climax to the six month long regular season, a battle for the championship of the baseball world—not a mere threesome of games, out of a total of 162, that will be added into the mix when the final standings are determined (standings that now will allow no fewer than five teams in each league to compete in post-season play) and of no more weight than the teams's games against its other opponents.

Nor is New York City, despite its recent revival, the city now that it was then. The city's population is a declining percentage of the population of the greater metropolitan area. Far more of the baseball fan base can be found in the suburbs. If many of the Yankees who tormented their cross-town rivals five out of six times in those previous encounters then lived on the Grand Concourse during the baseball season, it's a safe bet that today's edition's only encounter with the Bronx comes on game day. It's no different for their National League foes. The days when the "Boys of Summer" actually lived in Brooklyn or Willie Mays played stick-ball in Harlem are memories without echoes for the Met ballplayers who have a strictly professional connection with their Queens home ground. As for the subways' own place in their eponymous series, the thousand of cars cramming the parking lots surrounding the Mets' Citi Field home this weekend will eloquently testify to the diminished role of the subways in taking the fans out to the ball game. It is a far cry from old Ebbets Field and its 400 parking spaces.

But even apart from these changed contexts, maybe we should reign in any residual nostalgia and acknowledge that the subway series phenomenon was not what we would like to believe it to was, even in its original incarnation. For the dirty little secret of the "golden age" of the "subway series" is that it was a pretty dismal time for major league baseball, and not so good even for the New York teams themselves.

To be blunt, the subway series era was a disaster for the business of baseball. Between 1947 and 1952, National League attendance fell from 10,388,000 to 6,339,148, and its modest recovery to 8,634,000 in 1956 was almost entirely attributable to the Braves' move to Milwaukee in 1953 from Boston (where they drew an incredible 280,000 in 1952). In the American League, 11,150,000 paying spectators had dwindled to 7,884,000 in the decade after 1947. Understandable, perhaps, as competitive balance disappeared to an unparalleled degree in both circuits, but New York 's teams were hardly the beneficiaries of their superiority. The Yankee Stadium crowds that numbered 2,200,000 in 1947 shrank to 1,490,000 in 1956; the Dodgers played before 1,807,000 fans in 1947 but only 1,200,000 in 1956; the Giants' attendance base utterly collapsed, from 1,600,000 down to 629,000 over that time span. By 1958 both the Dodgers and Giants had fled west, but the Yankee box office hardly benefited from their new-found monopoly: their attendance was actually lower in 1958, than the year before.

So, if a subway series can't be what it used to be, maybe it's for the best. And, perish the thought, maybe it never was.

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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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