How the economics of modern baseball killed the ultimate fan experience
The first baseball game I ever attended was on May 30, 1955, a Memorial Day doubleheader between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Ebbets Field. The first time I went to the Polo Grounds was on Memorial Day in 1962 to see the newly created New York Mets play a doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The first time I went to Shea Stadium was for a doubleheader on May 31, 1964 (the Sunday after Memorial Day, and hence its functional equivalent that year) with the Mets hosting the San Francisco Giants.
The pattern is pretty clear. Once upon a time, for me and many thousands of others (there were 55,000 fans jamming the decrepit and run down Polo Grounds that day in 1962, surviving epic traffic gridlock that led one cop to be heard saying, correctly, "50,000 people are never going to come here again"—and 57,000 at Shea in 1964), the failsafe formula was: Baseball + Memorial Day = Doubleheader. It was the moment, more perhaps even than Opening Day itself, when baseball was back in our lives. The Memorial-Day doubleheader was then a fixture on the baseball calendar—as was also true of holiday doubleheaders on July 4 and Labor Day. To take a few years at random (as illustrated on the charts below), in 1940, 1952, and 1955, every team in the National League played a double header on Memorial Day
That was then, this is now. To state the obvious, Memorial Day doubleheaders—as indeed doubleheaders in general—are no more, and were already in decline by the middle of the 1960s (as the charts show). The opportunity cost of "two games for the price of one" is just too great in terms of the contemporary economics of the sport—not to mention that the excessive length of the typical game today would make the prospect of sitting through two of them unwelcome to any fan over the age of eight. On the field, Ernie Banks was famous for saying, "It's a beautiful day for baseball—let's play two" but today's players would hardly embrace working such a double shift, and they have the strength of what must be the most powerful private sector union behind them to back them up.
To be blunt, holidays are no longer big deals at the ball park. Perhaps the same might be generally said of the shift of Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday in May, a triumph of convenience over commemoration.
The death knell of the Memorial Day doubleheader was first sounded, perhaps, by the expansion of major-league baseball beyond the northeast quadrant which bounded it until Boston's Braves left for Milwaukee in 1953. Before then, half of the National League's teams were located between Boston and Philadelphia. We could label it somewhat anachronistically as an Acela Circuit, as we could for all of Major League Baseball at that time, with the American League's Washington Senators at the end of the line and "quiet cars" in the increasingly deserted stands at Braves Field, the Polo Grounds, or Shibe Park. It was then not uncommon for a team to make a one-day trip to a nearby city for a doubleheader to fill out the schedule in an era when each team played the others 22 times a season before moving on to a new city or returning home.
But more than that, expansion across the country and especially to the Pacific coast, simply cut the heart out of what Memorial Day meant in terms of the baseball season and its connection to the everyday life of its fans. In Boston or New York or Philadelphia, or in Detroit or Cleveland or Chicago for that matter, Memorial Day meant the imminent coming of summer and of a season where life could and would be lived outdoors, whether at home, "in the country"—or at the ballpark. It lacks any similar significance in Los Angeles or San Diego or San Francisco.
Call it progress, or indeed necessity, but as the holiday comes around this year and once again (and, I suppose, forevermore) no doubleheaders will be played, I will pause to remember how baseball commemorated Memorial Day in times gone by—by playing two.