How Baseball Died


An editor for J. B. Lippincott Company, GEORGE STEVENS divides his time between Philadelphia and New York, and has made several contributions to our Accent on Living pages in the past.

SURE, I can tell you what baseball was like. I was a fan for fifty years — nearer sixty, to tell the truth. Saw my first professional game back in 1913. Never thought the last game of all would be played within my own lifetime, but I saw it too — that is, I saw the last local game of the 1971 season, right here in New York. Paid attendance was 104. That’s right, 104. It was pitiful.

That’s the way things had been going for a long time. People were losing interest. You wouldn’t have believed it was possible if you’d been a major league fan in the great days, even up into the 1950s, but specially back when Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb used to play, the big stars. They could draw fifty, sixty thousand for a double-header, or even a single game if the race was close. I’ll never forget in 1934 a double-header between the Giants and the Cardinals, Dizzy Dean and Paul Dean pitching for the Cardinals against Hubbell and Parmelee for the Giants. Hot summer afternoon, every seat in the Polo Grounds filled. No night ball in those days. Babe Ruth never played a night game, but they didn’t have to ask anybody where the customers were when he played.

In the Babe’s day, a nine-inning game generally took about two hours. The chances were that the same nine men who started would play through the nine innings, except the losers might have a change of pitchers, and maybe a pinch hitter or two, Used to be grand, spending a summer afternoon outdoors in the sun, watching a good fast game. All the fans knew the fine points of what was going on — records of the players, why the manager was going to call for a certain play in the given circumstances, say a bunt or a hit and run with a man on first.

Well, it’s hard to say how it happened that such a big attraction as professional baseball could just disappear. It used to be called the national game. Yes sir, the national game. That was in the old days. In the last ten or fifteen years it got to be more a matter of brute force than fine points. Take the home run. Now nobody ever beat the Babe’s record of sixty for a season, but it got so almost anybody could hit twenty or thirty, and a team might easily hit over two hundred in the course of the year. That never happened in the Babe’s day. And even then the old-timers were complaining about the rabbit ball, so called—supposedly the ball had been made more elastic so that Babe Ruth and others, like Gehrig and Foxx, could hit ‘em over the fences. I don’t doubt there was something in it; before the Babe’s day ten or fifteen homers in a season would be remarkable — in fact, over ten was very rare. Home Run Baker was called that for hitting about thirteen altogether in his best year, around 1910 sometime. Ty Cobb made over four thousand hits, but in twenty-four years he led the American League only once in home runs. That was in 1909.

I never saw Baker, and I never saw Cobb in his prime; but I saw the Babe plenty, and he never made his reputation out of Chinese home runs. However, after the Babe, everybody got in the act. An ordinary game would see two or three homers on each side, at least, and pitchers, good pitchers too, parading to the showers because some stumble bum would hit a pop fly that went 270 feet for a home run. It got so that relief pitchers would be so reluctant to get in the game it would take ten minutes for them to walk in from the bull pen. They walked like divers on the bottom of the ocean — the old-fashioned kind in diving suits, I mean, not skin divers.

The cheap homer put an end to base stealing. Cobb had one year he stole over ninety. But what was the use of taking a chance of being thrown out, when the next guy was like as not to bring you around with a Chinese homer? In Cobb’s day, when running was important, the players’ uniforms were streamlined. Later on it got so that their pants were baggier and baggier; you couldn’t tell which were the Red Sox and which were the White Sox — at least by their sox.

As if the rabbit ball wasn’t enough, the club owners kept moving their fences back and forth, and making them higher and lower, depending on whether their leading home run hitter for a given season hit rightor lefthanded. And speaking of that, they got so that a player had to hit .350 or else be a switch hitter to play every day. Otherwise it was a right-handedhitting lineup against, left-handed pitching, and vice versa. Naturally with all the changes of pitchers the hitters would get shifted too, so that most of the time was spent moving players on and off the bench. By 1957 it took about three hours to play a game. By that time most of the games were played at night, except Saturday and Sunday games; so if you went you got home pretty late, not to mention the mosquitoes.

Then most games were on television, and there was the temptation to the players, the managers, and the umpires to make an impression in front of the camera. It was only human. By around 1960, the games got so long, three and a half to four hours for a nine-inning game, with all the posing, and the managers running out — or rather walking out - to argue over the umpires’ decisions, and the pitchers coming out of the bull pen like paralyzed zombies, and the two-platoon system of hitters shifting back and forth, and I forgot to mention the announcements over the loudspeaker every time a substitution was made — anyway the games got so long that there was a crisis.

There was talk about cutting the games to seven innings, and there was talk about reducing the number of night games, and there was a lot of other talk, but nothing was done except that people began leaving the ball park about the six thinning: it got to be midnight or after and they had to work the next day. Then they began to quit coming. The club owners said maybe they were staying home and watching the games on television, so maybe they ought to cut down on television, but the television rights became more and more important in the budget as the ticket sales went down.

Of course they were selling a lot of boxes by the season - business firms would buy them up and charge it to entertainment, which was considered a tax-deductible expense — but the more they did that the harder it was for the customers to get a seat anywhere near home plate. How do you suppose they liked it when they asked at thegate for a box seat ora reserved seat and found themselves out in left field with a lot of empty boxes back of third base being charged up to entertainment, which meant that the paying customer and other taxpayers were paying for them?

So finally everybody got bored. The fans got bored, the players got bored, most of all the sports writers got bored. Once way back a sports writer’s job was considered very desirable by newspapermen. Not any more. The hours were long, the work had to be done late at night. For many years sports writers had really given baseball a break — long, enthusiastic, detailed stories day in and day out. Now they just couldn’t keep it up. The enthusiasm was gone and it couldn’t be faked. The best sports writers were begging to be transferred to cover the speeches at the United Nations.

So that’s the story. Baseball is a thing of the past. That is, in this country. I understand they still play baseball in Japan. But I guess I’m too old to think about going to Japan, even though you can get there, now, in about the same time as it used to take to play a ball game.