As difficult as it may be for the pigskin-saturated mind of a modern sports fan to grasp, there was a time when the baseball All-Star Game was one of the top five events on the sports calendar.
It went like this:
1. World Series
2. Heavyweight Title Fight
3. All-Star Game
4. Rose Bowl
5. (tie) Kentucky Derby, Indianapolis 500
And this was long before the All-Star Game was played at night. Those who could watched on TV. The rest had a radio on at work. If neither had been available, then reading about it in the afternoon or morning paper was sufficient. People cared. Baseball was by far America’s No. 1 sport and there was an undeniable aura surrounding what was commonly referred to by the scribes of the day as the “Mid-Summer Classic.”
Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, and other diamond luminaries of the early 20th century were never All-Stars. That’s because it began as a one-off in 1933, the brainchild of Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward, who came up with the idea of having baseball’s best players put on an exhibition game in conjunction with Chicago’s World’s Fair. Babe Ruth was 38 and well past his prime, but, not surprisingly, he hit the first All-Star Game home run as the American League defeated the National League, 4-2, before 47,595 at Comiskey Park.
The game was such an artistic success that right away everyone knew it had to become an annual. There was a legitimate rivalry between the leagues, best evidenced by the approach of American League skipper Connie Mack, who took the game seriously enough to employ a mere 12 players, the only position player sub being the St. Louis Browns’ Sammy West, a ninth-inning defensive replacement for The Babe (this despite Ruth having made a sparkling rally-squelching catch of a Chick Hafey liner in the eighth).
Remember that we were only three decades separated from the formation of the American League. Old feelings, memories, and tales of pirating still hung in the air.
The games quickly became a major American happening. Then, as now, just who the All-Stars should be stirred deep emotions. Yankees manager Joe McCarthy employed six Yankees among the 12 players he used to win the 1939 game at, yup, Yankee Stadium (chosen because there happened to be another World’s Fair on Long Island that year). Four years later McCarthy showed the baseball world he could win by any method he chose. He benched all of his Yankee players in a 5-3 AL victory. Our own Bobby Doerr made him look good with a three-run homer.
The All-Star Game mattered to everyone. Ted Williams went to his grave saying his biggest thrill in baseball was his two-out, game-winning three-run homer off Claude Passeau at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium in 1941. The Cardinals’ Red Schoendienst was always remembered for his 14th-inning game-winning homer in Comiskey Park nine years later. Right at the top of Stan Musial’s accomplishments was his 12th-inning game-winning homer off Boston’s Frank Sullivan at Milwaukee County Stadium in 1955.
Need I mention Pete Rose and Ray Fosse?
Throughout the late ’50s and right into the ’70s there was an eternal fascination with how the NL manager would employ Willie Mays. Though Willie was always a middle-of-the order man for the Giants, it became fashionable to have him lead off in the All-Star Game, which he did in 1958, 1960 (both games), 1965 (leadoff homer), 1966, 1968, 1970, and 1971.
Pitchers were expected to go two innings, and perhaps even three. It was not uncommon in the ’30s and ’40s for each skipper to use but three pitchers in the game. NL manager Walter Alston got away with four hurlers as late as 1966, and that was in a 10-inning, 2-1 triumph. A year later Catfish Hunter entered the game in the 11th and was still there when Tony Perez won the game with a homer in the 15th. How about that?
Oh yeah, a while back I mentioned 1960 having two games. That was an experiment from 1959-62. But in this case more did turn out to be less. But the additional game did enable Don Zimmer to get an All-Star at-bat in the first 1961 game. It also gave him a chance to make an All-Star error.
This is all so much ancient history because just about everything has changed. First of all, there is football. The NFL rules. People aren’t glued to baseball.
Those who remain primarily interested in baseball are now confronted with a world in which interleague play has shattered the mystery of the American League playing the National League. When you have an interleague game every night it kind of spoils the fun. And now let’s talk about pitchers.
Somewhere along the way it became fashionable to get as many pitchers into the game as possible. As recently as 1980 managers Chuck Tanner (NL) and Earl Weaver (AL) used five pitchers apiece. Within 10 years managers were up to eight twirlers per.
The madness was on. One inning, one inning, one inning . . . And then came that fateful 2002 game in Milwaukee, where, with a horrified local boy commissioner named Bud Selig looking on, managers Bob Brenly (NL) and Joe Torre (AL) mismanaged their pitching staffs with endless abbreviated outings until, with the score tied at 7-7 after a mere 11 innings of play, they declared themselves to be out of moundsmen! What a revoltin’ development that was!
Bud, as we well know, completely overreacted. The ratings were drooping anyway in this ever-changing world, and Bud panicked. We’ll spruce up the game. How about making it worth something? Gee, let’s have the winning side determine home-field advantage for the World Series.
So now we have a game that’s not real baseball determining which league hosts Games 1, 2, 6, and 7 in the World Series.
It’s not a game if pitchers throw one inning. It’s not a game if managers try to get everyone on a bloated roster into the game. It’s not a game if every franchise, no matter how wretched, has to put a player on the team. And it’s not a rivalry when the AL and NL play each other all the time and even the umpires are all the same. The only difference in the two leagues is the DH, and, yes, that too is an absurd concept. There should be unity.
If the game is going to count, tell the managers to channel their inner Connie Mack and go for it. That might get peoples’ attention. But right now very few people care about the All-Star Game, and you know what?
They shouldn’t.Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBobRyan.