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Tracing the Evolution of the MLB All-Star Game

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Tracing the Evolution of the MLB All-Star Game

Though the next rendition of Major League Baseball's All-Star Game won't come until next week, the game itself has already celebrated a birthday this year.

The very first All-Star Game was played on July 6, 1933. So this past Saturday, baseball's Midsummer Classic turned an even 80 years old.

Now, the concept of the All-Star Game really hasn't changed that much over the last eight decades. It's still an exhibition game played by baseball's brightest stars from the American and National League, with the idea being to crown the superior league while the fans look on and cheer or sulk depending on their allegiance.

But like most old things, the All-Star Game isn't what it used to be. The format of the game isn't quite the same, nor is the perception that both players and fans have of it.

It's been an odd sort of evolutionary process that's frankly hard to explain. It would be a lot easier if we hopped into the TARDIS and just went back and relived it.

 

1930s and 1940s: A Novel Idea Taken Very Seriously

You can thank the Great Depression for the All-Star Game.

When the American economy crumbled in the early 1930s, baseball's turnstiles started hurting. Per BallparksofBaseball.com, league attendance went from over 10 million in 1930 to less than nine million in 1931 to less than seven million in 1932. In 1933, attendance was on pace to do even worse than that.

In the summer of '33, the City of Chicago was hosting the "Century of Progress" World's Fair, which History.com says was devised to "celebrate the city’s centennial while cultivating a nationwide sense of optimism during the depths of the Depression."

Chicago Mayor Edward J. Kelly had the idea to arrange a special athletic event for the fair, and the man he turned to for help was Chicago Tribune publisher Col. Robert McCormick. The man McCormick turned to for help was sports editor Arch Ward.

According to the Tribune, Ward had just the idea: a matchup between the American League's best and the National League's best.

To make it happen, the Tribune had to go out on a limb by agreeing to underwrite any losses from the game, and the sports department would also be responsible for counting the votes from fans that would decide the teams.

Like that, the game was born. The Associated Press* let the people know in May:

The baseball fans’ dream—a game between the pick of the American and National League talent—will be sponsored July 6 by the Chicago Tribune as a World’s Fair feature. It became possible through the cooperation of the sixteen club owners.

The fans of the country will select the teams by vote to help settle arguments over the relative merits of the players in the two leagues for the first time in the history of the game.

Connie Mack was chosen to manage the American League All-Star team, and John McGraw was tabbed to manage the National League side. Among the players chosen for Mack's team were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, while stars like Chuck Klein and Carl Hubbell headlined McGraw's squad.

The hype for the game was considerable, as John Drebinger of The New York Times wrote: "No single encounter in recent years, with the exception of a world’s series engagement, has stirred up more interest than the coming clash between the outstanding performers of the two major circuits."

Naturally, the game lived up to the hype.

A crowd of close to 50,000 showed up to Comiskey Park to watch the American League beat the National League, 4-2, on the strength of a two-run homer by Ruth. Drebinger freely used the phrase "game of the century" in his recap of the game, remarking that the crowd "could not have found itself more occupied had a nine-ringed circus been in progress."

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The All-Star Game was originally conceived as a one-time thing. But due to the massive success of the first contest, the league came to the inevitable agreement in January 1934 to do it again.

Months later, the Polo Grounds was chosen as the site of the 1934 Midsummer Classic, and the league also set a precedent by deciding that managing duties would be given to the managers of the two World Series clubs from the previous year.

For 1934, that meant Billy Terry of the New York Giants and Joe Cronin of the Washington Senators. And though the fans were again able to vote for their favorite stars, it was decided that Terry and Cronin would have the final say about which players got on their rosters, which, for the record, were limited to only 20 players.

The American League won again in 1934 and again in 1935. This isn't what the league wanted, and the AL's early dominance was not viewed as a fluke.

After the '35 contest ended in a 4-1 victory for the American League side, The New York Times remarked that there was criticism "aimed at the National League for an attitude of indifference toward the game as contrasted with the seriousness of the American League attitude."

The National League got its act together in 1936, finally winning the Midsummer Classic by the final of 4-3. The two sides then took to alternating wins and losses, and by 1941 there was no ignoring that the game meant something.

Wrote John Kieran of The Times: "It’s true that the All-Star Game is a glorified exhibition of baseball...But the ball players have their own reputations at stake any time they go to bat or take the field, and the league rivalry counts for more than a little in these clashes."

As if to prove his point, the 1941 game turned into a hotly contested affair that was won on this swing of the bat from Ted Williams:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

James P. Dawson of The Times described the scene in the AL clubhouse after the game: 

[Teammates] either kissed Williams, pulled his ears, slapped him roundly on the head, face or shoulders, or wrestled him almost off the stool on which he was planted in front of his locker.

Joy was rampant in the camp of the American Leaguers. They were expressively riotous in their appraisal of the Williams homer and the satisfaction of the victory over the National League.

“Boy, it’s a great feeling to hit a home run that wins a ball game like that, isn’t it?” said Williams. “Gosh. Looks as if the boys liked it."

He later added, "I just wanted to have a hand in beating those National Leaguers."

And those National Leaguers? Yeah, they weren't taking the loss very well:

The scene was one of surly irritation. Bats and gloves and towels and caps were kicked around as the players trooped off the field. To a man the squad was furious at having victory snatched from its grasp.

Williams' home run kicked off another stretch of dominance for the American League in the All-Star Game. It won seven out of eight to run its overall All-Star record to 12-4 by 1949.

It was in '49 that Branch Rickey ventured a few opinions to The Times as to why the American League was so dominant. He complained that the National League didn't take the game seriously enough, with the primary issues being poor pitching choices and too many substitutions. The NL just wasn't playing to win like the AL was.

Rickey saw that as an upshot of the spirit of the American League:

When I was in the American League, I was under the presidency of Ban Johnson, who probably was the greatest figure the game ever produced. He was the main spirit and the driving force behind the formation of the American League. He’d always refer to it in thunderous, caressing tones as ‘the great American League.’ The adjective was always there. In the beginning his league was treated with scorn and contempt by the Nationals.

So he went out to show them that the Americans were not poor relations but equals...At every American League meeting I ever attended there always was a discussion of ways and means of surpassing the Nationals until it became something like a religious crusade.

The American League's dominance, however, wouldn't last much longer.

Unfortunately, neither would the sanctity of the game itself.

 

1950s-1970s: A Novel Idea Becomes a Running Gag

The National League snapped a four-game losing streak in the All-Star Game in 1950, winning 4-3 thanks to some stellar relief work by Larry Jansen and a go-ahead home run by Red Schoendienst in the 14th inning.

The Senior Circuit won again in 1951 with a roster that included Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial and Roy Campanella, and it looked poised for a victory once again with a roster that included those same three players and others.

Given the American League's run of success in the 1930s and 1940s, it was obviously quite unusual for the National League to be considered the easy favorite. Arthur Daley of The New York Times took note of that and sought to explain it:

Somehow or other there is an air of unreality to the entire business. To begin with, the National League is favored over the American League in the annual All-Star Game on the morrow. From force of habit the Americans always were the favorites—almost always, anyway.

Of course the Nationals would win occasionally, but this was usually deemed an accident. But a year ago the older circuit was the choice of the experts for the first time and now it is a reasonably solid pick. The worm has turned, the pendulum has swung and all that sort of stuff. No longer can the American turn loose an awesome collection of window breakers—Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons, Dickey, Cronin, DiMaggio, Williams and the like.

The Nationals have the fence-busters for a change and they also have a pretty good set of strong-armed pitchers.

The National League went on to win six out of seven to start the 1950s, tightening the American League's edge in the series at 13 wins to 10. The rivalry was finally leveling out and becoming, you know, an actual rivalry.

But then things got screwy.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Back in 1947, the league had made the decision to turn the selection of the starting rosters for the All-Star Game over to the fans, adding another rule that required players chosen by the fans to stay in the game for at least three innings. 

For a decade, there were no real problems. But then one city finally figured out that the system could be easily exploited. If fans could vote for whomever they wanted to see in the All-Star Game, what was stopping a whole city from voting only for its own?

That's what Cincinnati did in 1957, stuffing the ballot boxes to get members of the Redlegs (as they were known at the time) starting at all eight positions on the field. This prompted baseball commissioner Ford C. Frick to step in and insert Stan Musial, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron into the starting lineup for the National League, drawing outrage from Cincinnati.

“I voted 800 times, and I worked hard to get the vote in. if it’s the wrong way to choose a team, let them choose it next year," said one fan, according to The Times.

Added another, in true 1950s fashion, “This isn’t Russia."

What ended up happening?

Well, the five Redlegs in the starting lineup combined for only two hits and the National League suffered a 6-5 loss. As the one fan requested, Frick called off fan voting the next year in 1958, less-than-vaguely alluding to the fact that it had been a "joke" in recent years.

That wasn't the only major change that Frick made to the All-Star Game in the late 1950s. A year later in 1959, he made the decision that there would be not one but two All-Star Games per year.

And according to The Times, Frick made no attempt to smokescreen what the decision was all about: money.

“If no dollars were involved,” Frick said in 1959, “we wouldn’t play it. However, in my heart, I know it’s not a greedy grab as some have called it.”

And to be fair, it wasn't all Frick's doing. As Arthur Daley of The Times noted in June 1959, it was the players who actually came up with the idea for a second All-Star Game. The owners quickly agreed that, as far as ideas went, it was a good one.

There were two All-Star Games played each year between 1959 and 1962. The experiment was then discontinued, but the damage was done.

In 1964, Leonard Koppett of The Times noted the second All-Star Game in his scathing column on baseball's image problem, writing that the players had "revealed themselves in a mercenary light" when they moved to have a second Midsummer Classic put in place.

The general attitude of the players toward the All-Star Game was also shifting. The National League was in the middle of another stretch of dominance in the 1960s, but the game was less of a must-win affair for either side.

From a 1965 article in The Times:

Dressing-room behavior after an All-Star Game is quite different from that found after World Series games or end-of-season pennant struggles. Unless there has been some exceptionally controversial incident during the game, the atmosphere is far more relaxed. The winners are pleased, but not ecstatic; the losers wish they had won, but they aren’t deeply hurt.

Remember the scene in the clubhouses in 1941 after Williams hit his walk-off home run? Basically, you have to picture the exact opposite.

In the late 1960s, there was more weirdness. In what was the first and ultimate year of the pitcher, the 1968 All-Star Game unsurprisingly resulted in the first 1-0 score in All-Star history in favor of the National League. Joseph Dursos of The Times was lamenting the death of power in baseball. Judging from the league's declining attendance, so were the fans.

Then in 1969, rain forced the All-Star Game to be postponed for the first time. According to Baseball-Almanac.com, the postponement coincided with a massive drop in the number of people who watched the game on TV when it was eventually played.

Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn sought to light a spark for the next All-Star Game, rescinding Frick's decision to cut off the fan vote by bringing it back for the 1970 game.

That game, of course, is remembered as a classic because of this play:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The old-timers now point to the collision between Pete Rose and Ray Fosse as Exhibit A for proof that the All-Star Game really mattered in the old days and how it was always a competitive affair.

In reality, competitiveness in the All-Star Game was just as much a problem in the 1970s as it is now. Leonard Koppett of The Times wrote in 1974 that the All-Star Game was a "social event" prone to "ordinariness." And for the players, merely "being there is the thing."

Koppett also wrote this: "Baseball’s top officials insist on ritual emphasis on the 'competitiveness' of the game, which, since it often can’t be delivered, produces only disappointment in an otherwise positive setting."

All the while, the National League was still winning. National Leaguer Steve Garvey said in 1978 that "spirit and camaraderie" were to thank for the Senior Circuit's dominance, but American Leaguer George Scott had a different explanation in 1977.

“Check the guys who did most of the playing, and compare them with the National League statistics and they aren’t close," said Scott. "All of our statistics are on the bench. There are 90 darn taters on the pine.”

And then, more specifically: "The voting system is horse manure. The American League fans say they want to win the game, but how can you win the game when you’ve got your artillery sitting on the wood?”

Popularity-marred voting. Players just happy to be there. Coming-and-going competitiveness. 

These problems and more would continue to plague the All-Star Game going into the modern era.

 

1980s-Today: Still a Running Gag

Perhaps the most significant development in Major League Baseball during the 1970s was the destruction of the league's reserve clause in 1975, an event that ushered in free agency.

Dave Winfield was one of the early notables to take advantage of the players' newfound freedom to choose their employers, signing a whopping 10-year contract with the Yankees in 1981. Fittingly, that was a year in which the players and owners got into a dispute over free-agent compensation that ended up impacting the All-Star Game.

The 1981 strike started in June and resulted in the cancellation of roughly two months' worth of games. When baseball was ready to return, it decided to do so by playing the All-Star Game on Aug. 9.

Not all fans were glad to have baseball back. The 1981 All-Star Game was the lowest-rated Midsummer Classic since the rain-delayed 1969 game, and it was the start of a distressing trend.

Along the way, there were the usual problems. Ballot-box stuffing remained an issue, never more so than in 1989 when a recently retired Mike Schmidt and an injured Jose Canseco were voted in by the fans as starters. 

"Mike Schmidt and Jose Canseco proved again that when it comes to All-Star voting, popularity counts more than productivity," remarked the Associated Press.

On the field, the American League finally got back on the right track with a blowout victory in 1983 and eventually began a prolonged run of success in 1988 that lasted into the 1990s.

Yet what comes to mind when people think of All-Star Games in the 1990s? Stuff like this: 

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

By 2001, the American League had won 10 out of 13 All-Star Games while the ratings continued to head nowhere but down. Richard Sandomir of The Times sought to explain the troubling trend, and he hit several nails squarely on the head.

One: a perceived lack of competitiveness, which was clearly demonstrated by the preference of the managers to get every player in the game rather than managing to win.

Two: interleague play, which effectively killed the notion of the All-Star Game as the rare chance to see players from both leagues on the same field in the middle of the summer.

Three: the sudden problem of players not even wanting to attend the game, an issue underscored by Juan Gonzalez's decision to stay home in 1999 just because he wasn't voted into the starting lineup.

David Vincent, Lyle Spatz and David W. Smith of The Times added another reason to the pile in 2003: the loss of league identity. Yes, interleague play cheapened the divide between the American League and National League when it was put in place in 1997, but free agency had already been hard at work blurring the line between the two leagues for years.

In an environment such as this, it was effectively impossible for the All-Star Game to be treated as the exclusive, must-see event that it was even while things were getting screwy in the '50s, '60s and '70s. Sandomir characterized it as more of a reality show than a baseball game.

It was amidst declining ratings and sour remarks such as these that baseball stirred things up by implementing the Final Vote in 2002. It was an effective gimmick that put Johnny Damon and Andruw Jones in the All-Star Game, but the game itself proved to be a disaster.

Despite enlarged rosters of 30 players that dwarfed the All-Star rosters of old, both AL manager Joe Torre and NL manager Bob Brenly ran out of players to use in the 2002 All-Star Game. It was stopped with the score at 7-7 after 11 innings, resulting in only the second tie in All-Star Game history (the first happened in the second All-Star Game in 1961).

"Obviously, nobody wanted it to end like this, but it really was the right move," said Minnesota Twins reliever Eddie Guardado, via MLB.com. "The fans got to see the stars, they got to see good pitching, good hitting, great plays. The only thing they didn't get to see was a winner."

For the fans, however, seeing a winner was what really mattered. Wrote Jack Curry of The Times:

When the public address announcer told the fans that the game would be declared a tie if the N.L. did not score, the fans, who had not booed all night, booed repeatedly. Thousands of fans stood and pleaded for the game to continue. When the game ended and the players left the field, fans continued to boo.

The message to commissioner Bud Selig was clear: DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Selig's solution: Make the All-Star Game count for something, and he had an idea.

In May 2003, the league and the players agreed on what was to be a two-year experiment that would have the All-Star Game determine home-field advantage in the World Series. 

''To keep the game vibrant and more compelling for our present fans and future fans, we must be vigilant in seeking out fresh, bold and creative ideas,'' Selig said in a statement, via The Times.

It wasn't the only change. The roster sizes were increased even more, from 30 players to 32. Also, it was determined that the players would have a hand in finalizing the rosters in addition to the fans and the managers.

Initially, the changes seemed to be for the better. The 2003 All-Star Game was a good one, capped by Hank Blalock's dramatic home run off of Eric Gagne:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The outcome on the field was good, but fans didn't exactly flock to their TVs to see it unfold. The ratings for the 2003 All-Star Game were exactly the same as the ratings for the 2002 All-Star Game.

Things haven't picked up since.

All the usual reasons apply: interleague, free agency and certainly indifferent players. Players still drop out of the game in bunches every year, and Chipper Jones told ESPN's Jerry Crasnick that the players still treat the All-Star Game as an exhibition despite the fact that it's supposed to "count."

You might blame them for that, but Jones had a valid point in saying this:

If you want to really ride everything on it, take the nine best players from each league and let them go at it for nine innings. Don't give them an at-bat here and an at-bat there, or an inning here and an inning there, because that doesn't tell you anything. If you want to put so much on one game, then you have to have the elite of the elite play all nine innings and have your manager fill in the cracks as you go.

In other words, actually make the All-Star Game what it was billed as way back in 1933: a clash between the American League's best and the National League's best to settle arguments over the relative merits of the players in the two leagues.

If so, the next step in the evolutionary process of the All-Star Game won't really be a next step at all. It will be a return to form.

 

Note: Links to archived New York Times articles require reader subscriptions. 

 

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