Baseball is the fine game it is because it the only major team sport game in America that allows you time to reflect, think or not think, keep score in riveted attention or simply eat peanuts, drink beer, and lollygag with your neighboring fans as the clock ticks on with no particular relevance at all to what is going on out there on the field.
That is, baseball used to be that way during its pastoral beginnings in the 19th century. Then came the 20th century, the New York Yankee demolition of pennant races in the American League, and the advent of television in post World War II America. Now, all of a sudden, we had owners who worried that fans would leave the ballparks for the very reasons that attracted them in the first place. They detected boredom as the enemy and they embarked upon small to exaggerated measures of distraction as the remedy to falling attendance.
Let’s be clear here before proceeding. It was never baseball and boredom that drove fans away in some markets. It was bad baseball and despair of winning that did the trick. Ask fans of the old St. Louis Browns (while their few in numbers still survive) what drove them home and they will confirm what I’m saying here, but that didn’t matter to people like Browns owner Bill Veeck in the early 1950’s. Veeck knew the truth, but part of the truth was that he had found himself caught up in that familiar ownership hole in the days prior to relative talent parity. – The Browns needed to win to draw fans, but they had a far more pressing need to sell their better players just to pay the bills. As a result, showman Veeck turned to a plan of distraction in 1951 in the hopes of saving his club in the short-term.
On August 19, 1951, Bill Veeeck successfully began a game at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis by sending midget Eddie Gaedel into an afternoon game against the Detroit Tigers as a pinch hitter for lead-off batter Frank Saucier. Veeck had given Gaedel strict instructions to swing at nothing. “I’m going to be on the roof with a rifle,” Veeck told Gaedel. “If you swing at anything, you’re a dead man.” Gaedel walked on four pitches and was promptly removed for a pinch runner. Baseball promptly banned the use of midgets and dwarfs. We must only presume that this bias against vertically challenged people remains there in a musty, hastily written page of the baseball rule books, simply waiting for some new and ambitious short person to make a civil rights action case out of it.
Five days later, on August 24, 1951, Bill Veeck staged “Fan Manager Night” at Sportsman’s Park. A group of fans seated behind the thrid base dugout were given color coded placards to signal their preferences for certain choices for player action in the game while Browns manager Zack Taylor sat in a rocking chair on the third base side, smoking his pipe and taking it easy. Even though the Browns defeated the Philadelphia A’s, 5-3, that night, Baseball also quickly put the banishment screws on Fan Management in future games.
Later, in 1979, another Bill Veeck stunt would literally blow up in his face at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Now acting as owner of the White Sox, Veeck had planned a “Disco Disk Demolition Derby” in which fans were invited to bring their disco “records” for explosion in one big pile on the field. Before that could happen, drunk fans were inspired to sail their vinyls through the ballpark air like so many potentially decapitating frisbees. The places turned into a riot scene, complete with fights, fires, and fan arrests. This time, a ban from Baseball was unnecessary to the fate of these nights in the future.
Owner Charlie Finley of the Kansas City/Oakland A’s back in the 1970’s was another of Baseball’s bright light believers in distraction. Finley came up with everything from more garish color combinations in team uniforms to the promotion of orange baseballs for better vision, facial hair tonsorial fashion, and team mascot mules that grazed the outfield grass.
To his credit, Finley also put a pretty good baseball game product on the field as well. As you probably know, his Oakland A’s won three World Series titles in a row from 1972 through 1974.
Houston held its own with the rest of Baseball’s great distractors. Judge Roy Hofheinz was the reincarnation of P.T. Barnum in spirit, if not in soul. His introduction of the world’s first domed stadium for baseball stands as the most distracting innovation in the game’s history. Over the course of its thirty-five season history (1965-1999), the Dome helped distract Houston fans from the fact that they had never played in a World Series over the entire course of their 20th century existence.
How was that for distraction?
Some choose to romanize the idea that Judge Hofheinz drafted his ideas for a domed stadium from his fascination with the great Coliseum of Rome. It’s more likely that he copied the earlier failed attempts of the O’Malleys in Brooklyn and Branch Rickey in Pittsburgh. Either way, the deal was fun for Houston, but a distraction, no less, from the leisurely joy of baseball in its pure form.
Somewehre along the way too, some sports marketing group sold baseball teams on the idea that they needed a minion army of young buffoons to run around the stadium firing souvenir tee shirts into the crowd for the sake of keeping the younger fans interested in staying at the ballpark for the length of the game. I hate that stuff almost as much as I do “the wave” as a ballpark distraction.
But what do I know? I’m an old folie. I come to the ballpark to get lost in the game of baseball and away from the distractions of international terrorism, the perils of health care, and the apparent failure of integrity among our various elected officials. Neither the wave nor the slingshot tee shirts offer us much to heal those concerns.
Bottom Line: I never liked distractions at the ballpark, even as a kid. I go to the ballpark for the game and I don’t worry about the game running too long. Each game is what it is. It will end when it ends and not a moment sooner. And that’s how baseball should be, I think.
If I had to make an historic exception I would have loved being there for the Gaedel pinch hitting role in 1951, but he’s the beginning and end of my very short list.