On July 13, 1971, one out of every four households with a television in America was watching the All-Star Game. Of all the televisions on in the country, 50 percent of them were tuned in.
On July 12, 2016, there was an All-Star Game. Some baseball fans watched. A lot of them didn't.
There wasn't anything that different about the '71 All-Star Game compared to others from that era. There wasn't a specific "Jeter and/or Ortiz is leaving" hook that grabbed the folks in 1971. Every All-Star Game back then was a huge, national event that dominated the ratings. From the '60s through the '70s, the average All-Star Game had about the same share that the series finale of Friends did.
The ratings for this year's game were the lowest they've ever been. There was a tiny Jeter hiccup two years ago, but the trend isn't subtle.
Or, to put it in relative terms, last year was the first All-Star Game in three years that beat out the Pro Bowl, quite possibly the worst annual televised sporting event in American history. Fewer people are watching the All-Star Game on the teevee, and not in relative terms. There are fewer people watching now than 40 years ago, even though the population of the United States has grown by more than 100 million. If you had designs on a think piece about the Death of the All-Star Game and What It Means For Baseball, well, have at it.
Except it's probably more useful to stop comparing baseball, and how fans consumed it, to the past. To illustrate this, let's travel back in time to that 1971 All-Star Game and see what the big deal was.
The broadcast of the '71 All-Star Game started like it had to: funky-ass music and dudes floating in front of a green screen.
It's the All-Star Game, baby, the biggest single event in the sport. So the networks are going to bring out their big guns and show off their new technologies.
You can tell how excited Charlie Gehringer was. The audience felt it, too.
On the other two channels, you had a choice of The Jerry Reed When You're Hot You're Hot Hour and Ponderosa. It's at this point that you should print out the above graph, crumple it into a ball, and tinkle on it. It's useless. The 2015 All-Star Game didn't just go against 483 different channels; it went against the back-catalog of all those channels and Hollywood history, all on demand and accessible on the rectangle you keep in your pocket. TV ratings are useless in a discussion about why the All-Star Game was more beloved back then.
No, I want you to imagine you're a baseball fan in 1971. Not a baseball nerd, necessarily, but a baseball fan. You follow the game. You get Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News, reading the baseball features regularly. The newspapers bring you the box scores and wire recaps (unless the games finished too late on the West Coast), and you check them out.
There were actually water coolers back then, you know. Actual things in the office that went bloork every few minutes and sucked you into their gravity, and you occasionally stood around them and talked about sports. Baseball was the most popular sport back then, alright, and you'd sidle over and sports it up about baseball. What sort of baseball things would you talk about, hanging around the water cooler?
That great play from last night, the one where the best player in baseball dove into the ... oh, right. There aren't any national sports highlight shows. This Week In Baseball doesn't start until 1977.
That great play from your team? Maybe! There are local broadcasts, though certainly not for every game, not even close.
You can talk about your team, though, sure. Here's your first-hand knowledge on display, and you get to talk about the games you've watched, attended or listened to. This guy's a bum, this kid's got a great future, that sort of stuff. It's the bulk of the chatter, I'm guessing, just like it might be today. But then someone changes direction and brings something up you've been wondering about yourself.
Say, you hear about this Vida Blue kid?
Heck, yes. It's the 21-year-old's first full season, and you caught something about him in the paper. He's supposed to have a left arm from the gods. They talk about him on the radio broadcasts, occasionally, when updating the out-of-town scoreboard. The Sporting News did a feature on him. So did Sports Illustrated:
Blue's windup—with his big front leg hunched way up and bent at the knee and his pitching arm whipping around in the background—is not classical, like that of Koufax, but it is impressive. Sometimes it suggests a mustachioed old-time pitcher in a cartoon, or a Norman Rockwell sandlotter—all pretzeled up preparing to snap off a hot one. Then the leg thrusts forward, there is a slight unsettling delay, and the arm swoops around smoothly, without a lot of joint popping, and abruptly produces either a good fast curve, a hopping fastball, a sinking fastball, a fastball that breaks in, a fastball that breaks out or, rarely, a straight change of pace.
Crowds double in Oakland on the days he's scheduled to start. He's a phenomenon, a wonder. And here's what you know about him:
- The article linked above and maybe a couple others
That's it, give or take, unless you were lucky enough to see the A's when they came into town, assuming you live close to an AL town. Unless you were lucky enough to catch the A's on the Game of the Week, which you might have, considering they were a hot team coming off a successful year. But even if the A's got one of the 12 Games of the Week before the All-Star Game, the odds were against Blue starting that particular game.
You probably haven't seen him pitch. All you have are other people's words. They can actually write, mind you. They don't lean on modern crutches like GIFs and embeddable videos like the spoiled twits today. Still, they aren't enough. The words are the trailer of a movie you have to see, but can't, and it frustrates you.
Even the familiar players leave you with a sense of longing. You've watched Frank Howard on a dozen Games of the Week over the years, and you saw him in the '63 World Series, but have you ever gotten used to just how big he is?
You have not.
It's in this context that the All-Star Game is coming around, and like hell you're going to miss it. Blue's starting, you know. He's going against the controversial, also-electric Dock Ellis. It could be Willie Mays's last All-Star Game, you know. He's getting up there, but he's having a great first half, so who knows?
Curt Gowdy reminds us of something after Mays grounds out to start the game:
This is the 20th All-Star Game for Hank Aaron, the first time he has seen Tiger Stadium or played in Detroit. The same for Willie Mays.
Detroit made a lot of baseball history in the '60s and early '70s, but it didn't have Willie Mays or Hank Aaron. The All-Star Game is the only way to see the greats in a different context then, to share them with the rest of baseball.
In the game, Reggie Jackson hits one of the most famous home runs in All-Star Game history. It's a sensational home run that clangs off a transformer above Tiger Stadium on its way completely out of the ballpark. You don't get to rewind it. But you'll talk about it at the water cooler, whether it's physical or metaphorical, for a long time. Now it's your words describing it. You don't take the job lightly.
Within all of this is the same regional and tribal affiliations that permeate the game today. You still care about your guys. You want to see them hit against Blue or Ellis, and you hope they represent your team well.
That's what the All-Star Game meant back then. No amount of this-time-it-really-super-counts is going to bring that back. Even when the weekly national broadcasts were at a crossroads, the All-Star Game still brought in outstanding, albeit slipping, ratings.
Now you're the current you, reading a baseball story on one of 30 dozen outlets that you can access at any time. You could be on the toilet, you sly dog. And after this, you can use whatever device you're on to pull up whatever Mike Trout headline you desire. Leaping over walls, hitting triples, stealing bases, whatever. You can learn what he hits against Chris Sale lifetime, and you can find out what he hits against fastballs. You can find pictures of him when there was a beehive in Angels Stadium, and you can find video of the beekeeper five seconds later.
The mystery of baseball is gone. In its place is instant and permanent gratification, and you're not giving it up. It's beautiful. You would give a finger up before you gave the technology back. One of the costs was that a little of the mystique of the All-Star Game is gone.
Without the mystique, you have the urge to watch the players from your team. And it's definitely, unmistakably cool to watch the best pitchers in baseball with guaranteed matchup after matchup against the best hitters in baseball. That's why the All-Star Game is still an event every year. The ratings aren't what they used to be, but there's still bunting. There's still pomp and circumstance. Old Hall of Famers come out and greet the crowd, and future Hall of Famers run out to play baseball.
But don't expect everyone to care like they used to. It's different, for better and for worse. Mostly better. And while the ratings dive isn't subtle, baseball is healthier overall. The Dodgers drew 2,064,594 for the entire 1971 season, good for tops in the National League. The 2016 Dodgers have already drawn almost 100,000 more, and they still have 33 home games left. Every team will draw more than they did in '71. A lot of them have already.
The All-Star Game was necessary. Now it's optional. Nothing's going to change that, not without a solar flare or two to change how we consume media. Just don't let the decline in All-Star Game interest trick you into thinking it's revealing something about the health of baseball.
Edit: This article was originally published in 2015, but the point sure still stands!
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