What killed the traditionally lucrative baseball barnstorming tour as a big moneymaker? Television, of course, did its part by making the big league players familiar in every home. But those who remember will swear that the extraordinary fate that befell the biggest tour of all was also responsible: the nightmare of Bobby Riggs' "All-Stars" in 1950.
Riggs, the former great tennis champion and then tennis entrepreneur, had made a handsome profit promoting the Jack Kramer-Pancho Gonzales exhibition tour the year before. He was all set to launch Gussie Moran on the pro tennis circuit in 1950, and he figured there was still more money to be made in a touring major league baseball squad. He and his partner John Jachym conceived an extravaganza that would feature the National League All-Stars vs. the American League All-Stars in a 32-game traveling series.
The plan of signing all the bona fide all-stars faltered at the start, however. Ted Williams went fishing. Joe DiMaggio was tied down by television and radio commitments. Stan Musial signed but begged off because of a leg injury. But even without these headliners the promoters were able to recruit two star-studded squads of 18 men each.
When the team gathered in Montreal for the first game of the tour, the sun was shining brightly, and the advance ticket sale was brisk. By mid-afternoon, however, the skies darkened, and it started to rain. It was still raining when the squad chugged out of Montreal, leaving all that fine Canadian money behind.
The rain followed them to Syracuse. Happily, it cleared by dinner time and permitted the playing of the inaugural game. But the damage had been done. Only 3,200 showed up in the dampness.
The advance sale at Toronto, the next stop, was the heaviest in the history of the ball park. The rain was heavy, too, and the game was called off. After two trips to Canada, the All-Stars had nothing to show but heavy expenses and wet feet.
They finally got good weather when they arrived at Chicago for a game at Comiskey Park. But the presence of the All-Stars was a well-kept secret. Only 3,030 people turned out.
In Cincinnati, too, the weather was perfect for the Saturday night game. But shortly after dinner there was a mass exodus from Cincinnati in the direction of a college game in neighboring Kentucky. The collegians sold out. The All-Stars drew 3,500.
For the Sunday afternoon game at Forbes Field, Pittsburgh there was also excellent weather, but the team's luck ended there. Pittsburgh was in the middle of a newspaper strike, and they went into the town absolutely cold. The reception was cold, too. Exactly 2,685 wandered into the park.
As the disaster mounted, the thought of leaving two potential sellouts in Canada unclaimed aggravated the promoters' wounds. They decided to juggle the schedule so that they could take one more shot at Toronto before heading south for the second leg of the junket. To accomplish this they had to charter an airplane.
A few hours before the departure for Toronto, however, an airline official called one of the promoters to pass along the news that the squad had no plane ride in prospect. The airline didn't have permission to fly into Canada. Somebody goofed, he explained.
It was too late to charter another plane; too late to make a train connection. Determined to get back to Toronto, the promoters hired two buses. The thought of making a six-hour bus trip did not sit well with the players. They were big leaguers and felt their bus days were behind them.
It was a warm, sunny day when they started out, however, and it looked as if the All-Stars would finally get that payday in Canada. But when they hit the outskirts of Toronto, everything turned black. The sun disappeared into a dense fog, and as they moved closer to the city, the visibility was reduced to almost zero. The bus slowed down to 10 mph, and the team arrived at Maple Leaf Stadium just before game time.
The sight that greeted the players at the stadium was amazing. About 7,000 people waited patiently for the gates of the ball park to be opened. The fog was so thick it was impossible to see second base from home plate. The gates were opened for the crowds, and the players suited up. For the next hour and a half the troupe tried to amuse the fans while waiting for better visibility. But the fog remained.
Clyde McCullough made a suggestion. "Tell the fans we'll try to play if they want to stay and watch. Anything hit to the outfield will be a ground-rule single."
The announcement was made. The fans could have their money back, but if enough remained the All-Stars would try to play. Six young boys stayed in their seats. The others streaked for the refund windows. It was the first time in 17 years that a game had to be canceled in Toronto because of fog.
In the South the All-Stars looked forward to warm weather and big crowds. And they counted heavily on recouping some of the staggering losses so far in Miami. The promoters there assured the troupe they'd have at least 15,000—very likely more.
But before the squad could reach Miami a hurricane got there first. The game, which had been publicized for weeks, drew 3,800.
That did it. The tour was disbanded the following day at New Orleans, with the players being paid off at a rate of 50% of their contracts. After playing 13 games, the All-Stars had drawn only 32,000 admissions. The flop cost Riggs and Jachym $66,000—but they didn't complain. They were happy to get out alive.