The city of Cleveland has never recovered from the World Series of 1954 when the Indians were humiliated four straight by the New York Giants. The enormity of that upset has been forgotten elsewhere, but not in Cleveland. It was in 1954 that Douglass Wallop wrote The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, and in Cleveland life imitated art. Casey Stengel's Yankees had won five straight pennants and five straight World Series, and they won more games in 1954 than any other Stengel team before or since. But the Indians beat them. Cleveland won a record 111 games, and that added gloat to glee because the old American League record belonged to the 1927 Yankees, the most holy-cow of all Yankee teams.
It was a season of triumph for the oppressed—and then the Giants ruined it. The fifth Series game, scheduled for a Sunday in Cleveland, was not needed, of course, and was cancelled, and tens of thousands of stunned Clevelanders stumbled home, treasured tickets for that game turning to ashes in their hands. Hotels were stuck with empty rooms, restaurants with uneaten steak, vendors with unsalable plastic dolls in Indian uniforms. Cleveland hasn't been the same since.
Big crowds still occasionally pile into Cleveland Stadium, but not very often. From one of the best franchises in baseball, the city has degenerated into one of the worst. Cleveland is like a child who has been excruciatingly embarrassed in public: its pride has been hurt, indelibly, and now Cleveland will not permit itself to be impressed by baseball.
Perhaps that is the reason why this year's All-Star Game, played in Cleveland last week, was such a bad show. The two previous All-Star games in Cleveland attracted the two largest crowds in All-Star history, but this one drew only 44,160, which means there were almost 40,000 empty seats in the huge lakeside stadium. People watching on television thought the game was exciting enough, but those sitting in Cleveland Stadium were stifled by apathy. Late in the game, the plethora of Yankee players in the American League lineup aroused angry boos, but otherwise the crowd sat on its hands and showed lively interest only when someone fouled a ball back into the seats.
Of course, the apathy could be blamed to a considerable extent on the miserable way the game was staged. Imagine having an All-Star Game in which Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, Juan Marichal and Maury Wills did not play, and whose squads did not even include Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, Vada Pinson and Frank Robinson. The All-Star Game is properly a showcase where baseball's heroes should be on display, where the excitement of baseball should be roaringly evident. Instead, the game is presented each year with less verve and imagination than a married men vs. single men soft-ball game at a company picnic.
The men who run baseball sometimes seem concerned about the drabness of their midsummer clambake, but they do not seem to know what to do about it. Gabriel Paul, president of the Indians, said the other day that he thought there would be more interest in the game if voting for the players was given back to the fans. What nonsense. The concept of fan voting was phony from the start, and Gabe Paul knows it. Newspapers used the voting as a circulation gimmick or ignored it completely. Ballot boxes were stuffed, and the votes were never really counted anyway, at least not with anything more than an educated guess.
The present system of having the players themselves pick the All-Star teams—and not letting them vote for anyone on their own teams—is a marvelous idea, an election of the best by a jury of their near-peers. But though the idea is good, the way it is handled is horrible. The 20 teams vote in an aura of secrecy befitting the election of a Pope. The ballots are counted—honestly and accurately, it must be admitted—in utter silence. The final tabulation is released quietly to the press. Period. No buildup, no progress of the voting, no early leads, no late returns from Houston or Los Angeles.
Can't pick a pitcher
The way it works now, players are allowed to vote for only eight of the 25 men on the squad and, for some reason no one has ever been able to explain or justify, they are not allowed to vote for a pitcher. Why not? Can't they tell which pitcher impressed them the most? On the other hand, one man, the manager, picks the other 17 players, including all the pitchers. Why? No one gives a hoot for the manager's preferences. Why give him such an inordinate say in the selection of the team?
The method should be changed. The players should vote for a complete starting lineup, all nine men, including the pitcher. The men who finish second in the voting at each position should be included automatically on the squad. (They are not, at present, but no one is really sure why they are not. It has become another of baseball's instant traditions.) Let the manager pick the remaining seven players. If he has to go beyond 25 players to insure representation by all 10 teams in his league, let him. But let the players pick the bulk of the squad.
At this point, after the ballots are assembled and counted, a shrewd promotion man could have a ball with the whole All-Star idea. Since the voting is completed two full weeks before the game, he would have plenty of time to build up interest. Results of the voting could be released day by day, a team a league a day. That's called managing the news, but who cares? It would give the sports pages an All-Star story every day, plus all the accompanying cheers, protests and comment. Each day for 10 days, one team in each league would have its personal all-opponent team printed in the daily press; right next to it would be the current standing of the All-Star vote, and right over there would be a column asking how any club could possibly be stupid enough to leave a shortstop like Ferd Strunk off its all-opponent team. Imagine the building excitement that could have been generated this year by Willie Mays winning out over Vada Pinson (who was out-hitting Willie by 40 points) in center field in the National League and by Frank Malzone becoming the players' choice in the argument over who was the best of all the fine third basemen in the American League?
On the day of the game, an imaginative management would stage a pregame show instead of letting the players go through the usual haphazard batting and fielding practice. It could do away with the batting-practice cage for this one big day, and let the people see the All-Stars bat. Each man could be introduced with appropriate hoopla as he came up to take his swings. Infield and outfield drills could be jazzed up by naming the players at each position and by sticking a button microphone on the uniform of the coach hitting grounders and fungoes so that his "Let's get two, Zoilo!" and "This one's for you, Willie!" could be heard by the crowd. The players would be on parade and would be given a chance to show off their special skills. If all this were done, pregame practice would turn into a pregame spectacular that the crowd would come early to see, a pregame show that television watchers would prefer a hundred times over banal interviews.
Maybe the commissioner ought to appoint someone right now to start working on next year's game. At any rate, the men who run baseball should understand and remember that the ultimate aim of the All-Star Game is not the publicizing of a handful of individuals but the exaltation of the sport itself.
And they should keep the game out of Cleveland.