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Original Issue

The long, long season could be too long

Tired ballplayers are grumbling about a schedule that is forcing them to play under seemingly absurd conditions, while even in the game's normally shortsighted higher councils there is evidence of unrest

It should be interesting to see where baseball history ranks the words spoken last week by William C. Bartholomay, the chairman of the board of the Atlanta Braves. Obviously, they will not immediately earn a spot in a batting order that already embraces Ford Frick's "It's a league matter," Warren Giles's "The National League does not need New York," Leo Durocher's "Nice guys finish last" and Pitcher Frank Sullivan's "I'm in the twilight of a mediocre career." But Bartholomay's statement certainly gets him into the on-deck circle. "It's about time," he said, "that baseball does something for the fans."

The last thing Bartholomay did for the fans, you may recall, he did for those in Milwaukee. His pronouncement came after Willie Mays, normally one of the game's most contented employees, challenged the right of owners like Bartholomay to schedule split doubleheaders. The split doubleheader is an old money-grabbing device perfected by Branch Rickey when that Edison of the S.R.O. was in Brooklyn, and it is currently undergoing a disputed revival in Atlanta, Houston and Minneapolis-St. Paul. The ground rules call for one game in the afternoon and another at night, separated by several hours of time and an extra admission.

Angered at having had to play a "splitter" after a rain-delayed game the night before, Mays said, "We went to the park about 10:30 in the morning and did not leave until midnight. That's just too long, with travel conditions the way they are now. It's too hard on ballplayers. Owners should think about the players more often." Gazing starry-eyed at the attendance figures of 30,000 and 46,000, Bartholomay said, "It seems obvious that the fans like split doubleheaders. In this weather I don't think it would be fair to the fans or the players to ask them to go through two straight games on a hot afternoon. If the fans want it, that's what we ought to do."

Mays vs. Bartholomay marks only one incident that has come boiling to the surface in a current scheduling crisis in which players are openly grumbling and owners and leagues are at odds with each other. When baseball completed its expansion to two 10-team leagues back in 1962 it adopted the 162-game schedule; as a result, the baseball world today resembles the puppy who kept chasing the car until he finally caught it. Consider these recent situations:

•The Baltimore Orioles came home last Friday night after a six-game road trip and, in two nights, played before some 40,000 Oriole-happy fans against the Washington Senators. Then the team was scheduled to go right back on the road for six more days, only to return home this Saturday night for a one-game home stand against—yep—the Washington Senators. Then the Orioles go away again for eight days.

•To stuff 162 games into the season six National League teams are regularly forced to make one trip a year that involves playing a game on the West Coast, flying that night to Houston for a series, then flying back to the Coast, again at night. Physically exhausted, the teams returning to play either the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Francisco Giants have compiled a record of 28-43 in a league that prides itself on its competitive balance.

•In order to take full advantage of the three-day Memorial Day weekend, the Philadelphia Phils and New York Mets played Sunday games in San Francisco and Los Angeles, then flew back to New York to meet in a Monday doubleheader. Arriving at 3 a.m., they staggered to bed and, upon arising, were rewarded with the information that they would not have to take batting practice that day. But the 47,000 people who showed up at Shea Stadium were also rewarded with no batting practice. To many fans, particularly youngsters, batting practice is an exciting exhibit in baseball's sideshow.

•The Boston Red Sox—and not because of rainouts—played 12 games in eight days early in July, and they played them in Chicago, Boston, New York and then back in Boston. Had the Sox been capable of rising to contention this year, the whole scheduling problem might have been brought into embarrassing focus right then and there. Incongruously, under this year's schedule, the Red Sox finish the season five days before anyone else.

When a schedule produces two consecutive short home stands against the same opponent, disadvantageous playing conditions for certain teams, a dilution in the quality of performances and public disappointment, quite obviously something is wrong.

Currently there are several owners within the American League who want a shortened schedule, and a three-man committee has been quietly formed to consider the possibilities. Their findings will be presented at the major league meetings in Pittsburgh the first week in December. Those who favor reducing the schedule are thinking in terms of either 144 or 153 games to counteract growing public disenchantment with the length of the season. The National League, on the other hand, is happy with things just the way they are, and the reasons are obvious. Those yearly four-, five- or even six-team pennant fights keep interest alive right to the end of the season. Unlike the American League, the National also has the attendance stimulant of six new parks in the last seven years.

There are some people, however, who believe that what baseball schedules need is not merely a cutback in the number of games or a change in the opening and closing dates of a season. The time has come, they say, for interleague play, and they point to attendance figures of mid-season exhibition games that are played in many cities for charity. This year, for example, the White Sox played the Cubs before 47,000 in Chicago, the Mets played the Yankees before 56,000 in New York; the Pirates drew 34,000 in Cleveland and the Orioles 21,000 in Philadelphia. People in Cleveland, say the interleague proponents, should be allowed to see Willie Mays in something besides a TV commercial, and all Philadelphia would go wild over Brooks Robinson—doesn't everyone? Further, why let all those natural built-in rivalries (Mets-Yanks, Dodgers-Angels, Cubs-White Sox, Phillies-Orioles, Braves-Red Sox) go to waste?

An interleague schedule, extending from mid-June to mid-July, was drawn up by the American League in 1963 and offered to the National for consideration. Now Joe Cronin, the American League president, is trying again to push for interleague play but, as he said the other day, "the National League has not evinced much interest in it." Granted, the American League is far behind the National in attendance, and this hurts its argument ("We'd rather see Houston or the Mets," says the National League, "than bring Kansas City or Washington into town"). It is obvious that if Dodger fans went out to see the Senators it would be more than a minor miracle. Yet the prospect of the Orioles or Twins playing in San Francisco is a compensation, to say the least.

There is no doubt that the public would like to see interleague play in some form or other and, although consideration for its fans has never influenced baseball as much as one might suppose, the game is in no position to leave potential gold mines lying untapped forever. It is time that baseball got out its shovel and began to dig—and there is no better place to start than the interleague schedule.