Baseball, because of its hoary tradition, is peculiarly vulnerable to tired accusations from the uninformed that it is impervious to change. They forget that change is more often subtle than abrupt and that baseball, like everything else, is endlessly changing.
Some of the changes—the gaudy new uniforms, perhaps, or the American League's designated hitter—even smack of radicalism. Others—the constant shifting of players from team to team, for example—occur regularly. But even this familiar fare can be flavored with sugar or spice. Catfish Hunter was not traded or sold to the New York Yankees by the world champion Oakland A's; he came to them by dint of a colossal contractual gaffe by his former employer, a tycoon heretofore celebrated for his acuity. Frank Robinson is not only the new manager of the Cleveland Indians; he is the first man of his race to achieve that eminence. And Henry Aaron is not just moving to the American League so he can extend his luminous career another year or two as a designated hitter; he is embarking on a pilgrimage to the city where that career began 21 years ago.
These are only superficial changes. Others are more profound. Baseball is constantly changing because the people in and around it are entirely different from those who came before. The owners are no longer men who grew up with the game, whose principal investment was the game; mostly they are businessmen of diversified interests, only one of which happens to be baseball. The players are no longer bumpkins with cardboard suitcases; they are well-paid young men of an independent turn of mind. And the fan is no more the zealot whose devotion to the home team never flags; he is a consumer poking among numberless diversions in search of entertainment at reasonable prices.
On the eve of a new season, baseball appears to be holding its own with the eclectic spectator. While professional football attendance declined appreciably last year, major league baseball drew approximately as many fans as it had the season before, 30,025,608 to 30,108,926. And new life was breathed into weakening franchises. San Diego, which had drawn only 611,826 in 1973, attracted 1,075,399; Cleveland improved from 615,107 to 1,114,262; and Texas went from 686,085 to 1,193,902. Other franchises, notably San Francisco, Oakland and Minnesota, did less well, but the game's overall economic condition has been remarkably healthy in times that have grown increasingly hard.
"Baseball," says Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, flush with optimism, "is in the best position probably of any sport to hold its own in a less than ideal economic period. We have a price structure which is very moderate."
And yet the competition for what remains of the entertainment dollar is more strenuous than ever, and baseball should take into account the most serious change of all—the apparent estrangement of fan and player. Curiously, it is the player, not the owner, who seems most acutely aware of this problem. In his contract negotiations, in the conflicts between the owners and his Players Association, he has come to learn that the fan is not his ally.
"There is a big difference in our relations with the fans," says Oakland A's Captain Sal Bando, who epitomizes the assertive new athlete. "The diehard fan has gotten older, and the younger one has so much else he can do besides come to a game. How many kids do you see now listening to the game on the radio and keeping score? That type just isn't there anymore."
The new fan is not so different, however, that he does not continue to see baseball as a game. To the player the game is his livelihood.
"Once you're at the major league level, baseball becomes your business," says Bando. "You get demoted and transferred just as in any other business, the only difference being that your career is much shorter than the average worker's. I know the fan does not see it this way. He sees us getting all that money just for playing a game. I suppose the modern player is more of a prima donna than those of years ago. We do have it better, and you could say we're spoiled in that sense. But we took a stand for better working conditions. The older players were happy just to be playing the game. They were not as conscious of the future as we are. I honestly think we're an important part of society. We entertain people. And we make much less money than entertainers. But you don't hear Johnny Carson criticized for what he makes. Chances are, you don't even know. But our salaries are made public. Everything we do is public. Lawyers don't have millions of people looking over their shoulders when they make a mistake. We do. We are at the top of our profession. And we should be rewarded for it. The fans don't seem to see it that way. Maybe we should hire a public relations firm to get our message across."
There has been an increase in spectator violence over the past few baseball seasons, much of it directed at the players. Can it be that the far sees the comparatively rich player as a foe, not a hero? If so, baseball and all other professional sports are in serious difficulty. The fan has changed in his attitudes and so has the player, but there is a reluctance on both sides to accept the change. The player may expect the oldtime flat-out loyalty; the fan may be looking for an oldtime player who wants nothing more than a chaw of tobacco in his cheek and a bat in his hands.
The fact remains that the game probably has never been played better. The modern athlete, bankroll and all, is faster, stronger and better-trained at an earlier age than his predecessors. If the fan is paying more, he is also getting more. But he remains a tough audience, for he is understandably weary of the game's economics. Despite the changing relationship, player and fan still may have more in common than either realizes.
It is unreasonable to expect a ballplayer to remain in a state of frozen adolescence. The modern athlete is a grownup with adult concerns, even if he does not always act that way. The game may be more of a business to him than a sport, but he is no less dedicated to it. A man can still love his work. We can only hope that never changes.
SPECIAL EFFECT BY HOWARD SOCHUREK