It is considered bad form among baseball people to dash about issuing clamorous pronouncements on how the national pastime is booming, how it is enjoying a new and unprecedented popularity and making a heartwarming comeback from a time when its critics declared it too slow, too dull, too pastoral for the bloodthirsty modern sports fan. Such tasteless crowing, they say, is a mark of insecurity, behavior more characteristic of the professional football, basketball and hockey Philistines. It is baseball's party line that during all those years when its competitors were dismissing the game as little more than an occasionally charming anachronism, it was quietly setting attendance records. Baseball men claim their game is not coming back but that it never went away.
"Baseball was a media straw man during the so-called pro football boom," says Chub Feeney, president of the National League. "The pendulum never swung away from baseball."
"While Evel Knievel was crashing," adds Phillies Vice-President Bill Giles, "baseball survived."
"Baseball has been the victim of a lot of generalities," says Fred Claire, vice-president for public relations and promotions of the enormously successful Dodgers. "A lot of people on the fringe of sports got the impression the game was losing popularity. That impression persisted when it was obviously not substantiated by attendance figures and television and radio ratings."
But if the game was in good health before, it is positively radiant today. And no matter how modest baseball officials may be, it is booming. Attendance at major league games is up about 550,000 from last year when the two leagues drew 30,025,608, only 83,318 shy of the record attendance of 1973. Thirteen of the 24 teams have increased attendance this year, and even in those cities where crowds are down radio and television ratings are up. Some of the increases are astonishing. The Dodgers, whose paid attendance of 2,632,474 last year was easily the highest in baseball, are more than 200,000 ahead of that pace. They passed one million on June 9 (after only 27 home dates), the earliest any team ever reached that figure, and they will probably pass two million this week, which would be the earliest any team has done that. Los Angeles seems assured of breaking the one-season attendance record of 2,755,184 it set in 1962. San Diego, which drew more than a million fans for the first time last year, is also more than 200,000 ahead of 1974 and conceivably could draw 1.5 million with a mediocre team. The Reds again should join Los Angeles in the two million class, and so might the Phillies. Eight of the 12 American League teams are ahead of last year's attendance rates, and six of them are up more than 100,000. Two clubs, the Brewers and Yankees, show increases in excess of 200,000. Overall the league is running more than 600,000 ahead of 1974 and will probably break its season high of 13,433,604 set in 1973. The Reds have even drawn 28,000 for an 11 a.m. baseball clinic, and 20,600 Red Sox faithful sat patiently through a five-hour rain-delayed game late last month.
Some trouble spots remain, most notably in California's Bay Area, where the Oakland A's and San Francisco Giants compete to their mutual detriment, and in Atlanta and Minnesota. Still, both the Twins and the A's are drawing better this year than last. Attendance is significantly down in Detroit, Kansas City and Chicago in the American League and in Houston and Montreal in the National, but it is likely that the lackluster performances of the teams in those communities are making them poor draws, not any general decline of interest.
The attendance increases are even more noteworthy considering there is only one moderately close divisional race in the two major leagues. And they are still more impressive in view of the economic climate, which, as we are relentlessly reminded, is not exactly healthy. But with ticket prices significantly lower than in other major professional sports, baseball is better able to cope with hard times than its rivals. The Dodgers, for example, have not raised their ticket prices in the 18 years they have been in Los Angeles. It is still possible for a 12-year-old to buy a seat in Dodger Stadium for 75¢. In the past 20 years, baseball prices have increased 54%, while movies have gone up 227%, bread 135%, hamburgers 110% and gasoline 96%. The average cost of a major league ticket is $1.94, compared to $6.75 for pro football, $5.88 for basketball and $6.26 for hockey. While these sports' high prices are threatening to make them available only to upper-middle-class male adults, baseball remains one of the few diversions cheap enough to qualify as family entertainment.
And the times do seem to be changing. Social trends can be ridiculously over-intellectualized, but Feeney's pendulum may well be swinging away from the violence, restlessness and dead seriousness of the '60s, a time when professional football was appropriately on the rise.
"Baseball has benefited from the nostalgia craze," says Peter Bavasi, the young and, yes, progressive general manager of the Padres. "The values in American society seem to be returning to another time. There is less dwelling now on the sensational. In the past, baseball has been criticized for its conservative approach. We've never changed our rules that much. Now that's proving to be an advantage. We're helping draw people back to the good old days."
Mention of the "good old days" or anything else that smacks of stodginess sends shudders through the game's modernists, but there is a ring of truth to such talk. A game that remains essentially the same—even the designated hitter, the most radical change of this decade, has not altered baseball's basic framework—has certain advantages in a time when changes in other aspects of life occur too rapidly to be assimilated. What is more significant is that while baseball remains a grand old game on the field, its front offices are no longer content to sit back and wait for fans to pound on the gates. Alarmed by the growth of its competitors, the clubowners have done a selling job.
The young people jamming parks from Boston to Los Angeles are just one indication of their salesmanship. During the time when baseball was purportedly in decline, the standard analysis of the game's following was that it consisted largely of Little Leaguers, whose interest would last only until they moved on to more adult diversions, and aged fans, who would take the game with them when they died. That profile was never correct, and even excluding pre-teens (whose increased enthusiasm is attested to by players who report being badgered more than ever for autographs), baseball now attracts the youngest fans in pro sports. Tube-topped adolescent girls, many of them such rabid rooters that fan clubs are enjoying a revival, have become as much a part of the scene in the stands as beer vendors. And so have teen-aged boys, college students and all sorts of people in their 20s.
"At our park you find a tremendous number of spectators in the 18 to 30 category," says Oriole General Manager Frank Cashen. "There are more of them than ever before. Baseball has even become a popular form of dating, and a lot of young fans are arriving in couples."
"We have a very young audience," says Reds Vice-President Dick Wagner. "Our attendance profile is an absolute duplicate of the federal census, except our percentages aren't as high in the 50-and-over and the 5-and-under groups. That belies a lot of what's been said about baseball."
The availability of tickets, their inexpensiveness, a turning-away from more violent games and even the fact that beer is often cheaper at the park than it is in many bars have all contributed to baseball's youth movement. But probably nothing has done more to attract young fans—and their elders, for that matter—than the enlightened approach of the game's owners, who not too long ago feared that promotions would tarnish baseball's image.
"Our boom is the result of five years' hard work," says Dick Hackett, vice-president of marketing for the Brewers. "A couple of years ago, I took some of our players on a winter goodwill tour. In one city not one kid knew who our catcher was, not one knew our second baseman and not one could name a starting pitcher. Then Phil Roof, our catcher, asked the people, 'Who's the Packer quarterback?' and they yelled in unison, 'Bart Starr.' Right there, I said, we've got a job to do."
"The big difference now is that we're marketing our game," says Angel President Red Patterson, who proudly describes himself as "the dean of baseball's promotin' guys." "When I went with the Yankees in 1946 as a combination road secretary, public-relations man and promotin' guy, I think I was the only one in the league with a job specifically involving promotions. Now everyone has a promotions department. In those days, the Yankees didn't even have souvenir stands. They didn't want to sell baseball caps in the Stadium because they thought it would lower the dignity of the cap. I'm not talking about giving the caps away the way we do now. I'm talking about selling them. When I first suggested we do this, George Weiss [then the Yankee general manager] looked shocked. 'Red,' he said, 'we don't want every kid in town running around with a Yankee cap on.' Then I looked shocked. 'Why in the heck not?' I said."
Caps are for sale in every park now, but there is seldom any need to buy them. Along with helmets, bats, balls, batting gloves, jackets, sweatbands, T shirts, halter tops and Lord knows what else, caps are given away on the myriad promotion days and nights. Sixty-three of the Padres' 77 home dates are promotions. The Dodgers have had 10 crowds of more than 50,000 this season; five have come on giveaway nights.
But free merchandise is not the only lure. In addition to sluggers Greg Luzinski, Mike Schmidt and Dick Allen, the promotion-minded Phillies offer such attractions as Kiteman, who attempts—sometimes successfully—to sail across the outfield, and Karl Wallenda, who walks across it on a high wire attached to the foul poles. Wallenda will also perform this year in San Diego, where Gene Locklear, an outfielder scarcely celebrated for his defensive skills, will walk beneath him carrying a glove and presumably hoping he will not have to make the catch of his career.
The giveaways began in earnest about 10 years ago, although showmen like Bill Veeck and Larry MacPhail had recognized earlier that owners stood to profit if they did more for their fans than merely opening the gates. In Cincinnati, MacPhail pioneered night baseball and spiced up his games with music. When he was the Yankee president in 1946, he opened the first stadium club. Veeck introduced fireworks and a midget to the game and outraged the baseball Establishment of the '50s with his gaudy promotions. Ed Barrow, the old Yankee curmudgeon, was hardly a promoter, but when he invited Lou Gehrig's former teammates to reassemble for the stricken star's farewell to Yankee Stadium in 1939, he inadvertently gave birth to the Old Timers' Game, which has spread even to franchises like San Diego that are not old enough to have old-timers.
Six years ago the Orioles brightened the otherwise uneventful fifth-inning infield drag by employing a pretty girl in short pants to sweep off the bases and swat the umpires and coaches on their backsides with her broom. Her successors may be found today in parks across the country. Usherettes are almost as common as ushers, although in Philadelphia, where the Hot Pants Patrol guides the patrons to their seats, they are far from common in face or figure.
Ball-park attendants once did little more than discourage gate crashers, break up fights and, in some cities, insult the customers; now they are as solicitous as floorwalkers. At Angel games, parking-lot employees greet each motorist with a cheery "Welcome to Anaheim Stadium." Ray Kroc, the hamburger tycoon who brought life to the moribund Padres, bought a full-page ad in the local papers of July 17 to thank the fans of San Diego for coming out to the park with such salubrious frequency. Kroc's alert staff is ever ready to chastise or even cashier a park employee for the merest suggestion of discourtesy. "The stadium people are our strongest or weakest link," says Bavasi. "They must represent the standards of the chairman of the board, Mr. Kroc."
The Padres also brief their players in public relations, advising them of the different needs of reporters on morning and afternoon newspapers and encouraging them to sign autographs, accept speaking engagements and generally look upon the fan as a bosom pal. "The player who says I'll let my bat do the talking is no longer a complete player," says Bavasi. "If the public loves him, he's got a good argument at contract time. He can say, 'Well, I didn't hit so well, but I did have three fan clubs.' The player is no different from any other entertainer. But when, say, an opera singer receives a big ovation, what does he do? He makes a curtain call and bows his thanks to the audience. What does a ballplayer do after he hits a home run and gets an ovation? Usually nothing. I don't understand why he can't make some appropriate response to the audience even if it's nothing more than tipping his cap."
Bavasi, his father, Padre President Buzzie, and Patterson all honed their skills as flacks in the Dodger organization, which continues to lavish affection on the transient multitudes of Southern California. The Dodgers actually do not play the public-relations game fairly, since they have the advantages of a beautiful, splendidly maintained, conveniently located stadium that they also own, ideal weather (one rainout in 18 years), a huge population and, above all, a team that is perennially in pennant contention. All of those are among the reasons why the Dodgers may draw three million fans this year. But even with these assets working for them, they promote as if they were the newest supermarket on the block. The stadium message board seems to have a word for everybody who passes through the turnstiles, recently taking time out from its busy schedule to wish a fond "Happy Birthday to Melba Figge of Glendale." The Dodger sales effort has extended beyond the secular to include 14 annual "Nuns Days" held for the 20,000 sisters of the Los Angeles archdiocese. The Dodgers clearly will move heaven and earth to win people to their cause.
Still, with all the huckstering, the game remains the essential ingredient. As Giles says, "Baseball survives while Evel Knievel and outside linebackers recklessly come and go. Played well, it is a study in grace; played poorly it can be an excruciating bore. But then there is always tomorrow, for baseball is not so much an event as it is a fact of life. Sometimes we forget how much pleasure it can give."
"To the youngsters," says the Dodgers' Claire, "it is a magic game. As we get older we tend to say the game is not what it used to be. We forget that there are 10-year-olds who come out to the park with stars in their eyes. To them, the game is everything. We older people say the game has lost something. We are wrong. The game hasn't lost anything. It is we who have lost something. We have lost our youth."
Kiteman tries, sometimes successfully, to fly across the Philadelphia outfield.
Once reluctant to sell caps, baseball now outfits entire families for free.
Even where crowds are down, fans are getting bug-eyed watching at home.
New fanaticism, including a revival of fan clubs, has the players riding high.