CHARLOTTE, N.C. The 89th MLB All-Star Game broadcast will commence Tuesday evening at 7:30 p.m ET on Fox. But sadly, this once-thrilling game no longer seems to have the excitement, the interest or the cachet it once did. We remember when things were a bit different, and it wasn’t all that long ago.
The MLB All-Star Game, back in the day
Once upon a time there was a game that belonged to the nation. A time when little boys put a handful of dirt and grass in a jar filled with lightning bugs to make a temporary nightlight. A time when home air conditioning was rare and when baseball was a radio sport.
And in those long-ago days, it was also a time when Major League Baseball had only 16 teams. Over half of those teams were located in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Chicago.
In 1933, Major League Baseball’s bigwigs decided teams and players needed to take a break from the already long baseball season. The idea was to have an intermission of sorts, a three day break for something new called the All-Star Game. That special game would pit one set of the game’s top stars against another. Later on, the contest earned the nickname the “Midsummer Classic.” But in 1933, it was just a bright marketing idea to promote the opening of the World’s Fair in Chicago.
Normally, American and National League teams didn’t play against each other until the World Series. There were no free agents. Television was only a dream, so you needed to go to the ball park to see your favorite players compete.
The thrill of baseball was once unrivaled
In those days, there were only ten cities where you could watch a game in person. That made everything seem bigger than life. In each game, each pitch had fans on the edge of their seats. But in an All-Star Game, where the best players in the sport competed for league pride, the game was magical.
Even today, no other sport seems more ideally configured to showcase its stars than baseball. NFL Pro Bowls are anti-climatic and NBA All-Star games are nothing more than offensive freak shows where nobody plays defense. Perhaps the National Hockey League comes closest to rivaling baseball. But hockey is still in many ways a Canadian sport in cities where even baseball continues to reign in popularity.
When the MLB All-Star Game started to change
Until 1970, the so-called Midsummer Classic was an all out war for Major League pride among teams and players. Only the World Series had more impact. But even that annual fall epic did not possess boasting rights for an entire league for a year. The MLB All-Star game did.
Alas, the All-Star Game changed utterly in 1970 on the final play in the bottom of the 12th inning. Since that day, baseball’s All-Star Game has become little more than a dull exhibition that has been watered down by modern innovations. This was all (or mostly) due to the notorious “Charlie Hustle,” better known as Pete Rose. Rose – now banned from baseball for gambling infractions – was the culprit who inadvertently launched this unfortunate metamorphosis.
Charlie Hustle’s hustle: Too exciting? Too dangerous?
The 1970 All-Star Game that year took place in Cincinnati, home of the Cincinnati Reds and, ironically, Pete Rose’s hometown. In that game, in the last half of the 12th inning, American League pitcher Clyde Wright quickly dispatched the NL’s Joe Torre and Roberto Clemente.
But Pete Rose kept the inning alive with a single to center. Billy Grabarlewitz followed Rose with another single, putting put men on first and second.
The next batter, Jim Hickman, singled up the middle, while third base coach Leo Durocher waved Rose on to head for home.
Amos Otis fielded the ball cleanly in center and made a perfect throw to the plate.
Forget that the game was an only an exhibition. Rose played it just as he had been taught, colliding with catcher Bob Fosse at home plate in an effort to knock the ball from his glove. The ball trickled away from Fosse. Rose was safe. And the National League won its 8th straight MLB All-Star Game.
In hindsight, many fans and sportscasters believe Rose’s move was unsportsmanlike. But in the context of the times and the way the game was played in that era, “Charlie Hustle” simply did what was necessary to win.
Rule changes, $$$, erode interest in the game
Such a play would likely never occur today. That’s because the rules were changed, even during the regular season, to prevent catchers from blocking the plate so that runners can no longer bowl them over.
By today’s standards, Rose’s move would have been illegal. However, it was certainly not as the game was originally played back as early as 1933.
Since that time, free agency has complicated baseball and other sports to such a degree that professional athletes have become multi-millionaires who employ paid managers and have attorneys on retainer. Team loyalty is practically a thing of the past. Players move comfortably between teams and leagues, always in search of the best contract and the top dollar. In general, players no longer have much loyalty to a team. Or, for that matter, much hometown pride.
Meanwhile, television and internet streaming services made rapid advances, both good and bad. Both broadcast technologies now make games available to more people than ever before. But with the constant in- and out-migration of star players, local and league pride is only a whisper of what it once was.
Playing for personal pride
Players still savor the recognition of playing in the All-Star Game, which honors them as the best at their craft. But winning or losing an All-Star Game holds nowhere near the impact for the competitors that it once did.
To slow the All-Star Game’s creeping irrelevancy and liven things up a bit, a Home Run Derby was added to the annual festivities. But that event is really nothing more than a gimmick. Truthfully, it is largely a big yawn for most Americans. But for MLB and its teams, it conveniently provides another excuse for commercials.
Rule changes and rigid safety rules dim the excitement
As for the All-Star Game itself, that’s changed too, since the rules of each league are divided. In 1933 everyone played the same game. There was no designated hitter back them so pitchers – notoriously bat at hitting – were required to bat. Today, things are different.
Additionally over time, MLB rules have been sanitized in the name of safety. But in actuality, the rule changes also reflect modern baseball’s reliance on big money. Among other issues, today’s greatly inflated baseball salaries mean that injuries to top players can financially devastate his team.
Time for some baseball trivia: The secret origins of “home plate”
Back in the day, the game centered around home plate. Batters scoring a hit (or a walk) left from home and attempted to return there one way or another. Pitchers regarded home plate as their territory and guarded it with a vengeance. For umpires, home plate the place where careers could be made or shattered by the home plate ump’s interpretation of the strike zone.
By the way, did you ever wonder why the game designates this key marker as “Home”? This embedded rubber slab looks like a pentagram. Its three square sides bend sharply into two angles with a point. If you look at the plate from the infield, it looks like a house. Thus “home plate.”
Alas, in the 21st century, the All-Star Game has lost much of its impact for baseball fans. This highly-touted game is now little more than a passing diversion from the pennant races. It certainly does remain as a mid-season break for game-weary and injured players.
All-Star Game, Midsummer Classic, or neither of the above?
But MLB’s All-Star Game, its “Midsummer Classic,” is not as “classic” as it once was back in the days of yore. Sadly, if you think about it, in their own way, all our favorite sporting pastimes are gradually sliding into the realm of mediocrity. Meaning, passion and simple hometown pride now take a back seat to the almighty dollar. No wonder attendance and viewership in professional sports continues to sink.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.