In defense of the World Series at night

It was 70 years ago Wednesday that Ted Williams finished the last .400 season, 60 years ago Monday that Bobby Thomson hit baseball’s most famous home run, 50 years ago Saturday that Roger Maris hit the home run which broke Babe Ruth’s single-season record.

It was even 90 years ago next Wednesday that Babe Ruth played in the first of seven World Series for the Yankees (they lost to the New York Giants in 8; Ruth hit but one home run).

So which of these anniversaries has had the most lasting impact on baseball? None of the above.

Because it was 40 years ago on Oct. 13 the World Series was first played at night. Bruce Kison relieved Luke Walker, missed Orioles bats if not their bodies, and turned the Series around for the Pirates. Kison hit three batters in 6.1 innings, the Pirates beat Pat Dobson, the Orioles’ fourth 20-game winner, 4-3, and won the Series, 4-3; night baseball won over the Series.

By 1987 the Series was played exclusively at night; today the only time it sees daylight is if it’s on the West Coast.

“Do you believe the Pirates had a hand in starting that crap?” Steve Blass told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gene Collier for a story last June. “The World Series in the day was part of our autumn as kids. Part of October. It was running home from school to watch it. They’re always trying to market the game to kids, but that night, they started stealing the game from kids.”

Blass — who was brilliant in winning Games 3 and 7 in 1971 — isn’t alone. The theory is seasonal — every October it rises again.

Maybe Blass is right. And maybe he’s not. Maybe the Series was moved to night for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks — because that’s where the viewers are.

I’m not sure how many middle schools Blass has been around lately, but I’m guessing there wouldn’t be a lot of running home today to watch the Series even if it was played in the afternoon in the backyard. It’s hard to sprint and push the buttons on your video game at the same time.

It’s romantic to recall afternoon World Series games, but it’s limiting, too. Plenty of folks yearn for the Eisenhower years, and think if only things today were like they were in the good old days. But most of them aren’t people of color.

Tastes change. The three most popular sports in the first half of the 20th century were baseball, boxing and horse racing; the latter two have long since been eclipsed, and it’s not because the Triple Crown races were moved to prime-time (boxing’s exclusionary closed-circuit policies are another story). The Triple Crown races are the same time they ever were, but the audience is so small you could poll them and ask them what time they want the races to start.

Baseball has long since been supplanted by football — Howard Cosell used to predict it would happen consistently, until he did baseball games, too — but it has far more to do with betting lines and fantasy football lineups and that sport’s innate violence than the World Series being played at night.

(Somebody’s watching baseball, though. Every team this year drew at least 1.4 million fans, six topped 3 million and 19 topped 2 million, including the Astros, who’ve lost 104 games, and counting. In 1971, nine of the 24 teams couldn’t even draw 1 million fans, and only two topped 2 million. And, yes, some of this has to do with an exanding population.)

NBC lamented its loss of the Game of the Week a few years ago as if it were the end of a Hall of Famer’s career. Truth is, nobody cared but NBC. The Game of the Week had long ceased to be relevant in an era when every game of every season can be watched on a laptop for about the price of what it takes a family to attend one game.

It’s like asking where have all the great radio voices of the 1950s and ’60s gone? Who would know there aren’t any? Because no one’s listening on the radio. Can there be a great radio voice if there’s no audience? Why would anyone listen when they can watch?

We have more and better choices today. According to wikipedia, “an estimated 61 million people” watched the first night World Series game; it was a record audience. Last year’s World Series averaged 14 million viewers, and if you think those totals are low, imagine what the ratings would have been if it had been played in the afternoon. How embarassing would it be if World Series ratings were lower than those for an Ally McBeal rerun?

“I can’t stay up and watch a World Series game,” former Pirate Richie Hebner said to Collier. “There are six freaking commercials between every half inning. I mean I’m no different than anybody else. It’s too late.”

He’s right about the commercials, of course. And it is late — on the East Coast, where we see the world the way a famous New Yorker cover depicts a Manhattanite’s view: it’s all about us. But less than half the country lives in the Eastern time zone; and maybe night Series games aren’t too late for the rest of the country. Ask someone in California how they feel about the World Series in the afternoon — that’s their morning.

I’m sympathetic to Blass’ arguments. His memories are mine, of sneaking a listen in or out of class to the Series on a transistor radio. I’m just not sure if he’s nostalgic for a world that doesn’t exist. I don’t see anyone trying to keep up with baseball on a transistor radio anymore.

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2 Responses to In defense of the World Series at night

  1. Mike says:

    Sound logic as usual, though it wouldn’t KILL the ratings to have one day game. They should consider a Saturday afternoon, since with the series starting during the week, there’s an assurance of a Saturday game that won’t be the opening game. I’d even settle for a 4pm start, a la FOX during the regular season. That way the west coast isn’t forced to watch over breakfast.

    And though it’s only a year, I believe day games ended with the 86 series.

    • Mike — I’m not opposed to a Series day game here or there, just trying to suggest why the wishing for all games in the day is not realistic. Of course, Saturday is the day the most people can watch a night game; MLB will never go for Sunday since that would mean going up against the NFL. I can’t see a weekday game anytime soon. And 86 was the last day game in the Series.

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