This page noted last week that 11 of the 16 major league clubs show a decline in attendance in 1958 and quoted a reader who in effect blamed all this on himself because he'd rather be out doing something than watching someone else do it. The comment was made that big league club owners have failed to recognize that we are no longer a nation of watchers, but doers, and that "from now on it is going to take a bit of doing to get the new doers to watch."
Well, now, of course, this was not meant to imply that nobody watches. After all, My Fair Lady still packs them in on Broadway; a juvenile bit of nonsense about an atomic scientist's misadventures with Musca domestica is attracting the Playboy set to the drive-ins; despite the quiz fizzle, TV screens still glow bluely through countless living room windows. In baseball, attendance in Pittsburgh and Chicago is way up, and in outdoorsy California nearly three million Watchers have paid their way in to see Doers like Willie Mays and Don Zimmer perform the familiar old melodrama.
These items are mentioned to remind the club owners that professional baseball is a show. The fact remains that baseball attendance is up in 1958. Where the show is good, the watchers have come out in increasing numbers; only when the show is bad does the fun-loving fan stay home.
In all likelihood he'll still watch baseball on TV, but he won't make the big effort to go to the ball park, and all too often baseball's brass makes no big effort to get him there. You must whet a man's appetite for the spectacle in order to overcome the bad taste of jammed parking, uncomfortable seats, narrow aisles, rude ticket-takers, tip-hungry ushers, poor refreshments. But what is done to make the spectacle irresistible?
On the field, sterility—in word, dress and deed—is the order of the day. Arguments ( Boston would almost prefer to watch the hated Casey Stengel raging helplessly at an umpire than see a Red Sox victory) are ruthlessly stifled. Uniforms are scrupulously clean (though the rough, dirty, unforgettable Gashouse Gang Cardinals of the 1930s are a baseball legend); and the on-deck batter even kneels on a folded towel or (it would be hard to explain this to John McGraw) a small rubber mat.
Clowning is taboo. When Whitey Witt was conked by a pop bottle a generation ago, club officials—hoping to keep the next crowd peaceful—explained that Witt had actually stepped on the bottle himself and it had flipped up and hit him on the head. Next day in fielding practice, despite this official explanation, Joe Bush walked out to the outfield and turned to the fans a rear protected by 1) a catcher's mask on the back of his head, 2) a chest protector over his shoulder blades, and 3) shin guards on his calves. The crowd loved it. Today Bush would receive a severe calling down for making a "travesty of the game."
"Travesty" is a favorite word of the tepid-milk personalities who dominate baseball. Fans recall with delight Casey Stengel thumbing his nose at rival players as he rounded the bases with a game-winning home run in the World Series; and Lefty Gomez racing George Selkirk from field to dugout while a third-out fly was still in mid-air. To baseball's officialdom these are travesties. Today's player is apparently trained to show no emotion when he hits a home run (and seemingly must appear as bored as his teammates when he accepts their limp congratulatory handshakes after he has crossed home plate); and a pitcher who travels from mound to dugout in anything other than a slow, world-weary pace is looked on as a dangerous radical.
In recent years Bobby Bragan impudently offered a cool orange juice to a team of steaming-mad umpires, and Bill Veeck actually put a midget into a St. Louis Browns game. Spectators relished it, but Veeck and Bragan got the travesty treatment.
We would remind the men who run baseball that travesty means burlesque imitation, a grotesque parody. When a hardened athlete needs a towel to kneel on, when men engaged in harsh competition feel obliged to show ennui, when a game built out of broad fun is gelded of humor, then the travesty, gentlemen, is yours.
And any loss in attendance.