The next day there was a special reception in the East Room of the White House for more than 400 baseball people. "We originally had asked the President to present the award to the Greatest Player of All Time," Kuhn said, "but his aides explained that he would be too busy that night. Then one day Mr. Nixon's office called and said that the President wanted to throw a party for baseball. When was the last time that happened?"
Mr. Nixon is a genuine baseball fan, the first one to occupy the White House in many years. The President impressed the assembled journalists—though perhaps baffled the players at the reception—by declaring: "If I could live my life over again I'd want to be a sportswriter." Accordingly, the Baseball Writers' Association voted him an honorary membership and assigned him the task of convincing Ted Williams that his 15-minute locker-room ban on writers after a game was too strict. If he succeeds, that really may be what makes him so great.
Later the President met all his guests. Harry Walker, the garrulous Houston manager, tried to show him how to hit a curve. Banker Casey Stengel, the Greatest Living Manager, wanted to discuss the prime interest rate. Before and after their meeting with Mr. Nixon the baseball people milled through the East Wing. Lefty Grove, with his feet crossed, white socks falling to his ankles and a big cigar in his mouth, looked at home as he sat under President Washington's picture. The players, though, had one complaint: the cocktail glasses, the hors d'oeuvres forks, the ashtrays and the linen all were unmarked. "No little souvenirs from the White House today," one of them said.
The most violent thunderstorm of the Washington summer began as the reception ended. "I wonder if Mrs. Nixon will throw on a few extra TV dinners and ask us to stay," one player said. It was obvious that the game would not be played. Still, Bowie Kuhn held his centennial birthday party for more than 2,000 guests in three tents pitched on the drill field of the armory across the street from Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.
"The whole thing went off so well," Kuhn said, "that I could not even get depressed by the rain and the postponement. There were U.S. Senators standing there in two inches of rain talking about baseball. How could I get depressed?"
The All-Star Game finally was played on Wednesday afternoon. Despite all the Hollywood hoopla, the game itself remained a crucial test for baseball. The previous three All-Star Games were strictly strikeout exhibitions with final scores of 2-1, 2-1 and 1-0. If this game happened to be low-scoring, too, baseball's new image already would need a facelift.
But the boom came back right away. After four innings the National League had hit three home runs and scored nine runs, while the American League had hit two home runs and scored three runs. The pitching was divinely atrocious, just as baseball officials had hoped. Willie McCovey of the Giants hit two of the National League's home runs, while the Reds' Johnny Bench hit the other and lost a second homer when Carl Yastrzemski extracted his fly ball from the bullpen. Frank Howard of the hometown Senators hit the longest and hardest home run—an opposite-field smash against the wall in right center field—and Detroit's Bill Freehan hit the other for the American League. In four innings baseball had produced more hitting and created more spectator enthusiasm than it had in three previous All-Star Games. The National League won 9-3—but the result was incidental. The bat was back. The people were back. And baseball was back, too.
Right now, in fact, there is an encouraging acceleration in the sport's growth pattern after years of inertia. Baseball's attendance had not matched the growth of the country. In 1948, for instance, there were 10 communities represented in the major leagues with a total metropolitan population of 32 million. That season 1,230 games attracted 20.9 million paying spectators, an average of 17,010 per game. In 1968, when there were 16 communities in the majors with a total metropolitan population of more than 46 million people, 1,619 games drew only 23.1 million, an average of 14,270 per game. During those 20 years the total audience potential had increased 43.8%, but the actual attendance increased only 10.5% and the average attendance declined 16.1%. At the same time all other major professional sports increased substantially in attendance and interest.
The changes have, for the most part, produced measurable improvement. In 1968 only one American Leaguer hit better than .300. This year 12 players are over .300. In the National League one team alone—the Cincinnati Reds—starts a lineup of six .300 hitters. It is doubtful if even the undefeated 1869 Reds could boast that. However, since the Reds also have the worst pitching staff of any contender, the opposition invariably hits as well, if not better. This all-out bombardment has helped Cincinnati to increase its home attendance by more than 117,000.
In the midst of all this euphoria it is most sobering to learn that average paid attendance actually is up by only about 20 persons per game from last year's figures. The standoff is misleading, however, since attendance fell off sharply at this point last year as the Cardinals and Tigers waltzed home, while it should rise this year with pennant races in three of the four divisions. The American League also made an egregious error in loading the Western Division with both its expansion teams and two weak, colorless holdovers—Chicago and California. Not surprisingly, this division accounts for most of the loss in attendance.