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.