This is baseball's Golden Age. Indeed, there is impressive evidence to suggest that the old game's grip on the American sensibility has never been firmer, its future never brighter. A sport that only a decade or so ago seemed to be played quietly in the shadow of its gaudier, more urgently contemporary rival, professional football, is now enjoying unsurpassed popularity and prosperity. Baseball's traditionalists denounce those who proclaim a resurgence, arguing that for something to resurge it must have lain dormant for a time. Baseball, they insist, has plowed resolutely forward since the days of Candy Cummings and Old Hoss Radbourn. The NFL's rise to prominence in the disrupted, war-ravaged '60s was, they say, a media invention. It was also, they concede reluctantly, a matter of superior promotion and a willingness to exploit and be exploited by television. Pro football is still very much in the picture, but the latest polls show baseball to be the sport these days. And statistics indicate that the upward curve has been steep and is almost surely still climbing.
The average attendance at major league games last year was 20,733, up from 13,869 in 1963 and 15,705 in 1968. Individually and collectively, the two leagues established alltime attendance records last season, the total for both being 40,636,886. Six teams, three in each league, attracted more than two million fans at home, and one, the Dodgers, became the first franchise in history to exceed three million—3,347,845 in 80 dates, an extraordinary per-date average of 41,848. San Francisco increased its home attendance by more than a million over 1977, and if that does not represent a resurgence, then the word is meaningless. The five California major league teams alone drew more than nine million fans, an average of 1.8 million, despite the presence among them of the damaged Oakland A's.
Baseball also has become a television superstar. In 1969, World Series games were watched by an average audience of 21 million; in 1978, after eight years of prime-time Series games, the average was 44 million. Overall, last season's Series attracted 30 million more viewers than did Roots. Obviously, the network that acquires the Series has a hot property, as witness the case of NBC. Only twice this TV season, which began in September, has the network topped the weekly ratings. Those were the weeks it carried the Series. Its margin over its competitors was apparently directly related to the number of games broadcast. In the first week of the Series, NBC had a prime-time rating of 25.9, as compared with ABC's 18.6 and CBS' 15.9. The following week, when only one Series game was played, NBC edged ABC 19.8 to 19.7, with CBS trailing at 17.8. With the Series completed, NBC fell into last place.
Innumerable theories are advanced to explain baseball's current vogue, and some make sense. Baseball's ticket prices are easily the lowest in professional sport—an average of about $4, for example, compared to the NFL's $9.75—and because baseball is played nearly every day, seats are usually available, even in Dodger Stadium and Fenway Park. In some cities, bleacher seats cost only a dollar, a bargain virtually un-equaled in the entertainment business. The relative inexpensiveness and the availability of tickets would seem to explain yet another phenomenon, the ever-increasing number of young people flocking to ball parks. Pro football thrives on the season ticket, and it isn't cheap. The result is that NFL stadiums are all but the exclusive property of middle-class, middle-aged Americans. Thus, baseball has the upper hand with youngsters and young adults of modest means.
That suits the game's management perfectly. Baseball prefers its fans to span the generations, because it has always placed great store in continuity—the transfer of allegiance from parent to child. Bob Fishel, assistant to the president of the American League, points up the significance of the once-ridiculed "giveaway days" that began in earnest in the mid-'60s, when the game seemed to be losing its grip. Cap Day and the like were seen at the time as acts of desperation, the sports equivalent of the Dish Nights staged in impoverished movie theaters during the Depression. But, argues Fishel, "they got kids coming to the ball parks, and they've kept on coming. Now many of them are parents who bring their kids to the parks."
The owners and their executives have come to recognize that there is more to selling the game than opening the gates and letting the hordes rush in. "We're more sophisticated in promoting our product," says Harry Dalton, general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. "We're utilizing marketing techniques, increasing our advertising, taking surveys, emphasizing group sales." "You have to make people believe in your organization," says Giant owner Bob Lurie, who made believers of the extra million fans in San Francisco last year. Most of all, it was a winning team that brought the spectators back, but that has not caused Lurie, who averages at least one speaking engagement a week throughout the year, to stop plugging the product. "It's like selling razor blades or anything else," he says.
Fishel suggests—and Dalton agrees—that the free-agent rule, detested as it is by the game's hierarchy, has been useful in keeping baseball before the public in the winter when football and basketball usually dominate the news. The big salaries generate interest, and the freer movement of talent stimulates ticket sales. The defections of Pete Rose from Cincinnati and Rod Carew from Minnesota have sent ticket orders soaring in their new cities, Philadelphia and Anaheim, without appreciably affecting business in the towns they abandoned.
And finally, there is the game itself and its relation to the mood of the times. "I think there is a big nonviolent trend among young people now, possibly relating back to the reaction against the Vietnam war," says National League President Chub Feeney. "You can spend 2� hours at one of our games and not see people getting their heads knocked in." Says Dalton, "There's no clock in our game, and people everywhere live by the clock. We offer real drama, involving people, not time." The people themselves are the paramount ingredient. As the old gate attractions—Rose, McCovey, Stargell, Morgan, et al.—fade somewhat, ready replacements—Rice, Parker, Clark, Guidry, et al.—climb past them, while those in the middle—Carew, Seaver, Garvey, Ryan, Jackson, et al.—hold fast, more or less.
A less tangible explanation of the game's triumph was suggested this spring by Bill Rigney, former manager of the Giants, Angels and Twins and now the Angels' "special assignment" man. Rigney may be baseball's finest anecdotist, and he is certainly among its most faithful enthusiasts. Reminiscing hilariously in a Scottsdale, Ariz. restaurant, he paused to examine his exuberance. "I was invited to a reunion not long ago," he said, "and one of the people came up to me and said, 'Rig, you sure look good. All you baseball people do.' Well, I was flattered, then I thought about it. Why shouldn't we look good? It's the game. It keeps us young. When you're in the park, you see no past, no future, just the present. You're there...NOW!"
This sense of being frozen in time can be experienced by the fan as well. In a sense, the game keeps all who care about it young. It is significant that baseball begins in the spring, a time of reawakening, of fresh endeavor. Each season is a renewal—of hope, of faith in the old home team, of a kind of courage. "This year we'll get the damn Yankees," a Red Sox zealot might say bravely in April. It is a happy time, this beginning. And it is a happy game. For a few hours each day, the world seems a somewhat better place than we know it to be. That is not a bad feeling.