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Mudville: May 29, 2024 2:30 am PDT

Bright Lights, Big City

BY DEB SEYMOUR

If you summon Siri for the route from Arlington, Texas to Phoenix, Arizona – or vice versa – the journey is essentially a 15-hour drive. That’s not as close as the Bronx to Queens or Los Angeles to Anaheim, but it’s certainly not as far as Philadelphia to Houston.

So the World Series this year isn’t quite like a New York subway series or a California freeway series, but it’s contained in a small enough segment of the baseball market to have MLB and its sponsors concerned about the size of the audience for this, the most important baseball tournament of the year.

Everyone likes to see an underdog win (well, maybe not if you’re from Philly or Houston, this year). Except in the case of this World Series, at least on paper, both teams are the underdog. Both were wild card winners, meaning neither won their division; and neither is located in a particularly large baseball market. The pundits may have chosen the Rangers over the D’backs, but make no mistake – according to many, neither team winning this competition even deserved to get there.

A couple of weeks ago in Up N’ In we talked about the baseball people who consider the whole postseason a crapshoot, so we won’t review that entire subject here. But is the history and the goal of the championship to demonstrate who was the best team all season? Because even if it is, that’s not always going to be a large market team. And the two teams competing won’t always be across the country from each other, or even cover a large swath of the North American baseball fan base.

If you go way back to the repeated World Series matchups between teams like the AL Yankees and the NL Dodgers or the NL Giants (the 1920s to the 1950s), when those teams were all in New York City, they certainly were all in a large market – but that market was located in one city, in one corner of North America.

Now, expansion had not yet occurred and much less of the continent was covered by MLB cities in any event (and we’re definitely talking about the days before a TV in every household and the ability to stream games over the web), but nevertheless baseball was the primary sport in most of the US – and people paid attention to the World Series wherever it was being played.

There were print newspapers and the radio, and there’s always been word of mouth; and perhaps more of the country did get involved in the pre-1960 years in which, say, the Cincinnati Reds were playing for the championship (1919 and 1940) than when it was only northeastern teams involved – but having two large, cross-country markets in the Series wasn’t something you could always predict or even hope for.

Nevertheless, the entire North American baseball world was always paying attention:

A banner proclaiming “National pastime no more until end of world war” and “Boston Red Sox are un-crowned kings of 1918 season” tops a September 12, 1918 page in The Indianapolis News filled with headlines, game stats, and opinions about that year’s World Series, featuring the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs.

The Great War was over in 1918, so the game resumed despite the previous year’s announcement. In 1919, the Chicago Daily Tribune sponsored an electric scoreboard on the front of the Colonnade building so fans outside the park could keep up with the action. In far-away San Bernardino County, California, fans could listen to the games and watch the electric board at the Opera House.*

The Collonade Scoreboard, 1919.

The year of the infamous Black Sox Scandal, the 1919 World Series featured the Cubs and the Reds. And people as far away as those in San Bernardino County, in Southern California, were listening to the games.

Some years later:

Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier in 1947, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, a team that also made it to the World Series that year. Jackie’s mother flew East to watch him play. The Dodgers lost to the Yankees in seven games—their 11th World Series win.*

One of the years of the many New York Yankees-Brooklyn Dodgers matchups, you can be certain all baseball fans’ eyes were focused on the World Series that postseason.

In 1952, the Brooklyn Dodgers were still trying to win a world championship – facing, once again, the three-time World Series-defending Yankees. Said Hall of Fame Dodger Gil Hodges of that experience, in his book The Game of Baseball:

“The thing that most people hear about that one is that a priest stood in a Brooklyn pulpit that Sunday [during the World Series] and said, ‘It’s too hot for a sermon. Just go home and say a prayer for Gil Hodges.’ Well, I know that I’ll never forget that, but also I won’t forget the hundreds of people who sent me letters, telegrams and postcards during that World Series. There wasn’t a single nasty message. Everybody tried to say something nice. It had a tremendous effect on my morale, if not my batting average.”

The cover of the 1952 Brooklyn Dodgers yearbook featuring a cartoon illustration of a hobo nailing a poster to a wall. (Photo by Blank Archives/Getty Images)

You can be sure all those letters, telegrams, and postcards did not exclusively come from the Brooklyn, New York baseball market. Once again, the entire baseball world of that decade was paying attention.

Under the bright lights, in the big cities of New York, Boston, and Chicago, you can be absolutely certain all baseball fans were captivated by the World Series when their teams were in it. But that was actually true in every World Series year, and included Indianapolis fans, Cincinnati fans, Southern California fans, and those across the full spectrum of baseball fan cities.

So what’s changed so much since the 1960s that it has MLB executives and sponsors concerned about World Series TV ratings?

That question is actually rather complicated, and ultimately worthy of its own column. But to simplify, NFL television ratings are higher by now than for any other sport in the US; NASCAR fandom dominates that of all other sports in some parts of the country; college football has grown, especially with the advent of almost nationwide legal betting; and by October in most years, the NBA and NHL have taken hold of enough of the baseball market to shrink interest in the World Series by at least a few percentage points.

In short, 2023 is not 1952 – and rather especially when it comes to interest in the World Series.

: Josh Jung #6 of the Texas Rangers slides into home plate to score a run on a wild pitch in the second inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks during Game Four of the World Series at Chase Field on October 31, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

If you add together the proximity of the two teams playing in this year’s MLB championship series, the fact that they were both wild card teams (one with just 84 regular season wins), and the sloping drop-off of North American interest in the World Series in general, that’s not exactly a recipe for a huge audience.

Hence, with all that competition from other sports, and of all the things MLB executives worry about on a daily basis, perhaps they’re actually correct to be concerned about this one?

The total viewership numbers for this year‘s World Series aren’t as yet available, but they’ll be worth checking out when they do arrive. What can MLB do to upgrade interest and fandom for its most important series of the year? Perhaps start to pay attention to what some of the other leagues are doing. That’s not to say a Nickelodeon Green Slime World Series or a Toy Story World Series or a special ARod-Jeter-Ortiz-Cast is the answer, but a refresh of the old FOX-only broadcast concept might definitely not be such a bad idea.

Something to think about, MLB – while the next set of rule changes is being experimented with in the minors, and as we continue to argue over whether there should be a phantom runner at second base in extra innings.


*Source: “Historical Headline October: The World Series,” Fishwrap: The official blog of newspapers

BallNine's fearless editor. Sports addict who's lived on both coasts (though loyal to her hometown New York City teams). Writer of many articles on education. Speaker of little bits of many languages.

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