"Mid-Summer Classic" (down memory lane)

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"Mid-Summer Classic" (down memory lane)

MLB's first-ever All Star game was played on July 6, 1933 at Comiskey Park in Chicago. It was promoted by the Chicago Tribune in conjunction with the city's Century of Progress Exposition (anyone ever heard of that?). It game was a big deal at the time. The retired John McGraw was in the dugout for the NL and Connie Mack skippered the AL. The "junior circuit" won that first game 4-2, appropriately on the strength of Babe Ruth's two-run homer. While few could argue that the NFL has replaced MLB as "America's Pastime," there is also little doubt that the "Mid-Summer Classic" beats the NFL's Pro Bowl, hands down!

The 'beauty' of MLB lies in its history. Does anyone have a single vivid Pro Bowl memory? Of course not, it was a rhetorical question. All Star game memories in MLB help define the sport. As already mentioned, Babe Ruth set the tone in the first-ever All Star game. The very next year, of the 18 players who started the 1934 game, only one (Wally Berger) is not in the Hall of Fame. That game was played at the Polo Grounds and Carl Hubbell set a record by striking out in succession, five batters destined for Cooperstown; Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin.

In 1984, the 50th anniversary of this legendary performance, NL pitchers Fernando Valenzuela and Dwight Gooden combined to fan six batters in a row for a new All-Star Game record. "Freddy" struck out Hall of Famers Dave Winfield, Reggie Jackson and George Brett while "Doc' fanned Lance Parrish, Chet Lemon and Alvin Davis. From the "You Can't Make This Stuff Up" department comes that fact that Carl Hubbell himself was on hand for that 1984 game at San Francisco's Candlestick Park, to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Ask Ted Williams (of course that might be tough to do), and he'll tell you that his "greatest thrill as a player" was winning the 1941 All-Star Game with a two-out, three-run HR in the bottom of the ninth inning at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. "Teddy Ballgame" added another memorable All-Star Game moment in 1946 at Fenway Park. In a 12-0 blowout win for the AL, Williams not only went 4-for-4 with five RBI, his day (yes, All Star games were played in the afternoon back then) was highlighted by a HR off Rip Sewell's infamous "eephus pitch."

The 1957 game brought out the biggest controversy until the 2002 game (more on that in a bit). Cincinnati fans 'stuffed' the ballot box and elected seven Reds players to start in the All-Star Game. The only non-Red elected to start for the NL was St Louis first baseman Stan Musial. An investigation uncovered that over half of the ballots cast came from Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Enquirer had printed up pre-marked ballots and distributed them with the Sunday newspaper to make it easy for Reds fans to vote "early and often" (where have I heard that phrase before?). The best story I've heard reported was that some Cincinnati bars refused to serve alcohol to their customers until AFTER they filled out a ballot (gotta love that promotion!).

In the end, Commissioner Ford Frick decided to appoint Willie Mays and Hank Aaron (ever heard of those guys?) to substitute for Reds players Gus Bell and Wally Post. Frick also decided to strip the fans of their voting rights, giving that job to the managers, players and coaches until 1969, when the vote was again returned to the fans. The memories continued, though. One of the All Star game's most indelible images is that of Pete Rose 'bowling over' Ray Fosse at home plate on the last play of the 1970 All-Star Game. Some two decades later, when Rose was sentenced to five months in prison for tax evasion, he was sent to the U.S. penitentiary in Marion, Illinois You guessed it. That's Ray Fosse's hometown (can't make that one up!). You know what they say about pay-backs!

There was Reggie's "lights out" HR in Detroit's Tiger Stadium (no more Briggs Field) in 1971 and in 1983, Fred Lynn became the first player to hit a grand slam in an All-Star game, helping the AL end an 11-game losing streak with a 13-3 win. I'll close my "memory lane" portion of this article with two Cal Ripken, Jr entries. He became the only player to win the Home Run Derby, All Star Game MVP and American League MVP awards during the same season in 1991. Fast forward 10 years to June 2001, when Ripken announced he would retire at the end of the season.

He was no longer able to play shortstop but was voted in as the starting third baseman for the 2001 All-Star game at Safeco Field in Seattle. However, in a tribute to Ripken's achievements and stature in the game, starting shortstop Alex Rodriguez (what a guy!) insisted on exchanging positions with third baseman Ripken for the first inning, so that Ripken could play shortstop as he had for most of his career. Ripken made his first plate appearance in the third inning of that game and homered off the first pitch from Chan Ho Park (how did he get to be an All Star?). Ripken ended up with All Star MVP honors for the second time, making him one of just four players with two All Star MVPs (Mays in '63 and '68, Steve Garvey in '74 and '78 plus Gary Carter in '81 and '84).

There have been 80 All-Star games played (including two games from 1959-1962) and while the all-time series is close (NL leads 40-38 with two ties), the two leagues seem to have taken turns dominated certain 'eras.' The AL won seven of the first 11 games (1933-44) and no game was held in 1945. From 1946-58 it was almost even, with the AL going 7-6. Then came the four-year stretch when two games were played (1959-1962) with the NL going 5-2-1. It was back to just one game in 1963 and the NL would win eight in a row, until the AL won in 1971.

The NL resumed its domination in 1972, winning 11 straight. The AL broke through in 1983 (Lynn's grand slam) but the NL won three of the next for years to give them 22 wins in a 25-year stretch! The AL won five straight from 1988-92 and while the NL won the next three years, the AL won five in a row from 1997-2001. That made the AL 10-3 from 1988 through 2001. Then came the infamous 7-7 tie in the 2002 game. The game was supposed to be a commissioner Bud Selig's "shining moment" with the baseball world coming to his now "baseball-irrelevant" hometown of Milwaukee and its new stadium, Miller Park. However, the contest ended in chaos and confusion, with Selig playing the role of the Three Stooges (he played the parts of Moe, Larry and Curly!).

There's no sense recapping the entire 'madness.' During the top of the 11th (with the game still tied at 7-7), an announcement was made, "If nobody scores in this inning, the game will be declared a tie." That's exactly what happened and the crowd erupted with a chant of "Let them play! Let them play!" Players hurried off the field (no MVP was named) and Selig gave a quick news conference. "The decision was made because there were no players left, no pitchers left," Selig said. "This is not the ending I had hoped for. I was in a no-win situation." MLB was dealing with growing steroid reports and also appeared headed for a strike (it never came). It was a huge public relations blow for Selig and for MLB with Selig getting savaged in the media.

Selig would call it "a horribly painful and heartbreaking lesson" and vowed that it would never happen again. He expanded the rosters by two, cautioned future managers that it would be their fault if they ran out of players and declared that from now one, the winning league would get home-field advantage in the World Series. The 2003 game bore the label, "This Time It Counts!" As most know, the AL has won all seven years in the game which now determines home-field advantage in the "Fall Classic," giving the junior circuit 12 consecutive wins and 17 wins in the last 20!

However, here's an interesting catch. MLB has alternated the home-field advantage in the World Series since it first began. Many argue that home-field is really "not that big of a deal" in baseball but let me point out that in the 20 years prior to the 2003 season (1982-2002, excluding the 1994 when the World Series was canceled due to a players strike), the team with the home-field advantage had won 17 of 20 times! So, we had every reason to believe that with the AL winning home-field advantage in each of the last seven All Star games, the junior circuit would hold the upper hand come October. However, that hasn't been the case, as the AL is just 4-3 against the NL these last seven years.

Closing thought: Why hasn't MLB given the team with the better regular season record the home-field advantage in its World Series? Hasn't that team earned it? Think it doesn't matter? Think again. In that 20-year stretch I just mentioned (1982-2002, minus 1994 season), there were 11 instances in which the team with the worst record got home-field advantage due to the alternating year policy. The years are 1982, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1996, 2000, and 2002 (for those who want to check).

This may or not surprise you but those teams won 10 of those 11 series, the 1984 Padres being the exception (who lost to the Tigers). Remember Goose Gossage not wanting to walk Kirk Gibson with runners on second and third and the Tigers leading by one run in the eighth inning of Game 5? Gibson would hit a three-run HR to give Detroit an 8-4 win and the series (four games to one). You may remember Gibson hitting another fairly dramatic HR in Game 1 of 1988 World Series for the Dodgers.

Anyway, home-field edge is a big a deal and it seems rather silly to decide it by the result of an "exhibition game," but that's Bud Selig for you. After all, he's just recently become aware that there was a "steroid era" in MLB during his watch. Paraphrasing Claude Rains from Casablanca, Bud's "shocked, shocked," that steroids were widely in use over the past two decades. Enjoy Tuesday's game and I'll be back on Thursday with a mid-season report and some second-half predictions.

Good luck...Larry

  • I'm personally not a fan of the  MLB All-Star game, especially since they now give the winning league the home field advantage for the World Series. It makes absolutely no sense! They are going to start the best players, give them a few innings, and then let the smaller named all stars, or rather, not the best players from each league, battle it out in the late  innings to determine who gets something as important as home field in the World Series?!

    They need to adopt a style like the NBA All Star game. When it's 4th quarter time, the best players are back in there and it gets serious and they then play to win. Basically, players need to be allowed to re-enter the MLB All Star game if they are going to make the outcome so important.

    As far as comparing it to the NFL Pro Bowl, I think it's apples and oranges. Why? Well, because they change the rules for the Pro Bowl, and they are very important changes.  Your defense is straight man to man, there is not stunting or twisting allowed, I'm thinking there is actually no blitzing allowed either etc.  Their goal is basically to play as vanilla as they can so that nobody gets hurt, but they take it to the point in which it's hardly even a football game anymore! And to have it BEFORE the Super Bowl, that just makes the whole thing dumber. Super Bowl teams obviously have some of the best pro bowlers in the league, and they don't even get to play in the game! I simply don't get it.

    Good write up though, Larry. I enjoyed some of the stories and tidbits.