Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The All-Star Game

Today is the All-Star Game, so it's time for a little history lesson:

Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward came up with the idea for the All-Star Game in 1933, just in time for an aging Babe Ruth to hit the first All-Star home run in a 4-2 AL victory played at Comiskey Park.

Baseball’s version is, I think, the best of all major sports’ all-star games, but it has had its share of controversy, most of which has involved the selection of players. For the first 14 years, all players were chosen in a poll of major league managers. In 1947, league officials decided to let the fans select the eight-man starting lineup (excluding pitchers) in league-wide balloting. But in 1957, a Cincinnati newspaper printed an all-star ballot with Reds players marked at every position and encouraged fans to mail it in, which resulted in the selection of seven Reds to the lineup (the other player was Stan Musial). The commissioner’s office became incensed at the abuse of its system, an abuse that was practically inevitable because the league had failed to put any controls on the voting. Two of those Reds were replaced with Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, and thereafter the league decided to hand over the selection of all-stars to a poll of players, managers, and coaches.

In 1970, the league decided to return the vote to the group for whom the game is supposedly dedicated: the fans. Even so, every year complaints arise that “deserving” players have been left off the team while popular stars who have been injured, slumping, or otherwise “unworthy” are annually selected. But the point of the All-Star game is to select not the player who is having the best half of a season but rather the player who is a “star,” and part of being a star is being popular among fans. Sure, the voting could be modified a little bit to be more fair to great players who toil for bad teams with low attendance. But there’s no reason to get upset about these things.

This year, as King Kaufman pointed out, however, there is very little argument about the players. Maybe we're finally getting it right.

One fact that gets trumpeted every year around July is that the NL once had a stranglehold on All-Star Games, winning the Midsummer Classic 21 out of 23 tries from 1963 through 1985. The reason for the dominance can almost certainly be traced to the fact that the NL was the first league to really embrace black and Latin players. Think of the stars from the 1950s through the 1970s: from Robinson (both Jackie and Frank) to Mays to Aaron to Gibson to Morgan to Bench, with a little Mantle and Koufax thrown in there. Most of those players are black or Latin, and most played in the National League.

Over the last two decades, however, the AL has gotten more than even. In fact, beginning in 1986, the AL has won 17 All-Star games, the NL just four (with one tie).

This year, the AL is favored again, but it's impossible to make a prediction, so I won't.

No comments: