In 1928, to capitalize on a booming economy that everyone just knew would continue to improve, a group of Chicago businessmen decided to commemorate the city’s centennial by promoting a 1933 World’s Fair.
One hundred million visitors were expected to come to the 400 acres of new parkland along Lake Michigan and deposit their wealth into city coffers. Operating funds were raised with a $10 million bond sale on Oct. 28, 1929. The next day, the stock market crashed.
As the country sank into the Great Depression, the organizers felt they had little choice but to soldier on. Folding would mean the loss of thousands of construction jobs. But faced with a fiscal and public-relations disaster, city fathers cast about for anything that might entice visitors to the fair. Robert Rutherford McCormick, the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, called in Arch Ward, the newspaper’s sports editor and a man of big ideas. Ward had cut his teeth on hyperbole at Notre Dame as Knute Rockne’s publicist.
Ward suggested a one-time-only “dream game” between the best players of the American League versus the best of the National. The managers would be two legends: Connie Mack and the recently retired John J. McGraw. Fans would choose the participants and, to demonstrate a touch of altruism, proceeds would go to help indigent former players. In addition to its obvious attractions, the event would give Cubs fans another shot at Babe Ruth, who had humiliated them in the 1932 World Series.
The game was scheduled for July 6, 1933, at Comiskey Park (Wrigley Field lost in a coin flip) six weeks after the fair opened. More than half a million ballots clipped from 56 newspapers were mailed in and tickets for the 48,000-seat stadium sold out in two days.
The rosters were everything Ward could have hoped for: Ruth, Gehrig, Simmons, Foxx, Grove, and Gomez against Hartnett, Terry, Frisch, Waner, Hubbell and Schumacher. Exhibition or not, both managers were determined to win and the All Stars played as hard as if it was the seventh game of the Series.
The game was an immense success. Ruth hit a two-run homer and the American Leaguers denied Cubs fans revenge by holding off the Nationals, 4-2. (There was some irony, as well. The first ever All-Star Game run was batted in by the winning pitcher Lefty Gomez, who spent his career extolling his ineptitude at the plate.)
Although there was resistance to continuing the event -- some thought one “game of the century” was enough -- baseball wasn’t about to pass up a full stadium and fawning press, so the All-Star Game was made an annual event. Other sports followed suit.
For decades, the decision seemed sound. The All-Star Game became a jewel in baseball’s tiara. The opportunity to see Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio or Stan Musial or Sandy Koufax go against the best of the opposing league was irresistible to fans. So baseball made the game even bigger. Rosters were expanded, voting rules changed and the league even launched a second annual All-Star Game in 1959.
But ultimately, all the sizzle couldn’t disguise that the game was a novelty and essentially meaningless. Eventually the players caught on, as well. Some begged off because of minor injuries or just because they wanted the rest. Many played at less than full speed (Pete Rose being a notable exception). The two-game format had to be scrapped after four miserable years. Television ratings dropped.
In recent years, baseball has scrambled to reignite the flame. Gimmicks like the Home Run Derby were added. The league even decided in 2003 to award home-field advantage in the World Series to the winning side. But none of it has worked. Every year, baseball struggles to promote an event that often seems like little more than a distraction from the pennant race.
Other sports have similar problems. Basketball’s All-Star Game regularly elicits yawns in games that total 300 points and football’s Pro Bowl is so lackluster that the National Football League is considering dropping it entirely. A novelty can be expanded only so much before it is broadened into irrelevancy.
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