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1933: The birth of the MLB All-Star game

The 2020 All-Star game was scheduled for this coming Tuesday but (spoiler alert!) with Coronavirus, it has been canceled. This is only the second time an All-Star game has been canceled since its creation in 1933.

The only other All-Star game to be canceled was in 1945, which was affected due to World War II. Through all the strikes, baseball still managed to hold an All-Star game. In 1981, with the strike from mid-June through July that split the season into two, the All-Star game was rescheduled for August (and received record-low ratings!). The 1994-95 strike was well-timed as far as the ASG is concerned — those went off without a hitch. By no means should baseball have found a way to hold an All-Star game this year — logistically it would have been a nightmare and frankly not enough people care about it anymore to jump through hoops to have one. I bring up the fact that it’s only been canceled once before to demonstrate that it’s rare. Baseball usually finds a way to have its Midsummer Classic.

Podcast – A Brief History: The Midsummer Classic

Check out the full podcast about the origins of MLB’s All-Star game, its evolution over the years, and Yankees ties to the game.

The Game of the Century

The first ever MLB All-Star game happened on July 6, 1933. It took place at the White Sox’s Comiskey Park in Chicago and the American League defeated the National League 4-2.

The rosters were a who’s-who of Hall of Famers — 25, including managers and coaches. Never before had there been a gathering of that many big baseball names on one field, for one game.

Of course, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit 3-4 in the AL lineup. The Babe smacked the first ever home run in All-Star game play — a 2-run shot in the 3rd inning off Cardinals’ pitcher Bill Hallahan. Gehrig went 0-for-2 but walked twice.

Yankees’ ace Lefty Gomez started, and was credited with the win for tossing 3 scoreless innings. The other Lefty (Grove) also pitched for the AL, and HOFer Carl Hubbell pitched for the National.

Yankees outfielder Ben Chapman, one of the few non-HOFers on the field, led off. The AL squad also had Al Simmons hitting 5th and Jimmie Foxx, Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri and Earl Averill on the bench. The NL roster featured Frankie Frisch, Chick Hafey, Chuck Klein, Bill Terry, Pie Traynor, and Gabby Hartnett, among others.

Hall of Fame Giants manager John McGraw came out of retirement to manage the NL team and Athletics’ manager Connie Mack was in charge of the AL club.

The 1933 American League All-Star squad. Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth are in the second row, two from the left. The AL wore their home uniforms, but the NL had custom “National League” jerseys.

The game was supposed to be a one-time thing, billed as the “Game of the Century.” The goal was to promote baseball and create goodwill during the dark-days of the Great Depression. After baseball had an unbelievably successful 1920s decade, attendance around the league dropped 40% from 1930 to 1933 and player salaries fell by 25%. A large portion of the general public was unemployed and living meal-to-meal, so attending a baseball game was out of the question. Teams experimented with all sorts of gimmicks to drive attendance. Clubs tried free grocery giveaway to get people to attend, and one team tried a “woman get in free” promotion. None of it made much of a difference.

The All-Star game was originally proposed by the Chicago Tribune’s sports editor, Arch Ward, because the Chicago mayor wanted to have a grand sporting event to coincide with the World’s Fair, celebrating the city’s 100th anniversary. After some lobbying and finagling, the game was approved by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and heavily promoted around the country. In May, the Associated Press wrote:

The baseball fans’ dream — a game between the pick of the American and National League talent — will be sponsored July 6 by the Chicago Tribune as a World’s Fair feature. It became possible through the cooperation of the sixteen club owners.

The fans of the country will select the teams by vote to help settle arguments over the relative merits of the players in the two leagues for the first time in the history of the game.

The Tribune also came up with the idea to involve the public by having them vote for the starting lineups. Ballots were printed in newspapers nationwide and several hundred thousand votes were collected (and hand counted by the Tribune’s sports department!). Babe Ruth received the most love with over 100,000 votes.

As July 6 neared, the hype grew. The excitement was that of a World Series. It was a smashing success for baseball. By involving the fans and promising the most star-studded game in history, the event sold out, widely listened to on the radio, and was the most talked-about sporting event of the summer.

It’s not that in-season exhibitions were rare back then — quite the opposite. Usually they were held in non-MLB cities to promote the game. On Saturday the Yankees could have been playing the Browns in St. Louis and then on Sunday traveled to play an exhibition in Indianapolis or De Moines.

It’s actually amazing how much baseball the stars played back then. The regular season was 154 games, but with spring training, in-season exhibitions, and off-season barnstorming tours, the big names would play well over 200 “games” a year. The October 1927 barnstorming tour that Ruth and Gehrig went on started the day after the World Series, and because the Yankees swept the Pirates, they added a few dates to the beginning. If there was a dollar to be earned, they wasted no time.

But the major difference with those normal exhibitions and this new All-Star game was the star power. For most people, including players, it was the first opportunity to see the opposing league in person. They may have read about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, but now they got to witness them hitting back-to-back in the lineup against the best the NL had to offer.

MLB realized the potential this game had and began to organize another for 1934 — and every year to follow. Columnist John Kieran wrote:

It’s true that the All-Star Game is a glorified exhibition of baseball… But the ball players have their own reputations at stake any time they go to bat or take the field, and the league rivalry counts for more than a little in these clashes.

Yes, the players represented themselves. But they also represented their team, their home city, and their league. Which was better: the NL or AL? The Senior Circuit or the Junior Circuit? This was a real discussion. If you rooted for an American League club, you thought that brand of baseball was better, and vice-versa. This was a chance to answer the question all baseball fans had.

Overall the American League leads the lifetime series 45-43-2, but it has been a series of streaks. By the end of the ‘40s, the AL was up 12-4. Then the National League stormed back starting in the ‘50s, and from 1963 to 1982 they lost only one time. The AL started to dominate in the late ‘90s, winning 12 in a row (with the ‘02 tie in the middle), and since 2013 they have not lost.