There used to be an old sports trivia question that I’d pull out once in a while and in thirty years, no one ever got it right. Not once. The question went like this: Among the four major North American professional sports, (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB) there are only two days of the year when there’s guaranteed not to be a game. Sometimes there’s a basketball game on Christmas Day. An NFL playoff game on New Year’s Day. Fourth of July, Canada Day, Thanksgiving above and below the border. No day was ever immune, depending on the way the calendar fell, except these two days. And they were the day before and the day after the MLB All-Star Game.
The first one was in 1933, before de-segregation and featured names like Ruth and Gehrig. For a short time in the fifties, there were two all-star games so it explains why some guys like Willie Mays, with 22 year careers played in 24 games.
Fifteen years after Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in 1947, the National League and American League could not have been more different. There was no inter-league play or free agency in those days so the only time the players from the different leagues saw each other or the teams went head-to -head was during the World Series and in the All-Star Game. The American League was old, slow and white. Sluggers waiting for the three run homer. The National League was Blacker, more Latino, faster and way more aggressive. Hank Aaron is the last player to have played in the Negro Leagues and he retired in 1976. I was ten years old and a former Negro Leaguer was still playing. It’s remarkable to me.
So with such different styles and a fairly clear racial divide, the All-Star Game was not just any exhibition game. It was Jesse Owens against the Aryan sprinter. It was Joe Louis against the German boxer. It was the Canada-Russia Series. In the second week of every July. When I first became aware of the seriousness of this rivalry, in the eighties, the National League had won 19 of 21 of the previous All-Star Games. It clearly meant something.
The Great Clemente
The first half of the season ends tonight and the ASG will be on Tuesday, as it always is. My old trivia question doesn’t apply anymore because things have changed over the years. With inter-league play, the differences between the leagues have mostly been erased. There is an even distribution of ethnicity across both leagues and now there are more Japanese and Korean players. There are actually fewer African-American players proportionately now than at any time since about 1964, when the Boston Red Sox were the last team to integrate. Little is the same from the days of my most formative baseball education, which began in earnest 38 years ago and really hasn’t stopped.
Perhaps the only thing that hasn’t changed is my feeling toward the All-Star Break. It makes me lonesome. The beauty of baseball is that it is there for you every day. But not now. No baseball for the better part of a week. No scores, no double plays, no roar of the crowd. Just quiet.
If your team is lucky enough to still be in the pennant race, then you have an exciting few months to look forward to. And if they are not, but you are still just a fan, these are the three loneliest days of the season. At least until the last out in October.
So I say to my baseball pals who have enchanted me for most of my life, get your rest this week, spend time with your families, get healthy but most of all, come back soon. A lot of us depend upon you.