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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Fetter: The ‘Subway Series’ That Isn’t (and Maybe Never Was)

But, but…I used to see Gil Hodges buying outdated fiddlehead greens at the Brooklyn Gristedes!

For the dirty little secret of the “golden age” of the “subway series” is that it was a pretty dismal time for major league baseball, and not so good even for the New York teams themselves.

To be blunt, the subway series era was a disaster for the business of baseball. Between 1947 and 1952, National League attendance fell from 10,388,000 to 6,339,148, and its modest recovery to 8,634,000 in 1956 was almost entirely attributable to the Braves’ move to Milwaukee in 1953 from Boston (where they drew an incredible 280,000 in 1952). In the American League, 11,150,000 paying spectators had dwindled to 7,884,000 in the decade after 1947. Understandable, perhaps, as competitive balance disappeared to an unparalleled degree in both circuits, but New York ‘s teams were hardly the beneficiaries of their superiority. The Yankee Stadium crowds that numbered 2,200,000 in 1947 shrank to 1,490,000 in 1956; the Dodgers played before 1,807,000 fans in 1947 but only 1,200,000 in 1956; the Giants’ attendance base utterly collapsed, from 1,600,000 down to 629,000 over that time span. By 1958 both the Dodgers and Giants had fled west, but the Yankee box office hardly benefited from their new-found monopoly: their attendance was actually lower in 1958, than the year before.

So, if a subway series can’t be what it used to be, maybe it’s for the best. And, perish the thought, maybe it never was.

Repoz Posted: June 24, 2012 at 10:36 AM | 30 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: history

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   1. Lassus Posted: June 24, 2012 at 11:08 AM (#4164694)
Between 1947 and 1952, National League attendance fell from 10,388,000 to 6,339,148, and its modest recovery to 8,634,000 in 1956 was almost entirely attributable to the Braves’ move to Milwaukee in 1953 from Boston (where they drew an incredible 280,000 in 1952).

This makes no sense.
   2. McCoy Posted: June 24, 2012 at 11:15 AM (#4164696)
Last year of Boston they drew 280,000-1952
First year in Milwaukee drew 1.8 million-1953
1954-1956 the Braves drew a little over 2 million a year.

He is stating that the recovery from 1952's low point is because the Braves moved to Milwaukee and received an almost 2 million fan boost in attendance.
   3. Best Regards, President of Comfort, Esq., LLC Posted: June 24, 2012 at 11:31 AM (#4164697)
New York teams being competitive on a regular basis is good for baseball. New York teams dominating the sport is bad for baseball. It's not really hard.

This is also true for Chicago and Los Angeles.
   4. Lassus Posted: June 24, 2012 at 11:34 AM (#4164701)
I read that one backwards, McCoy, thanks.
   5. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: June 24, 2012 at 11:37 AM (#4164703)
The 6 "Subway Series" between 1947 and 1956 (plus the "walk over the bridge series" in 1951) were bad for baseball in the sense that they reflected the lopsided nature of the competition and the pauperization of the bottom tier of teams, but the decline in baseball attendance had a lot more to do with television and greater entertainment alternatives than it did with the Yankees and the Dodgers.
   6. Karl from NY Posted: June 24, 2012 at 11:53 AM (#4164715)
Between 1947 and 1952, National League attendance fell from 10,388,000 to 6,339,148

This of course had absolutely nothing to do with a new invention called television, right?

(Not that games were televised right away, but that TV brought entertainment to your living room instead of going to the ballpark.)

(And an old-timey sugar-sweetened Coke to St. Neck Wound.)
   7. Tom Nawrocki Posted: June 24, 2012 at 12:02 PM (#4164720)
New York teams being competitive on a regular basis is good for baseball.


I don't think this is necessarily true at all. The last period in which the Yankee and Mets were both irrelevant, 1990-93, saw terrific attendance and interest in the sport.
   8. Best Regards, President of Comfort, Esq., LLC Posted: June 24, 2012 at 12:10 PM (#4164726)
I don't think this is necessarily true at all. The last period in which the Yankee and Mets were both irrelevant, 1990-93, saw terrific attendance and interest in the sport.

New York teams being competitive being good for baseball does not mean that them not being competitive is *bad* for baseball.
   9. The District Attorney Posted: June 24, 2012 at 12:10 PM (#4164727)
Dammit, I was hoping this was 2000.
   10. McCoy Posted: June 24, 2012 at 12:14 PM (#4164730)
1947: 44,000 television sets
1948: 350,000 TV sets. 3/4 of them on the East Coast and half around NYC. 1 in 10 Americans has seen a TV
1949: 2,000,000 TV sets. 720,000 in NYC.
1950: 8,000,000 TV sets.
1951: 13,000,000 TV sets
1952: Don't know
1953: 25,000,000+ TV sets. 50% of Americans have a TV.
   11. RMc's Daps of the Dope Artists Posted: June 24, 2012 at 12:22 PM (#4164736)
Between 1947 and 1952, National League attendance fell from 10,388,000 to 6,339,148

This of course had absolutely nothing to do with a new invention called television, right?

(Not that games were televised right away, but that TV brought entertainment to your living room instead of going to the ballpark.)


This. Everybody talks about how TV nearly killed the minors (400+ minor league teams in 1947 cut in half a decade later), but nobody remembers how much TV affected the big leagues, too. Only by staking out new territories and building more accessible stadiums did MLB survive.
   12. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: June 24, 2012 at 12:56 PM (#4164754)
Between 1947 and 1952, National League attendance fell from 10,388,000 to 6,339,148


This of course had absolutely nothing to do with a new invention called television, right?

(Not that games were televised right away,


The three New York teams began televising ALL their home games in 1948.

And while the number of homes with TVs grew slowly in those first few years, even in New York, nearly every neighborhood bar bought a set in order to attract exactly the sort of fan who would otherwise have gone to the park. That compounded the attendance problem above and beyond the expansion of the home TV market.
   13. Gonfalon Bubble Posted: June 24, 2012 at 12:58 PM (#4164756)
Don't hold me to this, but I think the spread of television played a role.
   14. stig-tossled, hornswoggled gef the typing mongoose Posted: June 24, 2012 at 01:05 PM (#4164759)
Detectives believe the post-Kurtzman Mad was involved as well.
   15. Stormy JE Posted: June 24, 2012 at 01:47 PM (#4164766)
This. Everybody talks about how TV nearly killed the minors (400+ minor league teams in 1947 cut in half a decade later), but nobody remembers how much TV affected the big leagues, too. Only by staking out new territories and building more accessible stadiums did MLB survive.

Just to be clear: The impact of television on MLB attendance is that families now had alternate forms of entertainment, not that they were only watching games from home, right? Does anybody know roughly what percentage of games was being televised in the 1950s?
   16. McCoy Posted: June 24, 2012 at 02:12 PM (#4164781)
And while the number of homes with TVs grew slowly in those first few years, even in New York, nearly every neighborhood bar bought a set in order to attract exactly the sort of fan who would otherwise have gone to the park. That compounded the attendance problem above and beyond the expansion of the home TV market.

I'm away from my books but the NY teams band together to keep a significant amount of NY baseball off the air for awhile?
   17. McCoy Posted: June 24, 2012 at 02:13 PM (#4164783)
Just to be clear: The impact of television on MLB attendance is that families now had alternate forms of entertainment, not that they were only watching games from home, right? Does anybody know roughly what percentage of games was being televised in the 1950s?

I believe I posted it somewhere around here the last time this came up. I'll have to go look for it.
   18. McCoy Posted: June 24, 2012 at 02:23 PM (#4164789)
I don't think a lot people realize just how few games were televised even 30 years ago. I've got a baseball book at home that deals exclusively with baseball and the media and the appendix lists how many games each team televised from I think 1947 to 1980 or so. By 1980 something like 40% of NL games were televised and less than 40% were televised for AL teams. The split was usually something like 80 or 90% of the away games were televised while about 15 to 20% of the home games were televised. And that was for 1980 so the years before had even less televised games. So in that environment it makes sense that baseball got a higher % of eyeballs watching the tube since you had less options on TV and the game wasn't being aired everyday. If your local team had a 10 or 15 game homestand you might be lucky to watch two of those games on your TV.


In 1957 38% of all games in the NL were televised (and as Andy mentiones the majority were home games). In 1958 the owners in their infinite wisdom drastically cut back on TV. Televised games would plummet to 21% and it wouldn't get back to 38% until 1980. The AL was a little different. Their high water mark was in 1954 at 39% and it would get cut back to 31% for three years until 1958 where the AL instead of cutting back actually expanded their coverage to 36%. After that it stayed mostly around 32% year in and year out and never got back to 39% within the years of the study.
   19. Stormy JE Posted: June 24, 2012 at 02:33 PM (#4164798)
I believe I posted it somewhere around here the last time this came up. I'll have to go look for it.

Thanks for looking it up, McCoy.
   20. McCoy Posted: June 24, 2012 at 02:33 PM (#4164799)
Answering my own question:

Yankees televised all of their home games from 1949 to 1965. They didn't start to televise away games until 1958. Dodgers and Giants televised all of their home games from 1949 to 1956. Dodgers started televising a portion of their road games in 1955. In 1958 both teams took everything off the air. In 1959 the Dodgers televised 11 road games while the Giants televised 11 games in 1961.
   21. McCoy Posted: June 24, 2012 at 02:36 PM (#4164801)
In 1957 about 34.5% of all games were televised. In 1958 28.5% of all games were televised.

In 1952 31% of all games were televised. No road games were televised.
   22. TerpNats Posted: June 24, 2012 at 03:21 PM (#4164869)
Logistics and landline costs probably prohibited the Giants and Dodgers from televising games away from the West Coast. I know the Dodgers' road games in '59 were all in San Francisco, and one would guess the Giants' games in '61 were all at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. Conversely, I doubt teams from the eastern and central time zones televised games from California until the sixties.
   23. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: June 24, 2012 at 03:31 PM (#4164887)
Dodgers and Giants televised all of their home games from 1949 to 1956. Dodgers started televising a portion of their road games in 1955. In 1958 both teams took everything off the air. In 1959 the Dodgers televised 11 road games while the Giants televised 11 games in 1961.

And all 11 of those Dodgers' and Giants' televised road games were from San Francisco and Los Angeles. The only Dodgers' home game that was ever televised in Los Angeles up to 1981 was their first game in Dodger Stadium in 1962. I guess O'Malley figured in advance that that game was likely to be a guaranteed sellout.

That Center Field Shot book also notes that while O'Malley and Stoneham announced plans for pay-per-view TV as early as 1958, it actually never got off the ground until August of 1964. And then in November a California ballot initiative that outlawed pay-tv by wire (which is what the Dodgers were doing) passed overwhelmingly, and so the entire experiment lasted only about six weeks. It never attracted much more than about 1500 viewers at $1.50 a pop.

Oh, and see if you can guess who sponsored that ballot initiative. This is really a tough one.

1. The Communist Party
2. The California Democratic Party
3. Ralph Nader's Public Citizen organization
4. The National Association of Theater Owners

   24. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: June 24, 2012 at 03:34 PM (#4164892)
Logistics and landline costs probably prohibited the Giants and Dodgers from televising games away from the West Coast.

Maybe so, but the NFL didn't seem to have that problem. I was watching Redskins and Colts games from the the L.A. Coliseum and Kezar Stadium as early as 1954, and the Dodgers-Giants baseball playoff of 1951 was televised coast-to-coast.

And now that I think of it, the Rams were televising all of their road games beginning in 1951, all but one of which were from the East or Midwest.
   25. Morty Causa Posted: June 24, 2012 at 03:53 PM (#4164913)
Sure, it's true that television was a devastating event for baseball, as it was for other things, including its progenitor, movies. But it was something to cope with, something that could be coped with and even used to advantage, not something that baseball was abjectly helpless before.

After all, it's undeniable that when MLB did act as if it were a business and sought new markets, its attendance improved and even thrived. Milwaukee's move was mentioned. The Dodgers and the Giant's attendance increased when they moved west, didn't it? That should tell us something about the system as it applies to even that holiest of holy things, monopoly baseball. Television was something that had to be dealt with, and baseball didn't want to. It had, through its favored status, solidified itself into not countenancing change. It was an institution; it didn't have to change. The world should change for it--it's an old, old story.

The idea of change had to literally be shoved down the throats of the powers that be before they dared take a leap. And then it took a long time because when you're a monopoly you become satisfied with the pond getting smaller as long as you’re a big fish. All this stuff about big bad TV ignores baseball's major overriding continuing problem--one that is hardly ever discussed in a detailed intelligent analytical way--it's a business nurtured in restraint of trade. And it's still like that. And it just waits for another catastrophe.
   26. RMc's Daps of the Dope Artists Posted: June 24, 2012 at 04:53 PM (#4165017)
That Center Field Shot book also notes that while O'Malley and Stoneham announced plans for pay-per-view TV as early as 1958, it actually never got off the ground until August of 1964. And then in November a California ballot initiative that outlawed pay-tv by wire (which is what the Dodgers were doing) passed overwhelmingly, and so the entire experiment lasted only about six weeks. It never attracted much more than about 1500 viewers at $1.50 a pop.


It's a fascinating story. This ad was shown at theatres as part of the "Keep TV Free" campaign. It passed, though obviously unconstitutional, and was overturned by the California Supreme Court in 1966.

Logistics and landline costs probably prohibited the Giants and Dodgers from televising games away from the West Coast.

Maybe so, but the NFL didn't seem to have that problem.


Football is played once a week; baseball is played (nearly) every day.
   27. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: June 24, 2012 at 05:28 PM (#4165107)
Logistics and landline costs probably prohibited the Giants and Dodgers from televising games away from the West Coast.


Maybe so, but the NFL didn't seem to have that problem.

Football is played once a week; baseball is played (nearly) every day.


Here I am nearly 68 years old and yet I never had noticed that before you just pointed it out.

Sarcasm aside, the technology in the form of equipment was there if baseball teams had chosen to use it. Once teams started televising road games, they simply split their existing two man radio crews into a radio man and a TV man, sometimes switching in the middle of the game. The rental costs for the equipment and landline use could have been offset by the advertising revenue.

IMO the greater part of the problem was that the NFL wisely established a rule circa 1951 that teams must televise their road games, and were not allowed to televise their home games. Clueless baseball never quite figured out the impeccable logic behind that policy, even though the NFL's attendance was going straight up and baseball attendance was largely stagnant or declining outside the cities with newly transplanted franchises. Of course the logic of the 50's and 60's wouldn't apply to our era of big cable contracts, but in an era when live attendance made up the bulk of a team's revenue, it's hard to imagine why baseball seemed to be so slow to figure this out, although given the general shortsightedness and inertia of nearly all of the individual owners, I guess it shouldn't have been too surprising.

But BTW that was a priceless ad.
   28. AndrewJ Posted: June 24, 2012 at 07:38 PM (#4165193)
The 1950s NFL also developed and enforced a strict TV blackout rule (thank you, Bert Bell) which forbade telecasting, say, a Giants game in the NYC market if the game itself wasn't sold out 48 or 72 hours in advance. You couldn't really do that in baseball where, as noted above, they play every day.
   29. AndrewJ Posted: June 24, 2012 at 08:28 PM (#4165237)
Continuing my last post, over a period of years you had people around the country tuning in every Sunday to NFL games in front of sold-out stands... and likewise tuning into MLB games played in half-empty ballparks. The viewer could logically conclude that pro football was a spectacle not to be missed -- major league baseball, not so much.
   30. TerpNats Posted: June 24, 2012 at 09:15 PM (#4165293)
Speaking of landline costs, they were so high that relatively few transcontinental broadcasts were done in the early years of network radio, save for the Rose Bowl and the like. It wasn't until early 1936 that an FCC investigation led AT&T to lower its landline rates, and networks soon took advantage of it and the substantial Los Angeles/Hollywood talent base.

That June, the "Lux Radio Theater," which had been broadcast out of New York since its inception two years earlier, began broadcasts from the film capital, adapting movie scripts for radio with film stars (sometimes the ones who had been in that film, sometimes not). By the end of '36, NBC and CBS had established studios in LA (in the 1940s, ABC -- an outgrowth of NBC's Blue network -- would do likewise), and programs such as Jack Benny's headed west. For more on Hollywood and radio, see here.

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