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The All-Star Game used to be popular - why?

It has always been just an exhibition game.

1990 MLB All-Star Game: Batting Practice Photo by Steve Goldstein/Getty Images

Tonight, the stars of baseball gather in Miami for the 88th MLB All-Star Game, and although there is excitement for young stars like Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, and Bryce Harper, there is still the usual teeth-gnashing on why the game is not as popular as it once was. The league is finally abandoning all pretense of this game mattering at all by no longer having the game determine home field advantage in the World Series, making it truly an exhibition game.

But it has always been an exhibition game, and for most of my lifetime, it has typically had a revolving door lineup card, never treated as a real game. It was an exhibition game, with no effect on the standings or the World Series. And yet, the All-Star Game was once quite popular, at least measured by television ratings. Instead of asking why it is no longer popular, perhaps we should ask - why was it ever popular?

Baseball was on your TV

Today, you can watch all 162 Royals games on either Fox Sports Kansas City, FS1, or FOX. If you’re not by your TV, you can even stream those games online. For those of you out-of-market, you can watch Royals games on MLB TV. On a typical week, you can watch 10-15 national telecasts of games on ESPN, MLB Network, TBS, and FS1. For the baseball fan, it is a veritable smorgasbord.

But when I grew up in the 1980s, the landscape of baseball on TV was much, much different. There were still many teams that saw television as a threat to baseball stadium attendance. The Royals, for example, televised virtually no home games in the 1980s. Baseball was not on cable yet, as many households had yet to hook up their homes. So baseball had to be carried on a local TV network affiliate, which means they had to navigate the national TV lineup. Here in Kansas City, games were carried on WDAF Channel 4, then an NBC affiliate, so games could not air on Thursday nights (can’t bump Cheers and The Cosby Show), and several other nights NBC had high-rated programming scheduled (don’t laugh, NBC used to get good ratings!)

All in all, there were about 40-50 Royals games televised per year, plus NBC’s Saturday Game of the Week with Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola, and for a few weeks in the summer, ABC’s Monday Night Baseball. That was it. No more baseball on your television.

So in July, to see any kind of baseball on your TV was a treat, let alone the biggest stars of the game. If you were a baseball fan at all, you tuned in.

There was nothing else on

If you were a baseball fan, you would tune in to the All-Star Game because baseball was on, but if you weren’t a baseball fan, you would tune in anyway, because NOTHING ELSE WAS ON. Back in 1989, the percent of households with televisions that paid for cable or satellite was just 57% compared to 83% in 2015. So when Bo Jackson won the All-Star Game MVP in Anaheim that year, for many people, he was one of just a few options on TV that night.

And the other programming in the summer was typically re-runs. Networks decided back then that people were too busy on vacation or playing outside to invest much money in summer programming, so it was all Who’s the Boss reruns. Here is what else was on network TV the night Bo Jackson went yard in Anaheim.

To show you how things have changed, that Roseanne re-run got higher ratings than any other scripted show on TV last year except NCIS. CBS did not even put out national programming in the 8 ET/7CT hour. FOX was still only airing programming two nights a week, leaving the local affiliate to fill out the rest of the schedule, and PBS was probably showing Masterpiece Theater or some British comedy from the 1970s. The 1989 All-Star Game drew a 18.2 rating, or 25 million viewers, compared to a 5.4 rating (8.7 million viewers) last year. People were going to tune in to the All-Star Game back then, if only to have something on while they got out of the heat for a bit.

It was a novelty to see players from the other league

Back in 1980s, the American League was the league of hitters, of the DH, of Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium. The National League was an entirely different beast - pitchers running the bases with their stupid jackets, Cardinals and Cubs, and bunts, bunts, so many bunts! It meant something to be “an American League fan”, and you wanted to stick it to those Senior Circuit kids, even as they were spanking the AL every year in the All-Star Game.

Also, the National League players were a curiosity. The AL stars would come to town once in awhile, but Tony Gwynn, Tim Raines, Ozzie Smith, Darryl Strawberry, those were giants you had only heard about.

"In every way, this game is still a novelty, and the public reacts to it that way. It involves the players in the National League against the players in the American League and that's a novelty because the leagues don't mix or compete in baseball, except in the World Series."

-Gary Carter, 1985

The Royals just finished up a series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of the most storied National League franchises. While interleague play has been great in exposing fans to more teams, and the influx of baseball on TV has been a godsend to diehard fans, it has caused the novelty and mystery of the other league to diminished. I’ve seen Clayton Kershaw pitch dozens of times, I don’t HAVE to see him pitch in the All-Star Game.

When you liked the All-Star Game, you were a kid

Well let’s face it, everything was better when you were younger. Music was better, people cared about each other, the water tasted better, and by golly, baseball was baseball! I remember many details about the 1988 All-Star Game - Terry Steinbach was hitting about .217 and people accused A’s fans of stuffing the ballot to get him in as starter, but he went ahead and homered and won All-Star Game MVP. I remember the 1989 All-Star Game - Bo Jackson homered to lead off the first against Rick Reuschel, and Wade Boggs followed up with a homer of his own. I kinda remember the 1990 All-Star Game - it was a night game at Wrigley (still a rare thing back then) with a rain delay.

Then Griffey did something the next year, Cito Gaston wouldn’t put in Mike Mussina in the game in Baltimore the year after that, Randy Johnson almost hit Larry Walker with a pitch once, and then.....nothing. Nothing happened for several years in the All-Star Game.

I mean, not really, but the point was, I was ten years old when Steinbach won MVP. By the time John Kruk turned his helmet around against Johnson following the Walker at-bat, I was in college, distracted by girls, I mean, my studies. The All-Star Game wasn’t a big deal to me, and as I grew into adulthood, I realized it was just a meaningless exhibition game, and that the regular season was what mattered.

When you’re a kid, special things are magical. I used to get so excited when I heard the TV announcer say “we have pre-empted tonight’s programming for a special presentation” (even though it usually turned into some awful Hee-Haw variety show special or something). The All-Star Game was special. It was different. It was unlike anything I had ever seen.

Now that we’re older, we get jaded. Cynical. Bored. Maybe we can never re-claim the magic and spectacle of the All-Star Game of our youth. But maybe, just maybe, new stars like Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, and an influx of local stars like Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez, and a looser attitude towards players having fun can win back our interest and our hearts. The All-Star Game will never be what it once was, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth tuning in to watch.


Will you watch tonight’s All-Star Game?

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