A Tale of Two Leagues (Part Two: 1956-2003)by Steve Treder
April 19, 2004
Last time, we followed the paths of the American and National Leagues from the point of the AL's inception through the middle portion of the twentieth century. Today we'll continue the journey up to the present day.
1956-1972: Reaping Different Harvests
The two leagues entered the era of racial integration with very different degrees of enthusiasm. Many more National League than American League organizations eagerly went after the black talent pool, scouting, signing, and developing players of color. By 1955, as we saw last time, the AL was deploying 10 players of color in significant roles (defined as at least 50 games for batters, and at least 50 innings for pitchers), while the NL had 21.
This gap quickly intensified. By 1960, the AL was making use of 17 black players, and the NL featured 38. Over the next decade, the American League finally began to seriously integrate, but was still unable to catch up: in 1965 the tally was 42 players of color in the AL, 57 in the NL; in 1970 it was AL 63, NL 82.
Moreover, the distinction was much more than a matter of quantity. After Larry Doby and Satchel Paige were signed by the Indians in 1947-48, no AL organization developed a player of color who would go on to the Hall of Fame until Rod Carew (Twins) and Reggie Jackson (A's), both of whom entered the league in 1967.
By that year, NL teams had already brought 18 black Hall of Famers to the majors, including several who are widely considered to be among the greatest players of all time: Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson, and Joe Morgan.
In both quantity and quality, such a staggering inequity in new talent infusion couldn't help but have a significant impact on the overall caliber of play. From the mid-to-late 1950s through at least the early 1970s, there's little question that the National League was presenting generally better players and better teams than the American League.
The NL gained other important advantages in this period. In most of the biggest, fastest-growing, affluent new markets, NL teams were the first arrivals, gaining high ground in Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, Houston, and Atlanta. The AL, meanwhile, claimed only Baltimore, Kansas City, and Minneapolis-St. Paul before making an abortive move into Seattle in 1969, then in 1970 taking the Milwaukee market that the NL had already exploited and abandoned, and moving into Dallas-Fort Worth in 1972.
Brand-new ballparks were unveiled in the NL in San Francisco (1960), Los Angeles (1962), New York (1964), Houston (1965), Atlanta (1966), St. Louis (1966), San Diego (1969), Pittsburgh (1970), Cincinnati (1970), and Philadelphia (1971). The only new facilities introduced by the AL in the period were in Minneapolis-St. Paul (1961), Washington (1962), Anaheim (1966) and Oakland (1968).
As if better players, better markets, and newer facilities weren't enough, the NL featured more competitive pennant races throughout the era too. The AL had already been dominated by the Yankees for much of the time since the 1920s, and this monotony continued: in the nine seasons from 1956 through 1964, the Yankees won the AL pennant every year but one, and rarely in close fashion.
In the meantime six different teams were claiming at least one NL championship, and there were several multi-team races in the NL (1956, 1959, 1962, and 1964) that were extraordinarily competitive and compelling. It wasn't until 1965 that AL races became comparable to the NL's in terms of unpredictability.
All this added up to enormously different box office stories. In 1956, the NL began a 33-year streak of attendance superiority over the AL. From the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, the NL's attendance dominance was the most extreme in history. Among the 10 greatest attendance difference seasons in history, eight occurred between 1958 and 1974:
YEAR DIFF RANK 1965 53% 2nd 1966 47% 3rd 1971 45% 4th 1958 40% 5th 1970 38% 6th 1972 36% 7th 1964 31% 9th 1974 30% 10thBy the early '70s, the AL's circumstances were becoming dire. Better players in better markets had attracted more fans for NL teams, which provided them greater revenues with which to sign and develop still better players. It was a cycle without a happy resolution in sight for the American League. In the New Yorker in June 1972, Roger Angell put it this way:
Among the ... hovering anxieties is the deepening disparity in quality and attendance between the two major leagues. Last year's record total attendance did not conceal the fact that the National League outdrew the American by nearly five and a half million customers... The gap is widening this year... The difference between the leagues in quality and attractiveness of play is harder to prove, but it can be suggested: so far this spring, National League batters have hit over one hundred more home runs than their American League counterparts.
Indeed, the 1972 season would present not only an attendance disparity of historic proportions, but also one in hitting. The NL outscored the AL by 13% in 1972; only twice in history (1903 and 1945) was the AL outscored more distinctly. Run production in the American League had been sputtering for years; the 1969 rule changes adopted by both leagues (shrinking the strike zone and lowering the mound) had been temporarily effective at revitalizing offense in the AL, but in 1972 AL scoring plunged again. Only in 1908, 1909, and 1968 did the American League produce runs less regularly than in 1972.
Faced with a chronically less popular product than the National League, and a major deficit in hitting and scoring, following the 1972 season the American League was ready to take bold action; one might even call it an act of desperation. The AL voted to conduct an "experiment" with the Designated Hitter rule in 1973. Jerome Holtzman in the Sporting News Baseball Guide aptly described it: "The most significant rule change in modern baseball history."
1973-1992: Road to Redemption
The DH had an immediate impact on scoring. American League run production in 1973 jumped by 23%, an even bigger bounce than had occurred in 1920. As an offensive tonic, the DH was an obvious success, and its "experimental" status was quickly dropped. Thanks primarily to the DH, the AL would be a higher-scoring league than the NL in every season but one from 1973 through 2003 -- though it's important to note that, despite the DH, the AL's scoring superiority over the NL since 1973 hasn't matched the disparity seen in 1931-42.
The DH's impact on the American League's popularity was perhaps less dramatic, though unquestionably positive: AL attendance in 1973 was up 12%. However, the AL's per-game attendance in '73 remained less than it had been in 1967 or 1968, and far below the peak rates it had achieved way back in the late 1940s. Moreover, it was still 24% less than the NL's 1973 attendance.
It would take a long time for AL attendance to creep back into a realm of competitiveness. It dropped back to 30% below the NL in 1974, and 25% in 1975. But after that, the march back toward attendance parity was steady, if slow. From 1975 to 1980 American League per-game attendance was within 10% and 15% of the National's every year, and from 1981 through 1988, though never quite matching the NL, the disparity was never as great as 10%.
It took more than the Designated Hitter rule to achieve this gradual comeback. The AL expanded in 1977, capturing a large new market in Toronto that would host one of MLB's best franchises of the 1980s. The AL's flagship, the Yankees, rebounded in the mid-70s to become a near-perennial contender -- but not resuming the numbingly dull league dominance of the '50s and early '60s.
Overall the American League in the 1980s featured competitive balance of a robustness rarely seen in history: in 10 seasons, five of the seven AL West teams, and six of the seven AL East teams, were Division Champs. Eight different AL teams won the pennant in the 1980s.
Most significantly, however, was the fact that in this period the American League overcame the NL's superiority in quality of play. One key indicator of this was the gradual elimination of the disparity in deployment of players of color. In 1970 the NL had used 82 black players in significant roles, compared to just 63 in the AL. By 1975 the difference was nearly gone: 88 players of color in the NL, 81 in the AL.
In 1980 the NL regained its edge, with 96 black players in its 12-team league (or 8 players per team), compared to 83 on the AL's 14 teams (a little under 6 per team). But by 1985 the disparity had finally vanished: 101 players of color in the American League (7.2 per team), 85 in the National (7.1 per team).
The NL's overwhelming advantage in elite-quality superstars disappeared. There are 20 players in the Hall of Fame who had their peak seasons in the 1973-1992 period: two (Nolan Ryan and Dave Winfield) spent nearly equal peak time in both leagues, seven (Joe Morgan, Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Mike Schmidt, Gary Carter, and Ozzie Smith) were National Leaguers. Eleven of the era's Hall of Famers were American Leaguers: Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, Jim Palmer, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Carlton Fisk, George Brett, Robin Yount, Dennis Eckersley, Eddie Murray, and Kirby Puckett. (There are five other stars from the era who will almost certainly be elected to the HOF, and the AL has the edge here too: Rickey Henderson, Cal Ripken, and Wade Boggs over Tim Raines and Tony Gwynn.)
There's every reason to believe that by sometime around 1980 or 1985, the American League had worked its way back to a quality of play that was every bit the equal of the National. In 1989, for the first time since 1955, the AL exceeded the NL in per-game attendance, and would do so every season though 1992. It marked the climax of a twenty-year journey of redemption for the American League.
Thus, the 1980s may be seen as a return to the pattern of 1931-42: the two leagues presented a stable "separate but equal" offering, with the AL the high-scoring brand, the NL the little-ball brand, but each of equal quality, and each of equal popularity.
1993-2003: Just What Is a League, Anyway?
The National League expanded prior to the 1993 season, adding Colorado and Florida. In the fall 1992 expansion draft to stock the new rosters, something unprecedented occurred: despite the fact that these were two new National League teams, all existing MLB franchises -- both AL and NL -- were subject to the draft. In all previous expansions, the drafts were strictly intra-league.
This was a harbinger. The management structure of MLB would truly amalgamate the leagues in this period, with the positions of League President eventually being dispensed with altogether. Among the dizzying array of innovations and transformations punctuating the era are two that strike at the very heart of the meaning of a "league": inter-league play was introduced in 1997, and an existing franchise (the Milwaukee Brewers) was transferred from the AL to the NL in 1998. The American and National Leagues, rivals for so long, in recent years have come to intermingle and resemble one another more than ever. Perhaps this is emblematic of the era, a time of ironies and contradictions.
Since the early 1990s, the whirl of new ballpark construction (among the ironies is that nearly all of the new parks affect an ardently "retro" style) has transformed the look and feel of both leagues: Chicago, Baltimore, Cleveland, Arlington, Seattle, and Detroit in the AL, and Denver, Atlanta, Phoenix, Houston, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati in the NL. (Plus, beginning in 2004, Philadelphia and San Diego.)
The ubiquitous new facilities have eliminated any distinctive ballpark style for either league: in the '70s and '80s, the NL was full of sleek modern arenas (a/k/a sterile Astroturfed ashtrays), the AL full of quaint historic charmers (shabby crumbling anachronisms?). In 1993-2003, increasingly, extravagant luxury boxes in theme-park "unique" pleasure palaces have become emblematic of both leagues.
A characteristic the new parks tend to have (along with 8-buck microbrews) is a cozy hitter-friendliness. This factor, along with ever-stronger batters (whether steroid-enhanced or not), and a persistent tendency of umpires to refuse to call the high strike (despite what have appeared to be sincere and diligent efforts on the part of MLB to correct them, most recently with Questec), combined to ignite an offensive explosion in the mid-1990s.
The soaring levels of run production -- at their peaks, 25% above 1992 in the AL (achieved in 1996), and 29% above 1992 in the NL (achieved in 2000) -- have occurred at remarkably similar rates in both leagues. In the 11 seasons from 1993 through 2003, the AL has outscored the NL every season, by a rate of between 3% and 15%, and at an average rate of 8%. This differs almost not at all from the pattern of the previous 11 years (1982-92), when the AL outscored the NL between 2% and 12% every season, at an average rate of 9%. The scoring binge of 1993-2003 has been a league-neutral phenomenon.
Robust scoring in spiffy new ballparks has proven to be an attractive package; one of the most striking features of 1993-2003 has been booming attendance (setting the stage for one of the era's contradictions: strident ownership complaints of financial distress, even the need to contract franchises, amid an environment of unprecedented customer demand). Among the 10 greatest total-MLB attendance-per-game seasons of all time, nine occurred between 1993 and 2003:
YEAR ATT/G RANK 1994 31,256 1st 1993 30,964 2nd 2001 29,881 3rd 2000 29,378 4th 1998 29,030 5th 1999 28,888 6th 2002 28,007 7th 1997 27,877 8th 2003 27,831 9thBoth leagues have enjoyed the attendance-fest. But the NL has resumed the status of generally better-attended league that it held for so long before 1989: only once since 1992 has the AL led the NL in per-game attendance. The margins of NL superiority have been in the 2% to 11% range, not approaching the stark differences that prevailed in the 1960s and 1970s.
The salient theme of 1993-2003 is that if it weren't for the DH -- a major caveat, to be sure -- there would be no significant points of difference between the American and National Leagues. They present products of similar style and quality in similar venues, and are similarly popular.
Among the ironies to consider in this regard is that of the Designated Hitter rule: invoked in desperation to address a run production problem that no longer exists, and an attendance crisis that no longer exists, it remains in place 30 years later as a dramatic rule difference dividing the sport (neither the NFL, NBA, or NHL feature anything remotely analogous).
As the American and National Leagues enter their second century of co-existence, they're more tightly integrated than ever before, and yet as sharply segregated in the rulebook as they've ever been. How this odd circumstance will be resolved -- or if it will -- is one of the most intriguing questions to ponder as the leagues move more deeply into the 21st century.
References and Resources
The league statistics used for this article were taken from the baseball-reference.com league pages: http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/AL.shtml and http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/NL.shtml
I also highly recommend the following website for graphical presentations of the stats of both leagues over the years: http://home.istar.ca/~mbein/baseball.html
An excellent source of information on players of color in the major leagues in the 1947-59 period is Moffi and Kronstadt's Crossing the Line: Black Major Leaguers, 1947-1959.
Any researcher looking into the quantitative magnitude of the racial integration of baseball is forced to perform a preposterous exercise: to categorize every ballplayer as either "white" or "black". This is biologically absurd, yet it's precisely what MLB did, not only pre-1947, but for a long time after; as late as the early 1960s, some guidebooks categorized players by race.
In the counts of players of color in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s which I've performed here, I was forced to make a judgement as to whether certain Latin American players with neither very dark nor very light skin -- Jose Cruz Sr., for example -- would have been considered "colored" in baseball's segregated era. To make this judgement, I have brought to bear my knowledge of each player in question, and my many years of research into the subject, but I fully recognize that this is an inherently imprecise task.
Another researcher might come up with slightly different counts than I have. Nonetheless, for purposes of this article, the potential for error must be seen as applying equally to the AL and NL, and thus the differential proportions of players of color in the two leagues remains undeniable, even if the exact numbers are problematic.
Steve Treder can often be found spending way too much time talking baseball at Baseball Primer. He welcomes your questions and comments via e-mail.