History of the doubleheader, part IIIby Chris Jaffe
July 26, 2010
This wraps up my articles on the history of the doubleheader. This project, which is actually based on research I did for my upcoming SABR presentation "In Search of the Elusive Sunday Pitcher" to be given at next week's national convention, traced the development of the doubleheader in the 19th Century and looked at its prime years in the first half of the 20th Century.
Last week's article noted that doubleheaders reached their all-time zenith in WWII and then settled back into normal pre-war usage in the next decade. By the mid-1950s, the doubleheader was a thoroughly entrenched part of the game, with a prominent existence in the national pastime longer than anyone could recall. The powers that be routinely scheduled them on Sundays and played them almost all season long.
Despite the twin bill's long-lasting tradition, it was about to start a long, slow decline, from which it has never recovered. Last article noted the 1956 NL was the last time any league played more than 30 percent of its games in a doubleheader. Let's take it from there.
Retreat from prominence: 1956-60
Let's look at the years the doubleheader began its long fade out. Here's the percentage of games in each league that took place in doubleheaders:
Year NL AL 1956 33.17% 26.54% 1957 26.49% 22.73% 1958 23.05% 26.17% 1959 19.35% 22.33% 1960 18.42% 24.96%
There are several interesting things going on here. First, there is a clear decline in the late 1950s in doubleheaders. 1959 was the first time since 1923 neither league played a quarter of its games in doubleheaders.
The decline is especially dramatic in the NL, which had its doubleheaders decline by almost 40 percent from 1956 to 1959. What happened there?
I mentioned one reason for this decline at the end of last week's column: relocation. In the early 1950s the Braves drastically reduced their doubleheaders when moving from Boston to Milwaukee. Something similar happened in the late 1950s when the Dodgers and Giants moved to the West Coast.
The Dodgers had been one of the teams least likely to play in doubleheaders since 1940 or so, but they still averaged about 17 doubleheaders a year in their last five years in Brooklyn. In 1958, their first year in LA, the franchise kept up that pace with 17 doubleheaders but then played a dozen in 1959. In 1960, they played only seven doubleheaders, the fewest by any MLB team since 1900. The next year, LA one-upped (or is it one-downed?) themselves by playing only six doubleheaders.
The Giants followed a similar course. They averaged 22 doubleheaders in their last five years in the Polo Grounds, but by 1959 played only eight doubleheaders. From 1959-67, either the Giants or Dodgers ranked last in doubleheaders every year. Add in the Milwaukee Braves, and a relocated franchise played in the fewest doubleheaders in the NL every year but two from 1957-75.
So that's what happened. Now to explain why. The reason is simple. Teams stopped offering them for the reason they had once begun offering them: money. In their last five years in New York, the Giants averaged a little over 10,000 fans per game. In their first five year in San Francisco, they were around 19,000. The Dodgers went from 14,000 to 27,000 fans. If enough butts land in seats for one game, why offer a second?
This affected the entire NL. By 1960, all eight teams played in fewer than 20 doubleheaders, something that hadn't happened in 60 years.
Though there was relocation in the AL, the effect on doubleheaders wasn't as severe. First, all the NL teams moving won every pennant from 1951-59. The AL relocators were sad sacks- the Browns, A's and Senators (the Senators became the Twins in 1961, beyond the scope of the above chart, but close enough). Worse teams generally needed to offer more doubleheaders. Also, the Dodgers and Giants further benefiting from hitting the MLB's greatest untapped market - California - while the AL teams went to smaller areas, such as KC or Minnesota.
That said, the AL squads still decline in doubleheaders. This was especially true of the Twins (formerly Senators). In their first 10 years in Minnesota, they played in the fewest doubleheaders nine times, becoming the first team in AL history to dislodge Detroit from its classic position as least-doubleheader-friendly franchise. Even still, Minnesota played in more doubleheaders than the Dodgers or Giants.
In fact, while the relocated AL squads decreased their doubleheaders, other teams increased them. There was a counter-veiling trend occurring. Beginning in the 1950s, a notable attendance gap opened up between the leagues and stayed every year for decades. This gap wasn't always small, either. In 1958, 16,501 people attended the average NL game while 11,787 attended the typical AL game.
People generally perceived the NL as the superior league. After all, it kept winning All-Star Games, and integrated much more aggressively. The AL engaged in various means to combat this gap in fan interest, most famously and controversially instituting the designated hitter to boost attendance. Another thing they did was play more doubleheaders. The AL played more doubleheaders in every year from 1958-73, the longest stretch in history of one league topping the other.
There is very little new in this approach. Competition between the NL and AA had been one of the great driving forces in the rise of the doubleheader in the 19th Century. Second-rate teams had played in more doubleheaders since the 1890s. It's natural that the AL, seen as the second rate league and struggling to compete with the NL, would become the leading doubleheader league.
The AL years: 1961-73
In these years, the AL played in more doubleheaders, often far more doubleheaders, than the NL, as the chart below shows. To show the role of fan interest, I'll include the average game attendance as well (provided to me by fellow THT writer Steve Treder):
Year NL AL NL Att AL Att 1961 19.06% 29.84% 14,106 12,531 1962 22.17% 27.44% 13,990 12,380 1963 18.50% 26.73% 14,035 11,256 1964 19.95% 28.75% 14,834 11,345 1965 18.94% 28.13% 16,705 10,939 1966 17.80% 26.05% 18,561 12,614 1967 18.52% 29.14% 16,014 13,996 1968 17.47% 21.43% 14,496 13,938 1969 17.27% 18.91% 15,514 12,471 1970 15.04% 17.06% 17,160 12,420 1971 14.20% 18.43% 17,824 12,286 1972 15.48% 19.59% 16,699 12,313 1973 15.24% 15.84% 17,173 13,821
It's clear the NL had a definite edge in fan attendance, which helped cause the corresponding disinclination on their part to schedule doubleheaders.
The NL edge is actually lessened by one team who constantly played large numbers of doubleheaders that decade: the Mets. The new NL club led or tied for the league in doubleheaders every year but one in the 1960s, ultimately playing more doubleheaders in their first eight years of existence than any pre-expansion NL team played in the full 10-year 1960s decade. The Mets played almost 30 percent of their games in doubleheaders from 1962-69.
In some ways, this went against normal doubleheader trends. They had a huge market and drew extremely well, generally eclipsing the Yankees in attendance figures. Then again, they were comically dreadful, and their popularity came from fan goodwill, not quality of their team. As a result, to maintain fan goodwill the Mets played more doubleheaders. Not only did they play in many doubleheaders, but most of them came at home rather than on the road.
One key structural change emerged in the 1960s: the decline of the Sunday doubleheader. In 1966, 49 percent of all games played in Sunday took place in twin bills, something that had last happened in 1930. It's never gone over 50 since. Instead, by 1969 the percentage of Sunday games in doubleheaders fell below 40 percent, and again it's never been that high since.
That said, in the late 1960s baseball experienced another plunge in doubleheaders, this time primarily affecting the AL. Again - why? Simple, some of the most doubleheader-friendly squads of the decade decided they didn't need the twin bill as much.
First the A's moved from KC to Oakland. Whatever glow KC gained by having a MLB team had long since worn off by the mid-1960s. The A's led the league in doubleheaders played in two of their last three years in KC, including 29 in their 1967 finale. They appeared in only 17 in 1968.
Also in 1968, the Red Sox reduced their doubleheaders. They'd been a doormat for much of the 1960s, but their 1967 Impossible Dream pennant revived them. They led the league in doubleheaders in 1966 but played in the fewest in 1968.
The Tigers also played far fewer doubleheaders beginning in 1968. Though they'd been the game's least-friendly doubleheader team for most of the 20th Century, those days were done by the 1960s. They averaged almost 25 per year prior to their pennant winning 1968 season, but in that year played only 16. Next year they had only 11.
Actually, the Tiger decline doesn't have as clear a rationale as the others. They had been a competitive team and after 1968 they were about as good as they'd been beforehand, yet 1968 marked a massive upsurge in Tiger attendance and it remained well over pre-'68 levels after it.
Meanwhile, other teams also declined. The 1968 Twins set a new all-time AL low by playing only eight doubleheaders. Next year, they played only nine.
By 1973 the AL surged downward again. My hunch there is that the league changed tactics. Used the designated hitter and increased scoring to draw fans in, rather than twin bills. At any rate, despite staying behind the NL in attendance, the AL was no longer trying to win the masses over with more doubleheaders. By 1974, they finally played fewer of them than the NL, as the doubleheader quickened its pace toward relative extinction.
Doubleheader death rattle: 1974-present
Here's how far doubleheaders have fallen. Again I'll include the attendance figures to show the economic angle:
Year NL AL NL Att AL Att 1974 14.81% 13.99% 17,467 13,409 1975 12.98% 17.01% 17,096 13,696 1976 14.81% 14.27% 17,140 15,158 1977 11.11% 15.56% 19,620 17,365 1978 12.77% 14.32% 20,800 18,152 1979 12.77% 9.57% 21,811 19,833 1980 9.46% 9.36% 21,710 19,338 1981 6.99% 6.67% 19,376 18,755 1982 7.00% 7.93% 22,127 20,335 1983 9.24% 8.63% 22,125 21,137 1984 7.62% 6.88% 21,402 21,130 1985 5.25% 5.30% 22,958 21,672 1986 4.54% 4.41% 23,048 22,198 1987 3.33% 3.00% 25,473 24,054 1988 4.13% 3.71% 25,283 25,199 1989 4.32% 4.59% 26,027 26,345 1990 5.35% 3.71% 25,197 26,772 1991 2.68% 2.82% 25,460 28,322 1992 3.91% 3.00% 24,806 28,006 1993 2.29% 2.47% 32,533 29,395 1994 2.49% 2.51% 32,139 30,367 1995 1.79% 2.18% 24,936 25,108 1996 3.53% 2.82% 26,789 26,230 1997 3.17% 4.77% 28,118 27,635 1998 3.24% 2.65% 29,605 28,372 1999 2.70% 2.38% 29,582 28,094 2000 2.08% 2.38% 30,608 27,970 2001 1.93% 1.85% 30,654 28,997 2002 1.85% 2.12% 28,614 27,313 2003 2.32% 2.11% 28,358 27,231 2004 3.17% 3.09% 31,062 28,948 2005 1.54% 1.41% 32,108 29,339 2006 2.32% 1.41% 32,107 30,393 2007 1.31% 2.38% 33,998 31,207 2008 1.70% 2.47% 34,068 30,459 2009 1.54% 2.29% 31,788 28,433
In the late 1950s, the doubleheader began its decline. In the late 1960s, it lost its central place in the AL, In the late 1970s, it moved to the periphery entirely.
Again, the reasons all go back to money. Baseball had steady attendance from the mid-1950s until the mid-1970s, but then began a gradual climb. If teams can get more and more coming out for regular games, there's little need for doubleheaders.
The rising tide of attendance was enough to eradicate the old AL edge in doubleheaders. Looking purely at the numbers, the AL got ahead of itself by knocking out the doubleheader. After all, it didn't catch the NL in attendance until 1989 (!). Yet, the differences were no longer the old 40 percent edge the NL had at times in the 1960s. Also, the AL was normally the doubleheader leader until the very end of the 1970s, by which time they were drawing almost 20,000 per game - an unthinkable total for either league just a few years before.
The rise in MLB attendance was part of an overall cultural trend in America. These same years witnessed the Super Bowl evolve from sports championship into unofficial American holiday, and all the major sports experienced expansion. Shortly after, a certain 24-hour sports network began. In other entertainment news, Gone with the Wind's decades-old box office receipt record was broken by Jaws, which was shortly broken by Star Wars. This tangent is going on a little long but there's a trend: in the mid-to-late 1970s, Americans began spending more money and time on entertainment.
Money killed the doubleheader. Then again, money created it, so I have trouble launching a jeremiad against the greedy powers that be here.
As doubleheaders declined, their role in the game transformed. As late as 1980, a fifth of all Sunday games came in doubleheaders but just two years later it was only one-tenth and it continued to crater from there. In 1984, for the first time in a half-century, Sunday was not the top day for doubleheaders: there were 17 Sunday ones that year and 20 on Friday. As small as 17 might sound, it's larger than any ensuing total of Sunday doubleheaders. In the 1990s, baseball averaged five Sunday doubleheaders per year. In 2007, there wasn't a single Sunday doubleheader all year.
Similarly, while doubleheaders had primarily been a mid-summer occurrence since WWII, they're now most commonly found in September. I'm sure this isn't news to anyone out there in Readerland, but now doubleheaders almost exclusively exist to schedule make-ups for rainouts.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have been at the forefront of killing the doubleheader as they effectively stopped scheduling them altogether by the 1970s. From 1972-78, they hosted 10. Then in 1979 they finally went an entire year with none at Dodger Stadium. Consequently, they were at the bottom of the league virtually every year in doubleheaders played.
Beginning in 1980, the Dodgers have hosted exactly a dozen doubleheaders - and four of them came as a result of the Rodney King Riot. It was the ultimate situation: a team that draws well enough not to need to schedule doubleheaders played in a climate without many rainouts.
In something of an upset, the Dodgers weren't the first team of the 20th Century to go an entire year without playing in a doubleheader. Instead, it was the 1983 Mariners. Their domed stadium meant they didn't have to reschedule games, and none of their road opponents called for them either. It's a sign how far the doubleheader had fallen that the Mariners would be the first team to go a season without one. Traditionally terrible teams were the ones most desperate to draw fans, but not the 60-102 Mariners, even if they were next-to-last in the league in attendance.
In 1985, the Cubs became the first NL team to go the year without a doubleheader. They lacked a dome, but their avoidance of the doubleheader made more sense than that of Seattle. Their division crown the year before gave them an attendance record in 1985, and their WGN superstation gave them a sizable fan base in other towns.
Soon after doubleheader-less seasons began, they became common. Beginning in 1987, at least one team somewhere in MLB has gone the entire year without a doubleheader. Toronto leads all baseball with nine doubleheader-less seasons. They've played 22 doubleheaders in their last 23 full seasons. They've hosted two in that entire time, and only one since 1989.
The Astros top the NL with eight. Beyond them are a pack of West Coast teams at six: the A's, Dodgers, Angels and Mariners. Most of these teams play in either domes or relatively dry climates.
The last time every AL team played in a doubleheader was 1989. In the NL, 1996 was the last time all teams played in a doubleheader. Heading into 2010, the Indians, Phillies and Red Sox are the only teams to play at least one doubleheader every year.
As it stands right now, there is no reason to expect a return to doubleheaders. They just don't make economic sense. Ultimately, the entire story of the rise and fall of doubleheaders has revolved around the dollar, which isn't particularly surprising.
References and Resources
This work was based on the great info available at Retrosheet.
Also, Steve Treder's file of attendance info came in handy.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.