Rubbernecking (Part 1)by Brandon Isleib
August 20, 2009
My very first article as a regular THTer dealt in part with attendance rates and obscurity factors. This time, my aim is more general: what teams were overexposed in their mediocrity while good teams toiled in relative shadow?
The question turns out to be a little bit different than "who are the Yankees and Marlins of history?" In each case, those teams had a cause for their attendance: winning just about every year in the former, and a stupidly timed fire sale in the latter. Historically, in those rare periods the Yankees are miserably bad, the fans don't show up, as is true for the Mets. New York fans exercise judgment when their teams aren’t succeeding; Yankees fans stopped showing up in ’89, when the wins left too, and they didn’t come back until after ’97. That it wasn’t until they were defending World Series champs is a fairly normal thing, as many teams get their attendance spike after they win, not when they start winning.
In ’96, the Yanks were behind the Orioles, Blue Jays, and Red Sox in the AL East for attendance; the Indians, Mariners, and Rangers were also ahead of them in the AL as a whole. The Yankees of that year were in that sense underrated as a quality product, while the Blue Jays were overrated. The momentum of both teams’ recent histories was still strong enough going into ’96 to skew results. Because of later successes and some noteworthy happenings—Joe Torre’s first year on the job, the Jeffrey Maier incident—some of the ’96 Yankees are remembered well by now, but the actual season happenings are relatively obscured. For example, who was their best hitter by slugging percentage after Bernie Williams? (Answer later in this article, or in several reference resources if you’re that curious.) If more people had paid attention then, they’d be remembered on their own, and not with a string of more popular teams.
No, New Yorkers, like most other fans, know when to come to the park and when to stay away. We’re looking for the ones who stay when the team’s bad or on the flipside won’t support their quality team. Over their time in Los Angeles, the Dodgers are the clearest example of what we’re looking for. They’ve been in the NL’s top half of attendance every year since they left Brooklyn, and in the NL’s top three every year except 1998-2001. They may have a reputation for disinterest overall, but they’re still paying customers, creating the perfect marriage for a team’s sanity: money with no pesky strings attached, like whining about the team when it’s bad.
It stands to reason that if one team is more popular than its record deserves, then someone else is comparatively less popular, as relative attendance rankings, amount of people covering the sport nationally, and so forth are generally zero-sum. For every story ESPN puts up on the struggling Mets this year, that's one fewer headline on the Rockies. The ratio's not quite one-to-one, but for media coverage, it's close. I went through attendance rankings and matched up standings to see who stood out in each case, awarding an overrated and underrated prize to a team in each decade. The results are impressionistic rather than formulaic, designed primarily to give a sense of where to adjust historical perspective. Some of the cases are far enough from our sense of history that you don’t have to adjust much, but at the very least you can have a better sense of attendance through the ages.
Yes, the Browns, which surprised me completely, but it’s a good reminder of the leagues at the time and how ultimately it led to worse for all concerned. The Browns were only in St. Louis because the AL and NL were at war at the time, the idea being to take fans from the established cities rather than the AL having to find new ones. As the senior circuit was in a bit of a rut, the AL’s scurvy plunderings proved very successful, in Boston, in Philadelphia, in Chicago, somewhat in New York…and in St. Louis. The Browns raided the Cardinals sufficiently for players and fans to where it took the Cards years of futility to become relevant again. In the meantime, the Browns finished sixth in 1903, last in 1905, and sixth in 1907, but were second, fourth, and fourth in AL attendance in those years. It was still better than watching the Cardinals…
Even after the leagues made peace, it was the two-city setups that gave the AL most of its attendance, as several of the other cities hadn’t fielded quality teams for some time. Cleveland only had one year off, but 1899 wasn’t their best experience; Washington spent the 1890s in the majors but not in any competent way; and Detroit was a bit of a stretch, having fielded a major league team for eight years in the 1880s. In these cities, despite the lack of competition, it took a long time for them to catch baseball fever. The Tigers’ back-to-back pennants in 1907-08 got them seventh and fifth place in attendance—pennants contested hotly by an Indians team that was 88 games over .500 from 1904-1908 but finished sixth in attendance every year.
After these pennants, things changed. Baseball caught on in Detroit, and the modern drought aside, the Tigers have been a well-attended team. Cleveland supporters have tended to respond to success or failure appropriately since this decade. On the flipside, the fight for fans that once was controversial in the dual-team cities wore thin for cities that either had bad teams or insufficient population. Branch Rickey’s Cardinals won the race for St. Louis in the twenties and never looked back, while Philadelphia didn’t care about baseball and Boston didn’t either until Tom Yawkey’s money. What originally stabilized the AL eventually became its curse, and the early attendance records of the Browns are an encapsulation of all that history.
1910sOverrated: No one particularly
This is the most well-balanced decade for attendance matching performance, but the times when teams were underrated were doozies. There are only five of these seasons by my counting. Four of them were Senators seasons; although they didn’t make the playoffs in the decade, they had a strong team most years that was worth watching at least while Walter Johnson was pitching. But their efforts yielded few fans; their second place performance of 1913 got them seventh place in attendence. When they weren’t winning…brutal. In 1917, the Senators had a .500 season but drew 1,121 fans per game. In 1904, they went 38-113…and drew 1,689 per game. Maybe it was the war or something, but the lack of support for what was in essence a good team was abundantly lacking.
The only other significantly underrated season was the 1914 A’s, a formerly well-supported team. As the story goes, Connie Mack panicked at the skyrocketing Federal League salaries and sold his team off while he still had the chance. It may have been the drop in attendance that fueled it as well, as the attendance was cut by one-third while the team continued to win pennants. It wasn’t the Phillies taking the attendance, either; they lost two-thirds of their fans over the same period and without a Federal League team competing in the city. Perhaps if the A’s had continued to be near the top in attendance, Mack would not have destroyed one of the most fascinating teams of the era.
(Incidentally, while trying to find a sociocultural explanation for the two-team dropoff in attendance, I found this on Wikipedia regarding Philadelphia in that time: “People both inside and outside of the city commented that Philadelphia and its citizens were dull and contented with its lack of change….Along with the city’s ‘dullness’ Philadelphia was known for its corruption.” It’s cited and all that, so it’s a legitimate view of that day, but that has to be one of the worst-sounding cities I’ve read about outside the ravages of war or large-scale immorality.)
1920sOverrated: White Sox
Did George Sisler’s eye problems in 1923 doom an entire franchise? Quite possibly, as the Browns were still getting respectable attendance figures in 1922, when they had their best team until Baltimore. But the injury, which lowered the fortunes of the club, coincided with the Cardinals’ first peak, as Rogers Hornsby and friends brought St. Louis the world championship in 1926. By that point, fans stopped seeing the Browns, and it never changed, even when the team was respectable in 1925 (third in standings, sixth in attendance), 1928 (third/last), and 1929 (fourth/last).
The White Sox, on the other hand...although they lost some fans after the Black Sox scandal, it didn’t sink the team financially or anywhere close. In 1921, 1923, and 1924, the Sox finished either seventh or last—with above-average attendance each year. They weren’t quite as bad towards the end of the decade, but they weren’t great, and the attendance still held up well. You would think that if any team could finish so badly and have fans turn up, it wouldn’t be the scandal-plagued one, but the relationship between scandals and attendance can be a funny thing, as baseball is witnessing in the present day.
My conjecture is that, without many people realizing, White Sox attendance through the '20s got a number of players in the Hall of Fame. Ray Schalk, Harry Hooper, Red Faber, Eddie Collins...Collins was getting in regardless, but the first three are kinda meh as far as Hall players. With four Hall players through the first half of the '20s, the White Sox were a seventh-place team. Yes, the scandal eviscerated a number of quality players, but that’s still four Hall of Famers producing well. I strongly suspect that the extra exposure the first three players got in Chicago boosted them in the Hall. New York wasn’t the only city that showcased its talent overmuch; Chicago was just as good as New York for awhile, and this White Sox decade and the Hall of Famers it produced is decent evidence for Chicago’s keeping pace.
Neither of these are too extreme. The Dodgers finished in the second division with first-tier attendance in 1933 and 1936-38. The Pirates finished in the first division with second-tier attendance throughout the '30s, but more often than not it was sixth-place attendance for a fourth-place finish or something like that. The Pirates were most accurately a small-to-mid-market team, putting the brothers Waner and the non-brother Arky Vaughan on the field and a stream of forgettable pitchers on the mound. More people in theory should have come out to see them, but not too many more to where they were severely underrated.
The Dodgers had been strongly attended since their pennant in 1920; only their cornball ways and their obscurity relative to the teams in their own city minimizes this. Since 1927, the Dodgers have finished in the bottom half of league attendance exactly once. That’s a fairly ridiculous streak, and one that I don’t expect will be replicated if and when it ever stops. Once again, despite current reputation, the most loyal fans in terms of ticket sales are Dodgers fans, no matter what New Yorkers may think. That’s somewhat of a paradigm shift in my way of thinking about the Dodgers of today; if it wasn’t for you, you are far more savvy than I am (not that this takes much doing).
The 1940s as a whole get a pass for the war years, as the amount of potential attendees was in flux constantly through this period. Nevertheless, the 1944 Cardinals went 105-49 with fifth-place attendance (the pennant-winning Browns across town were in sixth-place; 1944 may be the only year both pennant winners were below-average in attendance), while the Giants led the NL in attendance that year off a 67-87 record. War may explain it away, but it’s still a big gap.
Fortunately for our modern understanding, the cavalcade of books about the war years has moved the spotlight off popular teams onto good ones, and the Cardinals were nothing if not loaded with talent. Of the decades prior to expansion, this is the only one for which I’m comfortable in saying that the stream of historical narrative has adjusted properly.
Next timeOne major league city regularly undersupported its winning team for three decades; in the last two decades, they have oversupported a set of losers. The city will be the biggest story of the fifties onward when we reconvene.
References and Resources
The answer is Mariano Duncan. To the Yankees question in the article, that is, not to the meaning of life. Sorry if I got your hopes up.
Brandon Isleib is a lawyer and writes about stuff sometimes. He can be reached via the electronic mails.