Rubbernecking (Part 2)by Brandon Isleib
September 10, 2009
The last time out, we made it through the 1940s looking at the good teams that went unwatched while their more popular competitors stunk in the spotlight. The difference this time is that relocation and expansion will create more of a free-market environment for teams, followed closely by the growth of national media coverage allowing some teams to overcome their lack of fans.
But you didn’t pay for this article to have blathering in it, did you?
[Editor’s note: Why would you say “have blathering in it” when you could have said “blather”?]
[Second editor’s note: Occasionally, a Topps card, such as Darryl Motley’s in 1987, would have its fun fact on the back followed by an editor’s note in small print. Why didn’t they just add the fact to the card since they were editing it anyway?]
On to results!
1950sOverrated: No one particularly
Underrated: White Sox
Most of the overrated teams were in the National League, and they were even that overrated compared with other decades. I’m guessing this is because on the American League side of things the same teams had been similarly good for long enough to create consistent fan bases or lack thereof. The Yankees, Indians and White Sox were expected to be the top three going into seasons, so their attendance was consistent. However, apparently, not even a guaranteed third-place finish was enough for Pale Hose fans to show up. From 1955-58, their standings were third, third, second, and second, with attendance finishes of sixth, fifth, fourth (with fewer fans than the previous sixth), and sixth again.
While relocation later would make teams overrated by adoring fans ecstatic with anybody coming to town — something like living in Montgomery, AL as I currently do, where Hall and Oates came this year and Huey Lewis and the News last year — it didn’t in this decade. Here’s the breakdown for the moves that happened early enough in the decade to make an impact.
Braves: Not overrated because as soon as they got to Milwaukee, they were very good. In terms of turning around a franchise who hadn’t been much better than the Phillies up until then, this move could not have worked out better in its initial stage.
Orioles: Attendance was still below-average in Baltimore, but it more than tripled St. Louis attendance (1,060,910 to 297,238). You take what you can get.
A’s: Kansas City was second, then fourth, in league attendance the first two years as the team went 115-193. The fans wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
So supply of quality baseball matched its demand through the decade. Sure, it was probably a lack of good pennant races that brought it on, but in this instance it looks nice.
The Mets’ overratedness is not only the stuff of legend, it was also probably foreseeable. Plop an expansion team into a city that had just lost two teams and then hiring Casey Stengal? That’s a surefire recipe for box office success, and as the Yankees became increasingly difficult to watch, the Mets reaped the benefits. Starting in 1963 the Mets were anywhere from fourth to second in league attendance despite awful teams. Only one other team has been similarly overrated so long in a decade, and perhaps surprisingly not only has it been in the 2000s, it’s not the Mets.
(Honorable mention for the decade goes to the Astros—it's amazing how many people will show up to a party with free air conditioning.)
Normally I’d resolve a tie, but here it didn’t seem appropriate, as all five teams are interesting in their own way. For the Tigers, one of the three years they were overrated was thanks to Mark Fidrych, but they had done better in attendance two years prior, where a last-place 72-90 record got them third in the fan standings (fandings?).
The odd thing to me is that of all the teams to get an odd spike in 1974, it shouldn’t have been Detroit. The AL East that year was one of the strangest races ever, as the Brewers were in it through June and the Indians were in it through August, before yielding to the Yankees, Red Sox and a ridiculous 28-wins-of-34 stretch run by the Orioles that settled the thing. In other words, every team in the East was in contention for long periods except the Tigers, and they were the team who got an attendance boost. Odd world sometimes...
The Phillies’ overratedness came during a string of sixth-place attendances despite last-place finishes between 1971 and 1973—the opening seasons of Veterans’ Stadium. Perhaps my personal experience attending a number of games there in the Terry Francona-era after growing up on Fenway Park jaded me, but I can’t imagine the Vet being such a hot spot that people would show up despite the team’s performance. Or maybe it’s because I know so many Philadelphia sports fans who have a dislike-hate relationship with their teams.
The A’s may have captured the imagination of the nation with their mustaches and colorful uniforms and characters, but they couldn’t capture the Bay Area, not even with a weak Giants team in an awful stadium. For as long as they were good, their attendance never exceeded fifth, and their 1974 World Series team was seen by an 11th-place fan base. I’ve said it earlier this year, but I’ll say it again: the first season Oakland cleared 1.1 million in attendance was 1981. Any team who breaks attendance records in a strike year has a prima facie strange history .
As for the Pirates, they had a similar domination of their division with similar results in the standings, but they were sufficiently familial to gain some notice nationwide. Once again, it was national media picking up where the local fans didn’t care. Same for the Orioles. Say what you will about national media’s East Coast bias, but the available outlets for serious baseball fans to find out about small-market teams are much better now than they were in the pre-technicolor days. The 1970s are the next-best decade after the '40s for history rewriting contemporary perception to remember the good teams. Television isn’t all bad. You would like to give me money. (A string of subliminal encoded messages in parentheses. You’ll thank me later.)
Underrated: No one particularly
Hardball Times kids’ corner: if you’re in seventh grade and your teacher is a baseball nut, make an A on your next paper by comparing and contrasting the Angels and Dodgers of the '80s. (You’ll thank me later.) In the same market, both teams had absurd attendance figures, usually first or second in their league, even when they weren’t great. However, they achieved inconsistent results, possibly as a result of narrow organizational strategies—the Angels with free agency, and the Dodgers with youth. When they diversified their approach (the Angels with Wally Joyner and Mike Witt, or the Dodgers with Kirk Gibson), they won; but in the meantime, they were subject to the foibles of their plans. The Angels would grow old and injure quickly, while several Dodgers youngsters were inconsistent from season to season. In an era where teams came and went quickly, the only two attendance-related standouts were natural but strange bedfellows.
The O’s maintained reasonable attendance (fifth-place or so) even in the closing days of Memorial Stadium; with new yards-based digs, the Orioles placed first or second in AL attendance from 1992 to 2000. Most of those years, they were good, but when they weren’t, Baltimoreans still showed up. Denverites were similarly smitten with their team, packing Coors long after the talent left. The Rockies in a sense pulled off a reverse Orioles: whereas Baltimore stayed home in the Earl Weaver days, only to show up once they stopped winning, the Rockies are at their apex as a winning organization, but the fans can’t be bothered anymore.
The Expos you know about (I attended a fireworks night game in Reading, PA around 2000 that outdrew the Expos that same night), but maybe not the Giants as much, their lack of fans overshadowed by on-field success and Barry Bonds’s dominance. Prior to Pacific Bell opening, the attendance was middling-to-bad even when they were cranking out winning teams at the end of the decade. As a kid in the Northeast, I had no cause to attend any games at Candlestick Park, but from what I’ve read and these attendance figures, it must have been awful.
I don’t know if this changes popular perception of things, but for all people have brought up “Bonds is loved in San Francisco,” was he really loved prior to the new stadium? I’d say based on attendance that Barry Bonds wasn’t quite as loved as the new park he played in. Sometimes the clothes look nicer than the emperor. Or something.
The Orioles lovefest continued through 2005, as six straight years of losing seasons still placed the O’s in the top five for fans. Meanwhile, the Twins have endured below-average attendance every season this decade despite seven seasons above .500 and four division titles. Ironically, the streak likely will be broken this year as the Twins are fifth in AL attendance—and may not reach .500. Things truly are looking up in Minnesota, and the new stadium may cement this upswing in attendance, but the last decade is more about perseverance than popularity.
ConclusionThere’s been a general trend over the last two decades of teams changing their place in the market less than before. Whether it’s long-term remains to be seen, but absent an awful ballpark or previously induced apathy, fans in non-Dodgers territory will respond most of all to the talent on the field. So, general managers, before you spend all the money in gimmickry, work on the team, don’t anger your fans, and you’ve got a recipe for high attendance.
(You’ll thank me later.)
References and Resources
B-Reference for attendance figures and the set of 1987 Topps my parents gave me for Christmas one year.
Brandon Isleib is a lawyer and writes about stuff sometimes. He can be reached via the electronic mails.