The Golden Age

Last week I wrote that no one was really getting excited about Randy Johnson’s 300th win. That said, I bet that more people turn out for the potential milestone tonight than did for these:

Baseball history is littered with noteworthy achievements that took place in front of sparse crowds. Ted Williams’s last game at Fenway Park managed to draw only 10,000 fans. Still, the crowd dwarfed the 2,000 who came to fete Babe Ruth in his final home game as a Yankee. Fewer than 6,000 bothered to catch Stan Musial’s 3,000th hit at Wrigley Field in 1958. Poor Bill Stoneman threw two no-hitters in his career that drew a combined 13,680 fans — a number that would certainly be a disappointment in Washington.

I’m not sure that anyone would have known it was the Babe’s last game in pinstripes — he wasn’t released until the following February — and no one could have anticipated either of Stoneman’s no-hitters, but, yeah, it’s true that old milestones weren’t celebrated the way they are today. Part of this is because people simply weren’t as aware of impending milestones back then. There was no in 1958. There was no Sportscenter. People got their box scores once a day — if that — and didn’t have nearly the kind of access to stats and stuff that we do today.

Another part of this: statistical availablity aside, people just didn’t obsess about the game as much then as we do now. For one thing, people didn’t go to ballgames in the numbers people do now. In 1923, the Yankees led baseball in attendance by drawing a hair over a million fans. The Marlins drew 1.3 million last year and were the laughingstock of the league. There are all kinds of reasons for this — and certainly overall population impacts this — but people didn’t build their lives around baseball back then like so many of us sick individuals do now. Everyone knew that Randy Johnson was poised to win 300 games before the season began. I bet you could count the number of people who knew when Eddie Collins was due to get his 3000th hit on one hand.

So, different game, different fans, different time. But it does make me wonder: if people were way more casual and dismissive of fun stuff like this back in the day, why do we still call it the “Golden Age?”

(thanks to Pete Toms for the link)

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  1. Greg Simons said...

    Maybe because it wasn’t about the milestones; about saying “I was there when…”; about turning a chance grab of a ball into a six-figure payday.

    Tying in with your last post about life in Detroit these days, maybe people just wanted to watch a game, enjoy a little escapism from what was certainly a rougher life than most of us enjoy today.

    Forgive me for going a bit overboard and waxing poetic, but I think there were some things back then that were worthy of the title,  “The Golden Age.”

  2. MarkH said...

    I’m more amazed the Yankees could only draw 2000 fans for a September game in 1934. What, they had something better to do?

  3. Wooden U. Lykteneau said...

    As recently as 1946, there were more than 400 minor-league teams playing in nearly five dozen affiliated leagues. I guess they were all playing to empty stands, right?

    I think the term “Golden Age” has been so misused that it’s lost its original meaning. Seems like nowadays it’s used to describe things wistfully, usually by folks that don’t like the way things have changed. Perhaps that’s why you’ll find folks in their 80s describing the 1930s and 1940s as “The Good Old Days”

    As for obsession – who played those APBA and Strat-o-matic games?

  4. Jeff Berardi said...

    Media hype has a LOT to do with it, I think. They’re just round numbers, people. 300 really doesn’t mean anything that 299 or 301 means, but if you scream and yell and obsess about it enough…

  5. InnocentBystander said...

    “Golden Age” is a load of crap. I first remember questioning this sort of thing upon seeing a replay of Roger Maris’ 61st homerun. The stands were half empty! Attendance: 23154 ( This was the biggest, most important sports franchise playing in the biggest, most important city with the biggest, most important athlete’s biggest, most important record on the line that day. The crowd should’ve been overflowing…not to catch a $1m baseball but to potentially witness a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

    Terms like “Golden Age” and “Greatest Generation” are things old people start to say when they’ve given up adapting to the current times. An individual’s past may be great, but it’s sad when they no longer look toward the future.

  6. kendynamo said...

    seaking of golden ages, Miracleman: the Golden Age, by Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham is totally legit.  id read it if you ever get the chance, craig.  its out of print tho, and pretty pricey on ebay, but you can find it online or free.  and since the rights are currently in dispute, its not like youre stealing from anyone.

  7. jlive said...

    The U.S. population has nearly doubled since 1950 and so has average income (yes, in constant dollars).  I don’t know how to quantify mobility, but it’s certainly greater now than it was in 1950.  Similarly for availability of information.  I think much more analysis needs to be done to get a clear picture of the nation’s obsession (or lack thereof) with baseball.  Basing one’s judgments about our obsession with baseball on attendance figures seems to me like basing one’s judgments about MVPs on runs batted in.  wink

  8. Pete Toms said...

    Remember that baseball had no competition for the attention of sports fans for most of the last century, so it was the dominant game, but also really the only one.  I think that is a big factor in the revisionist nostalgia of the “Golden Age”.  I think pop culture has had an influence also, Boys of Summer, The Natural etc.

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