In what passes for real life, I write science fiction. One of the enduring tropes of SF is time travel: hop into a glittering machine or stumble through some weird portal, and suddenly you’re in another age, past or future. Wonder and excitement await you, as well as danger. Perhaps the greatest hazard is that you will make some change to the past, great or small, that will alter the course of history, turn your home era into some unrecognizable nightmare, even wipe you out of existence. (Ray Bradbury’s story “A Sound of Thunder” is a classic exposition of this theme. Back to the Future isn’t bad, either.)
What in the world does this have to do with baseball? Well, how many of us haven’t fantasized about going back to some celebrated game of the past and sitting in the stands as it all unfolds? Of course, we don’t fantasize about the part where we take somebody else’s seat at a sold-out game, and that disappointed fan sets off some unfathomable butterfly-effect chain of events that leads to Hitler winning the war or the Soviets beating America to the moon. Much safer to pick some game with a few thousand empty seats, or more. That at least cuts down the odds of calamity.
(Here I must categorically deny causing the election of your least-favorite President by buying a hot dog at the Eddie Gaedel game.)
This offbeat line of speculation led me to an interesting question: What great games of the past have played before the most disappointing crowds? We imagine every World Series game, every playoff, taking place in a packed stadium. Though this has usually been true in recent decades, there have been very important, famous, and thrilling games that drew much less than a sellout.
Even more so those ordinary regular-season games that became extraordinary through some outstanding performance or long, long deadlock. Either one would leave tens of thousands of fans kicking themselves because they could have, should have made the effort to go to the ballpark, and didn’t.
I’ve put together a list of 10 such games, six singletons and two pairs of games bound together by history as well as disappointment. I had no rigid objective attendance criteria, but some strong principles did guide me. I expected lower numbers at day games than night games, and more fans on weekends than on weekdays.
Bad teams received some forbearance (which is why the “crowd” of 8,375 at Arlington in late September 1984 for Mike Witt‘s perfect game falls short), as did old teams for lower populations and smaller fan bases. World Series and playoff games drew a virtual presumption of sellout status—though perhaps I should have lowered my expectations for playoffs, as you will see. I will list the mitigating and aggravating factors with each game, to inform and occasionally astound you.
This is probably not a perfect and comprehensive list, and if your criteria are different from mine, I’m sure you’ll find reasons to disagree. Consider it a jumping-off point for further discussion. (If I don’t read about at least two games in the comments section that make me smack my head, I will be disappointed.) Speaking of jumping off …
10. May 15, 1981: Toronto Blue Jays at Cleveland Indians in Cleveland Stadium. Attendance: 7,290. Capacity: 76,977.
Why the game was great: Despite that deceptive stretch of three* perfect games in a month in 2010, the perfecto is a special event whenever it happens. On this drizzly Friday night, Len Barker joined exclusive company, throwing the 10th perfect game in major league history en route to a 3-0 victory.
* Armando Galarraga was perfect. Not his fault if Jim Joyce wasn’t.
Mitigating and aggravating factors: As mentioned above, it was raining softly in Cleveland that night, keeping away fans (but according to Barker, giving him a better grip on the ball). And yes, the awful Blue Jays were the opponent. But the Indians were in first place, and it was a Friday night. And still they could not even fill a tenth of the seats. I could forgive 15,000 thousand, 12, maybe even 10, for a misty May game. But 7,000 and change puts you on my list.
9. May 1, 1920: Brooklyn Robins at Boston Braves in Braves Field. Attendance: 4,500. Capacity: 40,000.
Why the game was great: Time machines are expensive, so you need to economize where you can. And this is a prime opportunity: pay for nine innings of baseball, get 26.
Leon Cadore and Joe Oeschger both went almost three complete circuits in a display that would give strokes to modern pitching coaches. Each hurler surrendered just one run on the day, and both finished strong, no-hitting their opponents over the last six innings to close out the greatest tie game ever. And the whole contest took a mere three hours, 50, which is about average for a nine-inning Yankees-Red Sox game today*.
* Okay, I actually tallied it up. 3:24:45 in 2011 for games that didn’t go extra innings. Dratted facts ruining my punch lines.
Mitigating and aggravating factors: Some leeway must be given for games played by second-division teams three generations ago, and 4,500 isn’t all that terrible for 1920. Except that it was a Saturday afternoon, in a city that still prohibited Sunday play. This was the lone baseball opportunity of the week for a lot of folks—and boy, did they miss their chance.
Bonus trivia nugget: The Robins, dodging Boston’s Sunday baseball ban, traveled to Philadelphia to fit in a game against the Phillies. It went 13 innings, ending in defeat. They then boarded the train back for Boston to play again on Monday. That game went 19, another loss. Despite this stretch of 58 innings in three days for two losses and a tie, Brooklyn would win the pennant that year. (Oh, and the Braves’ next game after that stretch went 11. Hard habit to break.)
Bonus beg: If anyone actually does go back in time to see this game, please explain to me the 1-2-3-2-3-2 double play I see in the box score. I’m stumped.
8. Sept. 29, 1959: National League playoff, Game Two, Milwaukee Braves at Los Angeles Dodgers in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Attendance: 36,528. Capacity: 94,600.
Why the game was great: After a nip-and-tuck opening win in Milwaukee, the Dodgers found themselves down 5-2 in the ninth inning of Game Two, Sandy Koufax having just walked the bases loaded with two outs. Clem Labine entered to douse the fire, and the Dodgers stormed back with a five-hit rally to tie it up.
The teams traded bases-loaded jams in the 11th without anyone scoring. Two outs into the home 12th, L.A. strung together a walk, two singles, and Felix Mantilla‘s throwing error to win the four-hour marathon, and the pennant.
Mitigating and aggravating factors: Tuesday afternoon is a dead zone for ballgame attendance, one showing up more than once on this list. Of course, the next Tuesday afternoon, Game Five of the World Series would play here before 92,706 fans, a smidgen higher than Sunday’s Game Three and Monday’s Game Four. Light attendance for the playoff is accentuated by playing at the wildly inappropriate Coliseum, but the Dodgers would sell out even the worst seats there during the Series. Bad as this was, it was better than the previous day’s game in Milwaukee. (See below.)
7. May 8, 1968: Minnesota Twins at Oakland Athletics in Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Attendance: 6,298. Capacity: 50,000.
Why the game was great: Catfish did it all. In the seventh, his squeeze bunt not only scored Rick Monday to break a scoreless tie, but he beat it out for a hit. In the eighth, bases loaded and two gone, his two-run single stretched Oakland’s lead to 4-0.
Oh, and there was the perfect game he pitched, the first in the American League in 46 years. (That Larsen guy did his in inter-league play: doesn’t count.) Driving in three of his team’s four runs with the full intense pressure of a perfect game on his shoulders gives his feat added dimension.
Mitigating and aggravating factors: It was a Wednesday night, not optimal for attendance, and yes, the Athletics had been a 10th-place team the previous season. The Kansas City Athletics, that is. Oakland had had its own big-league ballclub (slightly used) for less than a month, a team chock full of young and exciting players like Reggie Jackson, Bert Campaneris, Sal Bando, and, by the way,Catfish Hunter.. They would produce the franchise’s first winning season since 1952. And the bloom was off the rose three weeks after the home opener? It makes you think they should have stayed in K.C.
Why the games were great: The rubber game of this series is more famous, but Game Two was pretty wild itself. The Giants knocked out Drysdale with a four-run sixth to go ahead 5-0, but the Dodgers stormed right back with seven in their half, routing three Giants hurlers. San Francisco rebounded for two in the eighth to tie, but two walks and two sacrifices won it for L.A. in the last of the ninth.
And then there was Game Three: 4-2 Dodgers after eight, but just like 1951 it all fell apart for them in the ninth, as every move manager Walter Alston made or didn’t make was the wrong one.
Mitigating and aggravating factors: Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons are not the best times to fill your stadium—but a winner-take-all series for the pennant against your bitterest rival should be. Maybe fans were too dispirited by San Francisco winning the opener. That could explain the large bump for a Game Three that makes this list mostly on the previous game’s coattails. (I’m not trying to pick on Dem Bums, honest.) These NL playoff under-performances are becoming a trend, and we aren’t through yet.
4. Sept. 28, 1959: National League playoff, Game One, Los Angeles Dodgers at Milwaukee Braves in County Stadium. Attendance: 18,297. Capacity: 43,091.
Why the game was great: This was a taut affair, with multiple lead changes and no team ever ahead by more than one. John Roseboro’s solo home run broke a 2-2 tie in the Dodgers’ sixth, then Larry Sherry—pitching in relief since the second—took over. He shut down the Braves, allowing one baserunner over the last four innings to seal the opener for L.A.
Mitigating and aggravating factors: Monday day game aside, this one is just aggravating. Less than half capacity for a playoff game. Four thousand fans below their season average attendance. Almost a thousand fans fewer than the nondescript contest in late May against the Pirates that turned into Harvey Haddix‘s epic 12-inning perfect game. (Too bad it went 13.)
Could it be that pennant playoffs drew a different reaction then than today? Has institutionalized playoff baseball conditioned modern fans to a greater pitch of excitement for such games? I have to wonder.
3. Oct. 10, 1926: World Series, Game Seven, St. Louis Cardinals at New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium. Attendance: 38,093. Capacity: 62,000.
Why the game was great: Grover Cleveland Alexander, the Game Six winner “fresh” from his subsequent celebration (of a type forever open to speculation), replaced starter Jesse Haines in the seventh inning up 3-2, bases loaded, two outs, and Tony Lazzeri at the plate. He got the critical strikeout, and retired the next five, but with the championship one out away, walked Babe Ruth.
Babe promptly erased all memory of his early go-ahead homer by getting caught stealing second, and Alexander had insured he’d get portrayed in the movies by a mid-level leading man with a political itch.
Mitigating and aggravating factors: The excuses for this one don’t really hold water. The game was on a Sunday, and while a few fans may still have been put off by Sunday baseball (New York’s law against Sunday play had been repealed seven years back), there should have been ample numbers to take their place. Morning showers had come and gone, leaving behind a damp, gray, dreary day, temperatures barely crawling out of the mid-40s by game time. This would be a good argument for clemency, except that the previous year’s Game Seven had been played in even worse weather, and Forbes Field sold out past capacity.
Game Six at Yankee Stadium, on a Saturday, drew only 48,615, after sellouts of Games One and Two. A World Series at Yankee Stadium, with Babe Ruth, failing to sell out its last two games? The mind boggles.
2. Oct. 3, 1951: National League playoff, Game Three, Brooklyn Dodgers at New York Giants in the Polo Grounds. Attendance: 34,320. Capacity: 54,500.
(This game was the seed of my article. Apropos of another project, I was searching for a famous baseball game with a few unsold tickets an imaginary time-traveler could pick up, and found this stunner. And to think of how many people claim to have been there.)
Mitigating and aggravating factors: I’ve sung this refrain before. It was a Wednesday day game, but it was a pennant playoff involving the Dodgers and Giants, the best rivalry in the National League. Even if Giants fans couldn’t pack the Polo Grounds, Dodgers faithful coming in on the subway should have made up the difference.
Management blamed “dark, threatening” weather for the poor turnout. Okay, plausible: It was very cloudy that day with high humidity. But then why did the previous day’s Game Two, a possible Giants pennant-winning day with sun and gloriously warm temperatures for October, have 16,000 empty seats? Had it not been a 10-0 rout, it would have made this list. In these numbers, one can start to see the attendance malaise that would drive the two teams to California.
1. Oct. 16, 1912: World Series, Game Eight, New York Giants at Boston Red Sox in American League Park (later known as Fenway Park). Attendance: 17,034. Capacity: 35,000.
Why the game was great: Snodgrass’s Muff is the historic shorthand for this game, but that sells it short. This was the only World Series to go past the limit (Game Two was called for darkness after 11, going into the books as a tie), and the game itself was a tense pitchers’ duel between Christy Mathewson and Boston’s Hugh Bedient, relieved after seven by Smokey Joe Wood (of the 34-5 record).
The game reached extra frames knotted at one, and when Wood yielded a run in the New York 10th, Mathewson looked sure to nail down the championship, especially after leadoff pinch-hitter Clyde Engle lofted an easy fly ball to right-center. One muff later, Boston had life. Aided by a foul pop that fell between three Giants (including Fred Merkle, in arguably his second “bonehead” play), the Red Sox pushed across two to win it all.
Mitigating and aggravating factors: The stands half-full for the deciding game of the World Series, one day after a near-sellout? There had to be a catch. And there was. Iffy weather, yeah; weekday, sure. But both had been true the previous day. The amazing truth was, the fans had gone on strike.
The Royal Rooters were a Boston institution, an organized cheering section 300 strong gracing Red Sox games with, among other things, their modified versions of the contemporary song “Tessie” that drove opponents batty. (Pittsburgh Pirate Tommy Leach credited them with winning the 1903 Series for Boston with that song.) They were so well-established, Giants management gave them their own section for two Series games at the Polo Grounds. For Game Seven at brand-new Fenway, though, the Royal Rooters found their accustomed left-field space had been given away.
Incensed, they marched across the field in protest just as Smokey Joe Wood was taking the mound. Mounted police herded them off behind a left-field bleacher fence (it wasn’t the Green Monster yet). They bashed through it and rushed the field again, holding up the game as the Red Sox manager and players joined with police to force a second expulsion. They waited for the final out to resume their protest, marching around the field as they traditionally did, this time inciting boos for Boston’s owners and a cheer for the New York ownership that had treated them better.
Boston management had the Royal Rooters’ accustomed seats reserved for the final game, one day too late. The Rooters boycotted the game, backed by a denunciation of the Red Sox brass from Boston Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald (after whom future President Kennedy was named). Thousands of fans joined their beloved Rooters in the boycott, and that is how one of history’s greatest World Series games unfolded before more empty seats than spectators.
“Honorable” mentions: Mike Witt’s perfect game (8,375/41,097); the first of Johnny Vander Meer‘s two consecutive no-hitters, at Crosley Field (5,214/33,000); Bob Feller‘s 1940 Opening Day no-hitter at Comiskey (14,000/50,000); Roger Maris‘ 61* at Yankee Stadium (23,154/67,000); Milt Pappas‘ almost-perfect no-hitter at Wrigley (11,144/37,702); Roger Clemens‘ 20-K game at Fenway (13,414/33,368).
And that rounds out my list, not including whatever other worthy contenders you’ll nudge me about below. If there is one thing I want a reader to take away from this article, anxiety over time-travel paradoxes is not it. Someday, you’ll have an opportunity to go see a baseball game, but concerns over lackluster records or an incoming cold front or the fear of witnessing a painful postseason elimination will have you on the fence. When that day comes, go see the game. You don’t know what you could be missing.
References & Resources
Online archives of The New York Times, various dates
Philip J. Lowry, Green Cathedrals (2006 edition)
And lastly, I acknowledge lifting the title of Whitey Herzog’s memoir for the title of this article. Too good not to.