Baseball was bitterly criticized for letting it rain last Saturday and Sunday, thus depriving thousands of people in Boston and millions more around the country from watching the World Series during choice weekend viewing time. That's not a joke, son. When baseball lets TV down—whether by its own fault or by an act of God—it's in trouble. Television is where the money is, and baseball has been turning itself inside out to satisfy the demands of the tube. When it fails—well, the networks promise everything and then cancel shows at the drop of a hat, don't they, baby?
Baseball created the pennant playoffs, which drastically reduce the excitement of the pennant races, with TV in mind; it changed the traditional Wednesday opening of the World Series to Saturday; it switched midweek games from afternoon to night; it began the final game of this year's Boston-Oakland playoffs at 5 p.m., a terrible time to start a game. These changes were made for one reason: TV said they would make for bigger ratings, which means more money.
But they meant, too, that baseball was putting itself more and more at the mercy of TV. "What else you want us to do, fellas?" you can hear Bowie Kuhn asking eagerly. Yet baseball is a unique sport in which change is resented and only begrudgingly accepted. Its slightly cranky, old-fashioned ways have a strong appeal, which may explain why nostalgia is so big in baseball. How many oldtimers' games do you see in football or basketball?
October 27, 1975
Baseball ought to be itself. It becomes cheap and embarrassing when it fawns before TV. It ought to remember that for 100 years it has been a terrific show but unpredictable; you can't put a Don Larsen no-hitter or a Bobby Thomson home run or a Roberto Clemente spectacular into a TV listing. Things like that can't by created by six writers, a director and voluble announcers. They happen. On a ball field. If TV is smart, it will be there when they happen, even if it's a cloudy Tuesday afternoon instead of prime time. And if TV is not there, that's the tube's hard luck. The game will still go on.
WE HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE
Fears that the world of sport is slowly, or perhaps not so slowly, disappearing into a vast commercial sewer are heightened by the arrival of the U.S. Basketball Association, an East Coast venture. A communiqué from the new pro basketball league says bluntly, "Our main interest lies in selling advertising and getting people to watch our games exclusively on CATV." In other words, the USBA exists only as a sales medium. There is obviously no intention to present it as competition to the NBA or ABA, and the game itself—basketball, isn't it?—is incidental.
The logical progression, then, is for local newspapers to send business reporters to cover the sales figures and TV critics to appraise the show as it appears on cable television. No need to bother the sports staff at all.
A LITTLE BIT OF HEAVEN
"Isn't this an unusual way to sell tickets?" wrote our correspondent, who enclosed an advertisement for the National Hockey League's Washington Capitals, winners of eight games last year while losing 67 and tying five. The Caps' advertising approach is indeed unusual—and forthright, to say the least. "For as little as $4 a ticket," the ad says, "the least you'll feel is reasonably disappointed. And the most you'll feel is ecstatic, unadulterated, complete and total euphoria. Last year, everybody frequently expected the Capitals to lose. And we did lose. Frequently. But there were those nights, albeit few and far between, when we didn't lose. When we won. And when we win, you'd better be wearing a hat. Because the shouting and the screaming and the cheering just about blows the roof off of the Capital Centre.
"We're going to win a lot more games this year than we won last year. It would be hard not to. And for as little as $4 a seat, we're more than worth the money. Because we'll either let you down a little. Or bring you up more than you ever thought possible. When we win, it's like heaven."
How could you possibly not love a team like that?
LET THE FEATHERS FLY
People who were upset by The Guns of Autumn are liable to be furious at Harris H. Mullen, publisher of Florida Trend, a magazine about business in the Sunshine State. Noting that cockfighting exists sub rosa in his area and that a bill to legalize it got all the way to Gov. Reubin Askew's office before it was shot down, Mullen suggested that if it ever did become legal he might promote a big cockfight in Ybor City, the old Spanish section of Tampa, where the sport entertained the cigar workers 75 years ago. Properly promoted, he claims, it would draw crowds of up to 25,000 and be a smash on closed-circuit TV.
"First thing we need to find," he says, "is some fighting cocks, or at least some cocks that will fight, and frankly I don't know whether there is a difference. You don't have to teach a dog to fight, but some dogs fight better than others, and I guess this is true of cocks....
"Unlike dogs, chickens are raised to end up rather promptly on the dinner table. Now I have asked myself this question: If I were a chicken would I rather die in glory on the battlefield or have my neck wrung? I would choose the former. Someone once said, 'Tis better to live one hour as a lion than 100 years as a mouse.' we could translate that as, 'Tis better to live five minutes as a fighting cock than a lifetime as a chicken.' "
Mullen's proposal recalls a story about Joe Palmer, the old racing writer, who after watching a series of boxing matches at Saratoga one evening suggested that cockfights be put on instead. One of his listeners objected strenuously, and Palmer asked why. "Because cockfighting is inhuman," the protester argued.
"Yes," Palmer said, "and those fights we saw tonight, they were unchicken."
THAT'S SHOW BIZ
The marquee on the multitheater movie house next to the Philadelphia Bell office in West Philadelphia seemed to fit the plight of the World Football League. Featured on the day the shaky WFL announced it would continue to play despite bleak attendance figures were these flicks: S.O.S., Farewell, My Lovely and Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?
A mistaken wire-service report from Europe sent America's Olympic hopefuls into mild panic last week. Supposedly, the International Amateur Athletic Federation had ruled that in the Olympics only two entrants per track and field event would be allowed from each country instead of the traditional three. That is, two 100-meter men, two shotputters, two pole vaulters, and so on. Casual fans wondered what the fuss was about: if we can have only two people in an event, we lose a few bronze medals for third place, that's all.
Not so, says track expert Jim Dunaway, who did a quick survey of the effect such a ruling would have had on third-place finishers in our Olympic Trials (the people who would not have gone to the Games if entries had been limited to two) for the past five Olympics. Those who would not have gold medals, because they would not have had the chance to compete for them, are: Charlie Jenkins (400 meters) and Hal Connolly (hammer throw), 1956; Otis Davis (400 meters) and Bill Nieder (shotput), 1960; Henry Carr (200 meters), 1964; Dick Fosbury (high jump), Randy Matson (shotput) and Al Oerter (a fourth straight victory in the discus), 1968; Vince Matthews (400 meters) and Rod Milburn (high hurdles), 1972.
Although the report was a false alarm, the idea had been suggested before, because the International Olympic Committee wants the number of athletes in the Games cut down. Yet there is a rule that permits every one of the 133 Olympic countries to have at least one entrant in each event, whether or not the athlete has met the Olympic qualifying standard. This effort to make the Olympics as international as possible is laudable, but not if the trend in that direction dilutes the Games from the highest level of athletic excellence to something approaching a pageant. Any rule change that would deprive a significant number of fine athletes—from the U.S., the Soviet Union, the Germanys, Africa, anywhere—of a chance at an Olympic medal can only be a change for the worse.
Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, has had that rhythmic phrase as an auto-license slogan for years. But in an economy move, it was decided to delete the slogan from new plates, beginning in 1977. The public, proud of its lakes, protested, and the state agreed to reinstate the slogan. Then it was decided to improve it. A 1968 survey had found that there were actually about 15,000 lakes in Minnesota, so the new slogan was to be "Land of 15,000 Lakes." Before that shaky scansion could be put in the works, someone pointed out that a more recent check had revealed that 3,000 of the state's lakes were now dry, so the plates really should say "Land of 12,000 Lakes." The public temper began to steam, and the bureaucrats decided to stop messing with tradition. The license plates are right back where they used to be, and Minnesota once again is the land of 10,000 lakes, more or less.
TO THE RESCUE
This is the sort of plot that kids' books had back in the days when Frank Merriwell was riding high. Cleveland State's unranked soccer team was playing favored Howard, the NCAA champions, in the Clemson Invitational Tournament. Howard was winning 2-0. Cleveland State rallied late in the game to tie it 2-2. Then, disaster: Howard was awarded a penalty kick. Penalty kicks are rarely missed in soccer, and hardly ever by teams like Howard. And (he incumbent Cleveland State goalie was an inexperienced freshman who was in the game because the team's regular goalie had been injured.
Only one thing to do. The Cleveland State coach ordered Bob Hritz to play goal. Hritz, a sophomore from Germany, was the team's leading scorer but he hadn't played goalie since he was a schoolboy back home. Nonetheless, he exchanged shirts with the freshman and took his place. Howard's leading scorer, Lincoln Peddie (an apt rival for Frank Merriwell), drove a hard, low shot toward the corner. Coolly, Hritz flung himself at the ball and deflected it to the sideline. A corner kick followed and again Howard attacked the goal, this time with a shot just below the crossbar, eight feet off the ground. Hritz, only 5'7", leaped high and, of course, batted the ball away. This time the ball was cleared downfield. Hritz changed shirts again and rejoined the offense.
The game went into overtime. With less than three minutes remaining, Cleveland State mounted an assault on the Howard goal. A high pass came toward Hritz. Deftly, he headed it past the Howard goalie into the net for the winning score.
Merriwell would have taken it all in stride, but Hritz said afterward, with masterful understatement, "Nothing like this ever happened to me before."
Heck, it never happened to Merriwell.
THEY SAID IT
•Tony Mason, University of Cincinnati football coach: "The thing is that 90% of the colleges are abiding by the rules, doing things right. The other 10%, they're going to the bowl games."
•Dave Aldana, motorcycle racer, on what it's like to fall off a bike at 150 mph: "It's kind of like tumbling around inside a giant clothes dryer."
•Lee Corso, Indiana University football coach, on speaking to alumni groups: "I feel just like the head of a big company that lost all its money last year trying to explain it to the stockholders."
•Conrad Dobler, St. Louis Cardinal guard, after Alex Karras described him as the dirtiest player in pro football: "Well, 35 million TV viewers know that Karras has a lot of class. And all of it is third."