October 4, 2023

A Most Memorable Memorial Day

May 27, 2023 by · Leave a Comment 

Connie Mack's "Iron Curtain" photo

Connie Mack’s “Iron Curtain” Infield
(Boston Globe June 1, 1948)

In the United States Memorial Day has traditionally marked the beginning of summer.  Typically, MLB used to accommodate the fans celebrating the holiday by scheduling double-headers.  Weather permitting, fans would respond en masse.  In fact, Memorial Day 1948 set a one-day record for major league attendance.  The AL drew 192,300, the NL 145,456 for a grand total of 337,756.  That works out to an average of 42,220 per ballpark.  75 years later, that average is still impressive.

As you might expect, some teams really packed ‘em in, others had some empty seats.  A closer look makes for an intriguing snapshot of major league ball during the postwar prosperity era.  In 1948 baby boomers were toddlers, and for a number of them Memorial Day was likely their first excursion –and first exposure – to a major league baseball game.  For their parents, postwar baseball was, as Warren Harding put it after World War I, a return to normalcy.  Baseball fans on the home front had put up with subpar but technically major league baseball during the war years.  As wartime sacrifices go, it was a minor inconvenience, but it was a thing.

So let’s make like ESPN’s Sports Center and wrap up the major league baseball action for May 31, 1948:


Senators at Yankees

The biggest crowd of the day was at Yankee Stadium, where the Senators (17-19 to that point in the season) took on the Yanks (19-15).  Normally the Senators were not a big draw, but the combination of the holiday and two games for the price of one attracted 62,626.  The overwhelming majority of fans went home happy as the Yanks won by scores of 10-0 (a 2-hit shutout authored by Spec Shea) and 5-4, highlighted by two solo home runs by Bobby Brown, who was 7 for 9 on the day.

Though impressive, the crowd was not a sellout, as Yankee Stadium had a capacity of 67,000 in those days.  The Yankees went on to a 94-60 season, normally good enough to cop the AL flag, but they found themselves in a pennant race and ultimately finished in third place, 2½ games behind the Indians.  Despite a .610 winning percentage, Manager Bucky Harris was fired and the Casey Stengel era commenced the following season.  The Senators finished in their normal resting place, deep in the second division.  Their 56-97 record was good for seventh place.

White Sox at Tigers

The second-biggest crowd of the day was at Briggs Stadium, as Tiger Stadium was called in those days.  This double-header attracted 55,875, some of whom had to stand, as the capacity of the ballpark was 52,416.  The White Sox, who had started the season in dismal fashion (8-25) were probably glad to get away with a split: 5-4 Tigers in the first game with Orval (“I’m not Lefty”) Grove over Paul (“Call me Dizzy”) Trout; 9-3 Sox in the second with first baseman Ulysses Lupien going 4 for 4.  Lupien, playing in his last season in the big leagues, would go on to coach at Dartmouth College for 20 years.

The White Sox poor start was no fluke.  They finished in last place with 101 losses – a real stigma during the era of the 154-game season (the Sox actually played just 152 games).  In all of White Sox history, the only season worse was 1932, when the Sox finished 49-102, 56½ games out (amazingly, they did not finish last, as the Red Sox were 43-111, 64 games out).  The Tigers, 18-19 at the start of the day, were not exactly-world beaters the rest of the way.  Little changed for them over the season as they continued to tread water, finishing at 78-76.

Browns at Indians

The third-biggest crowd (48,961) of the day was at Cleveland, which still left plenty of empty seats at cavernous (78,000, the largest in MLB) Cleveland Stadium.  Granted, the Browns were not a big draw but they were not that bad (15-16) in the early going.  They reverted to type, however, finishing in 6th place with a record of 59-94.

The Browns outscored the Indians that day to earn a split in the twin bill.  In the first game Indian rookie Gene Bearden pitched a complete game 8-3 victory, notching his 4th win on the way to a 20-win season.  In the second game the Browns responded with a 6-0 whitewashing by Cliff Fannin, who racked up 3 shutouts in his 10 victories in 1948.

Hard to believe, but the Memorial Day gathering in Cleveland was not among the Indians’ biggest crowds of the season.  In fact, it wasn’t even the best crowd they had for the Browns, who had opened the season in Cleveland on April 20th before 73,163 fans.  In fact, by the end of the Indians’ season series with the Browns, more people had seen the Browns play in Cleveland (nine openings, four of which were double-headers) than had seen the Browns play in St. Louis all season!  The totals are 367,763 vs. 335,564.  In fact, the collective attendance for Memorial Day 1948 was also greater than the Browns’ season total.  Other notable Cleveland contests against the Browns drew 55,858 on Tuesday night, August 17th, and 55,616 for a Sunday double-header on September 12th.

The Indians total attendance of 2,620,627 (the Indians were the first team in MLB to surpass 2,000,000) in 1948 was astonishing, and since we’re talking about record attendance, it is worth a digression to briefly explore the Indians’ record-setting season.

The Indians’ 1948 attendance showed a mind-boggling 72.2% improvement over 1947.  1946 was the first time the Indians had ever surpassed the 1,000,000 mark, so their ascendance was rapid.  I don’t know if player-manager Lou Boudreau, who would win the MVP award in 1948, had any sort of attendance clause in his contract, but if he did, he really cleaned up.  Minority owner Bob Hope, who grew up in Cleveland, was surely happy as he had been a minority owner since Bill Veeck bought the team in 1946.  Hank Greenberg, who had retired after the 1947 season, became a stockholder (and later the general manager).

Strange as it may sound to Seamhead ears today, the Cleveland Indians were the glamour boys of major league baseball in 1948.  They were not just boffo box office, they were strong in the field.  They led the league in batting average (.282), home runs (155), ERA (3.22) and fielding average (.982).  Of course, their reign was short-lived.   As contemporary Indians fans are well aware, they have not won a title since 1948.

Another large crowd turned out on September 28,1948 for Good Old Joe Earley Night, a classic promotion by Indians owner Bill Veeck.  It was named after a fan named Joe Earley who had won a “Mr. Average Fan” letter-writing contest.  Earley was dubbed “Mr. Average Baseball Fan” and given the gifts normally given a ballplayer on his special night (among other things, a car, a refrigerator, a TV set, and a dishwasher).  60,405 fans, average or otherwise, went home happy after Gene Bearden bested the White Sox with a 4-hit shutout, his 18th victory.

One of the smaller crowds of the season (7,008) occurred during a Monday afternoon contest on September 13.  It was a depressing day in more ways than one, as Indians pitcher Don Black suffered a cerebral hemorrhage (his alcoholism might have been a factor) while batting in the 2nd inning.  He survived but never pitched again.  Ironically, this tragedy in front of a small crowd resulted in a big crowd on September 22nd, when 76,772 turned out for Don Black night, with proceeds going to the ailing pitcher.  While Black’s career was not particularly notable, he was the first pitcher to throw a no-hitter in Cleveland Stadium (on July 10, 1947 versus the A’s).

On July 7, Bill Veeck signed Satchell Paige, engendering controversy as to whether he was too old (42) to cut the mustard in the major leagues, much less in a pennant race.  Given his living legend status, some pundits suspected he was just a drawing card.  Used primarily in relief, Paige was listed as a starter for the August 20th game against the White Sox.  He responded with a three-hit shutout.  The Indian fans responded to the tune of 79,732.  Whatever his motivation, Veeck got both performance and butts in the seats.

The Indians capped off the season with a record-setting World Series in an inter-tribal clash with the Boston Braves.  Cleveland recorded progressively bigger crowds: 70, 306 for game three, 81,897 for game four, and 86,288 for game five.  The ultimate figure was probably boosted by the prospect of seeing the Indians clinch a title, but the Braves’ 11-5 victory sent the Series back to Boston, where the Indians put away the Sox in Game 6.  That 86,299 number was a World Series record till 1959 when the Los Angeles Dodgers took on the White Sox at the Los Angeles Coliseum, which hosted more than 92,000 fans for games three through five in the Dodgers’ six-game victory.

Red Sox at A’s

The attendance at this contest was a steep drop-off from the aforementioned AL contests.  Of course, given the capacity of Philadelphia’s Shibe Park (33,166), even a sellout would not have come close to the totals in New York, Detroit, and Cleveland.  As it turned out, 24,838 were on hand to witness a split (Boston’s Joe Dobson hurled a 7-0 shutout over Philadelphia in the first, followed by a 2-1 A’s victory in the second).

It is a bit surprising the crowd wasn’t larger as the A’s were off to a hot start (25-11) on their way to a rare first division finish (84-70, good for fourth place and a .545 winning percentage), their first since 1933.  In fact it was better than any season they would experience during the rest of their tenure in Philadelphia as well as during their Kansas City sojourn.  It was not until 1970 that the franchise n/k/a the Oakland A’s bettered that figure, finishing at .549 (89-73).

The Red Sox, on the other hand, started the day at 13-22.  They had plenty of time to right the ship, however, and did so.  They ended the season in a tie for first place (96-58) with Cleveland, only to drop a one-game playoff to the Tribe at Fenway on October 4th .  The 8-3 loss was doubly disappointing, as dreams of a Boston Subway Series (the Braves had already clinched the NL) were derailed.


Pirates at Cubs

The friendly confines of Wrigley Field were more confining than usual as 46,965 packed the park (38,396 capacity). Considering the Cubs had started the 1948 season at 13-21 it was surely more than they deserved (they finished the season in the basement with a 64-90 record).  The Pirates were not knocking ‘em dead but they showed up at Wrigley with a respectable 19-15 record and would finish the year with an equally respectable 83-71 mark.  The double dip resulted in a split with the Cubs 4-3 winners in the first game and the Bucs 4-2 victors in the second.  The big star of the day was Cubs left fielder Andy Pafko, who went 5 for 8 with 2 home runs and 4 RBIs.

Giants at Dodgers

The second biggest crowd of the day in the NL was also SRO but just barely (the Ebbets Field capacity of 34,219 was exceeded by a mere 125).  Knowing that the ticket demand for a double-header between the defending NL champion Bums and the crosstown “Jints” would be enormous, the Dodgers wisely scheduled a split double-header.  The aforementioned number was for the second game; the first game attracted 22,738.  So the grand total was 56,957, the most tickets sold at any ballpark in the NL that day.

Actually, the Giants entered the twin bill with a better record (19-13 versus 15-19 for the Dodgers).  Both were on their way to so-so seasons.  The Dodgers finished third with a record of 84-70, while the Giants were barely above .500 at 78-76.  The split double-header resulted in a split with the Dodgers winning a squeaker (4-3) and the Giants a laugher (10-1) featuring Johnny Mize going 3 for 5 with 2 home runs and 4 RBIs.  A glance at the box score of the second game is a reminder that before Roy Campanella arrived in Brooklyn, Gil Hodges was a catcher.

Reds at Cardinals

24,009 turned out at Sportsman’s Park (34,000 capacity), only to witness the hometown Redbirds getting swept by the Reds : 4-3 in the first game, plus 7-0 in the second game, courtesy of a one-hit shutout by Ken Raffensberger.  There was a bit of drama in that second game, as the Cardinals were held hitless till the 8th inning when first baseman Nippy Jones led off with a single.

Since the Reds started the day at 16-21 and the Cards were 20-13, the results were something of an upset.  Nevertheless, the Cards would go on to a second-place finish (85-69) while the Reds finished at 64-89, just one-half game (or one rainout) out of the cellar.

Phillies at Braves

Braves Field, capacity 40,000, was not the largest park in the NL (that honor belonged to the Polo Grounds at 54,500) but it was the largest NL park open for business on Memorial Day.  Granted, the Braves had long played second fiddle to the Red Sox in Beantown and neither the Braves nor the Phillies had been notably successful, to put it mildly.  So the Memorial Day attendance (17,400, the smallest of the day), while not impressive, is understandable given the circumstances.  At the start of the day, both teams had .500 records (the Braves at 16-16 and the Phils at 18-18).  After splitting the double-header, the two teams still had .500 records.

After Memorial Day, however, the two teams went in different directions.  The Phillies eventually sank to a 66-88 record and a 6th place finish, though some 1950 Whiz Kids in waiting, (e.g., Richie Ashburn, Andy Seminick, Dick Sisler, Granny Hamner, Del Ennis, Curt Simmons, Robin Roberts, Jim Konstanty), were gaining valuable experience.

Long-suffering Beantown fans can be forgiven for their lack of enthusiasm, as they had not witnessed a pennant since the 1914 Miracle Braves.  Early in the 1948 season, they would not have guessed that the Braves would finish on top four months later.

The Braves’ motto that season was “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.”  Johnny Sain did not garner one of his MLB-leading 24 victories that day.  In fact, he didn’t pitch at all.  But Warren Spahn gained a complete game 10-4 victory in the second game after the Braves went down to defeat in the first game by a score of 6-3.

It would surely be instructive to delve into attendance figures for the minor leagues but that would be a Herculean task.  It must be noted, however, that the most astounding individual achievement of Memorial Day 1948 was by a minor leaguer in upstate New York.  Pitching for the Schenectady Blue Jays of the Class C CanAm League, a Phillies farmhand struck out 25 batters, a professional baseball record at the time, in a 15-inning, 6-5 victory over the Amsterdam Rugmakers (popularly referred to as the Ruggies), a Yankees affiliate.  The pitcher not only went the distance (he estimated he had thrown more than 300 pitches), he got the game-winning hit.  He was 20 years old.  His name was Tommy Lasorda.

More than 4,000 fans were in the stands of Schenectady’s McNearney Stadium (3,500 capacity) to witness Lasorda’s historic feat in the second game of a day-night double-header.  Even in the low minors, Memorial Day was a big deal in 1948.  Not so much today.  In the Texas League, for example, no games are scheduled for Memorial Day 2023.

Now you might think that with 30 MLB teams in 2023, as opposed to 16 in 1948, the MLB Memorial Day attendance record of 337,756 would be eclipsed every year.  But it ain’t necessarily so.

For one thing, Memorial Day contests are now single games.  A double-header will result only if the home team needs to make up a rainout.  Also, some of the games are night games, and while Memorial Day is a holiday it is a “school night” for working adults, and for some students, depending on when their school term ends.  Television was barely a factor in 1948 (roughly a million sets were in use in the USA); in fact, the previous World Series was the first to be telecast.  For most people, watching baseball was either live and in person or not at all.

On Memorial Day 2023, a fan can slouch on the couch, slurp up the brew of his choice, and snort Cheezy Poofs while watching various MLB games on a big-screen TV.  In a sense, it is an appropriate way to celebrate.  Memorial Day was instituted to honor those in the military who lost their lives during one conflict or another.  Given the average length of a major league game (3 hours, 3 minutes, and 44 seconds in 2022), the TV viewer has ample time to guzzle a goodly number of Bud/Miller/Coors Lites and body-stack a company of dead soldiers.

Perhaps the starkest indication of how MLB has downshifted Memorial Day is the total lack of holiday baseball in some cities.  In the 2023 schedule, eight teams (Red Sox, Blue Jays, Marlins, Mets, Phillies, Reds, Brewer, and Padres) have the day off.  In other words, Memorial Day is just another Monday, which competes with Thursday for most popular off day in MLB.  The 4th of July remains sacrosanct with all 30 teams in action.

Like Memorial Day, Labor Day always falls on a Monday and it has suffered the same fate.  (10 teams are off in 2023).  That too is a shame, but it’s not quite as tragic as the Memorial Day situation.  Labor Day represents the end of summer.  That means colder weather…packing away the bathing suit and flip-flops…the waning of daylight…the shrinkage of leisure time…a return to the numbing routine of school, office, or factory.  In my youth, I reacted like Dracula to a crucifix every time I saw a store window touting a “Back to School” sale.

Memorial Day is altogether different.  The holiday and professional baseball both go back a long way, with Memorial Day first celebrated in 1868 and the first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, taking the field in 1869.   The Red Stockings were the first team to play on Memorial Day in 1871.  Mix all of that with the start of summer – really something to celebrate in northern climes – and you have a day that is indeed special.  Even the worst teams in baseball are entitled to festoon the grandstand with red, white, and blue bunting (after all, Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day).  So it’s a bit surprising that the marketing folks at MLB have lost sight of all that.

On second thought, maybe it’s not so surprising.  MLB has lost sight of a lot of things.

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