When Boston Red Sox All-Star designated hitter David Ortiz swings, the ball often lands far away, such as when he belted a two run home run against the Los Angeles Angels the other day. Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
The 80th anniversary of the first Major League All-Star game passed over the weekend, commemorated with the announcement of the rosters for this year’s game that will be played on July 16th.
Although some of the luster has worn off the game because of interleague play, more player movement between teams, and a less powerful identification with each league, the baseball All-Star contest remains the most prestigious of those put on by the four major team sports in the United States.
The first game was played before 47,595 fans at Comiskey Park in Chicago (the old one, not the one the White Sox currently use) on July 6, 1933, and the American League won 4-2. New York Yankee slugger Babe Ruth fittingly smashed a notable home run as he neared the end of his career. The winning pitcher was his teammate Lefty Gomez, perhaps the funniest player ever to compete in the sport.
Gomez, who was a lousy hitter and would have welcomed the designated hitter rule during his era, had another distinction that day that didn’t figure. Gomez drove in the first run in All-Star game history. Gomez was such a terrible hitter that one time when he cracked a double he was picked off second base. When his manager asked him what happened, Gomez said, “How would I know? I’ve never been there before.”
Major League Baseball had never been there before this debut All-Star game, either. The game was the brainchild of Arch Ward, the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, and he cooked up the plan for the best in each league to play one another in a one-time game in conjunction with the “A Century of Progress Chicago International Exposition of 1933.” That was the World’s Fair of the moment.
There had been off-and-on casual remarks made about arranging such a game for a few decades, but once Ward and the Tribune sunk their teeth into it, lobbying club and league presidents, any initial reluctance was overcome. The players were on board from the start and fans were thrilled that not only such a game would be played, but that they were permitted to vote for their favorites on ballots in their local big-city newspaper. Thus the precedent of fan voting for the stars was established from the get-go.
Virtually by acclamation, the Philadelphia Athletics’ Connie Mack was anointed manager of the American League side. And John McGraw of the New York Giants, although already retired, was chosen to lead the National League. This was to be the final game McGraw managed before he died in February of 1934.
Chosen to be a starter was considered very much to be an honor and those who started for the most part played all nine innings. Today, typically a starter plays three innings before being yanked and every effort is made to insert every player into the game at some point.
Besides Ruth (who went two-for-four and made a game-saving catch in right field) and Gomez, other Hall of Famers who participated included Charlie Gehringer, Lou Gehrig, Al Simmons, Joe Cronin, Rick Ferrell, Earl Averill, Lefty Grove, Frank Frisch, Paul Waner, Chuck Klein, Chick Hafey, Bill Terry, Pie Traynor, Carl Hubbell and Gabby Hartnett.
Adhering to the longstanding rule that each team must be represented, the All-Star rosters for each league now contain 35 players. Starters rarely last longer than three innings and pitchers often make one-inning cameos. Many of the players selected for the 2013 squads that will meet at CitiField in New York are young players, many no more than halfway through their careers. And while some of them are likely to become many-time All-Stars they are not yet legends on the scale of past Hall of Famers.
It’s too soon to tell who will shine over a long period, but in the NL those who seem to be the best bets are catchers Yadier Molina and Buster Posey, first baseman Joey Votto, and potentially outfielders Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen. Check in with us in a decade. In the American League those whose reputations might someday be Hall of Fame worthy are pitchers Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez. Oh yeah, and reliever Mariano Rivera is a Hall lock. In the field, those who stand out are catcher Joe Mauer, third baseman Miguel Cabrera, possibly Mike Trout and Robinson Cano, and others with potential include Dustin Pedroia and Prince Fielder. This selection makes David Ortiz of the Red Sox a nine-time All-Star, but true designated hitters have mostly been snubbed in Hall voting.
When the first All-Star game ended it was clear that the immediate and immense popularity of the event called for it to be continued. The one-and-done original proposal appealed to no one. The game grew from those World’s Fair-connected beginnings and became a jewel of credit on Ward’s resume.