Once again let me impress you with my rather keen grasp of the obvious. Baseball and the business of baseball is that of a spectator’s sport. There is money only to be made when the game is watched as played. Owners have long recognized this and have made various changes that have reflected this reality for decades. The premise is simple; the game must be enjoyable to watch both from an excitement standpoint and ease in viewing.
Although there where a couple of short lived previous experiments, player uniform numbers began being added to the back of jerseys in the late 1920s to facilitate viewing and game tracking … “Programs, get your program…Can’t tell the players without a program.” Innovations such as night baseball brought about the rare and highly collectable satin uniforms of the 1940s. All of this had to do with making the game easier to track.
In 1949, total major league baseball attendance was 20,215,365. By 1953 it had dropped to 14,383,797 . In 1949, televisions where present in fewer than one million homes. By 1960, that number had increased to more than 46 million in which 90 percent of all American homes were consuming TV programming at an average rate of five hours per day. Americans, and as subset, baseball fans where voting with the on/off switch and opting to watch more games on TV than at the ballpark.
As Ken Burns describes in “Baseball,” by the 1950s “American’s where on the move.” Baby Boomers where looking for larger and perceived safer homes to raise families. Attendance at older city stadiums was beginning to fall off. This does not mean that America was less concerned with watching baseball, quite the contrary. They were now able to do this remotely via the medium of television. Another interesting television relationship with America’s pastime was formed in 1959 with Home Run Derby, a television show held at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles pitting sluggers against each other in 9-inning home run contests. When I look at the age of many of the pioneers in the bat collectors in the hobby, I find it interesting to note that many of them where in their pre-teen years during this time frame. Could it be that access to these legendary long ball hitters by way of a black and white television spawned and interest that would become a collecting passion? For those not familiar with the show, it featured seven members of the 500 Home Run Club and a total of nine future members of the Hall of Fame along the way.
In looking for a place in time to establish a jumping off point to study the influence of television, I chose 1955 because that was the year of the first World Series broadcast in color.
Between 1955 and 1965, the following teams changed uniforms styles: (not counting structural changes like zippers to buttons or minor ones like a patch. Adding player numbers is counted as a style change because of the benefit to a viewing audience outside of the hometown)
Milwaukee Braves: 2 different styles of home and roads
Brooklyn/LA Dodgers: Add numbers to the front of road jerseys
St. Louis Cardinals: 3 different styles of home and road
Pittsburgh Pirates: 3 different styles of home and road
Chicago Cubs: 2 different home and 3 road styles
Cincinnati Reds: 4 different home and road styles. The Reds add player numbers to front of both home and road jerseys in 1956.
NY Mets: 2 different home and road styles as numbers are added to the front in 1965
Houston Colt 45s/Astros: 2 different home styles as the team name changes.
Cleveland Indians: 3 different styles of home and road (includes adding sleeve #s)
Detroit Tigers: 2 different styles of home and road (includes adding sleeve #s)
Baltimore Orioles: 2 different styles of home uniforms
KC Athletics: 3 different styles of home and road uniforms.
Chicago White Sox: 2 different styles of home and road and names to player jerseys in 1960. (Includes adding sleeve numbers)
Washington Senators: 3 home and 4 road style uniforms.
Even newer teams like the Angles featured 2 home and 2 road styles.
While I have no real evidence that proves all of these changes where brought about by television and the desire to attract and retain a viewing audience, it is interesting to look at this time frame against the back drop of professional football to see similar influences. In the NFL, beginning around 1956, secondary or TV numbers begin to appear on NFL jerseys. In 1960, the rival and upstart AFL borrowed a page from Bill Veck’s Chicago White Sox fan first playbook by ensuring their leagues uniforms featured player names on the back.
I can still recall the year we got our first color television set, the year was 1974. A few years later 78% of all American households would feature at least one color television set. You really have to wonder if we would have experienced the same explosion of colorful and mutli-color double-knits in this decade had we still been living in the black and white world? It’s hard to think of this time frame without conjuring up images of the “blood red” Cleveland Indians jerseys, the vibrant blue threads of the Atlanta Braves, the eye catching oranges worn by the Baltimore Orioles and San Francisco Giants and “rainbow explosions” that blasted off in Houston in 1975.
All of this would seem to continue throughout the rest of the 20th Century as well. In 1989 All Star Bats and Post Season Bats featured the large LOUISVILLE on the back of the barrel placed there for brand recognition. This caused MLB to then impose restrictions on about having brand names on the barrel of bats. This left the hobby with a unique set of labeling conditions for Louisville Slugger in 1990 season as the barrel now only featured the word Genuine and Model number along with the player name. Other product lines began to enter the hobby in years to come such a special jerseys worn by players in events like the pre-All Star Game home run contests.
If what I have offered about the relationship between television and the desire to make the game more visually appealing has any validity, this means we have a greater variety of items to collect. Another influence television has had on collecting game used baseball items is in the area of research. By this I mean that since events where broadcast, many more images where captured and survive today providing us insights into years past with shows like Home Run Derby being one such example. Today, many collectors will record or TEVO games to ensure they can track uniform changes or check to see what player is using a particular manufacturer or finish on a bat.
While I will be the first to admit that a day at the ballpark is still something to be enjoyed, I am eternally grateful that I can enjoy an entire season of baseball via Direct TV for the price of a weekend series. The beer is cheaper, the parking easier, and at the end of the day, it has left me with a topic to write about and discuss with our members. As Mel Allen would say…”How About That?”
1 TOTAL BASEBALL: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball
3 NFL Alumni: The 2005-2006 Official Guide and Yearbook, page 94.
5 Vince Malta: Bats pages 50-53 as well as Bushing and Knoll MastroNet Reference page 24.