Toward the end of Friday afternoon’s edition of the Michael Kay radio show, which was being co-hosted by Don La Greca and Bill Daughtry, the conversation shifted toward the favorite myth of the middle-aged sports media (and many older fans): baseball’s decline in popularity.
Every objective piece of statistical evidence suggests that baseball is more popular now than it has ever been. From attendance to revenue to local RSN television ratings, more people are enjoying the national pastime than ever before. However, that didn’t stop La Greca and Daughtry from lamenting about waning interest in the game.
As evidence for their opinion, the hosts pointed to the attendance for Tim Lincecum’s recent start at Citifield. Before the game, the Mets were averaging 27,022 fans per game, but 29,333 poured through the turnstiles to see the Wednesday evening game against the Giants. Considering the persistent rain that fell earlier in the day, a 9% increase seemed like a solid boost, but La Greca and Daughtry were not impressed.
Back in the good old days, the hosts fondly recalled, a marquee name like Lincecum would have created such a buzz in the city that fans would have flocked to Shea to watch him, even during the franchise’s darkest days in the late-1970s and early-1980s. The relatively tepid response to Lincecum, La Greca and Daughtry argued, was further evidence that baseball no longer resonated like it once did.
There are two obvious counters to that argument. The first is the proliferation of baseball games on television has removed the urgency to see star players when they come to town. If a fan in New York wants to watch to Lincecum pitch, he can catch every single start on television or over the internet. What’s more, because of the advancements in technology, the best place to actually observe Lincecum’s pitching style is from the living room couch, not the ballpark.
Another fact neglected by this argument is the precipitous increase in baseball attendance versus 30 years ago. If the Mets maintain their average attendance, the number of people watching baseball in Flushing will be two to three times greater than at any point between 1977 and 1983. What’s more, the average attendance would also be higher than the one recorded by the 1969 championship team.
Even if you acknowledge baseball’s unprecedented popularity, La Greca’s and Daughtry’s point could still be valid. Regardless of the reason, it’s certainly possible that big names no longer serve as drawing cards. Verifying that claim would take mountains of research, but it isn’t that difficult to analyze the specific suggestion that Shea Stadium used to fill up for legendary mound opponents.
In order to test the veracity of this claim, games between 1974 and 1984 were considered (all years in which the Mets’ attendance lagged). Then, a list of 14 Hall of Fame pitchers active in the National League during that period was pared down to four indisputable legends: Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, and Bob Gibson. Finally, the attendance at Shea Stadium for every game started by that quartet was compared to the season average. The results of that comparison are presented in the graphs below (click to make larger).
Drawing Cards: A Look at Shea Stadium Attendance for Select Legends, 1974-1984
Note: Blue area represents actual game attendance; orange outline represents season average.
The first test case was Nolan Ryan, who took the Shea Stadium mound seven times between 1981 and 1984. If any pitcher was the epitome of a drawing card, the Ryan Express would be it. Strikeouts, no hitters, and 100 mph fastballs were all on the menu when Ryan toed the rubber, so it’d be easy to understand why fans would turn out to see him. However, Mets’ fan did not.
Despite averaging 17,008 in the seasons during which he pitched at Shea, the Mets only hosted 16,330 when Ryan was on the mound. Furthermore, in five of Ryan’s seven games, the Mets actually attracted a crowd smaller than the season average. What’s more, the one game in which the Mets did enjoy a sizeable bump also happened to be a Sunday afternoon featuring rookie sensation Dwight Gooden. Presumably, if the current Mets’ team had a young phenom opposing Lincecum, last Wednesday’s crowd would have also been much larger.
Steve Carlton probably provides the best test case because he pitched 19 times at Shea between 1974 and 1984, including at least one start in each season. Over that span, the Mets averaged 19,269 when Lefty took the mound, or an impressive 23% more than normal. At first glance, it would seem that Carlton is proof of the drawing card effect. However, a closer look at the game log is in order.
In particular, two of Carlton’s games at Shea stand out: June 28, 1975 and April 5, 1983. The first date was an Old Timer’s Day attended by Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio. With all due respect to Carlton, Willie and Joe D. were probably the ones who packed them in that afternoon. The second date was Opening Day. If you remove those two games from the equation, the Carlton bump dwindles all the way to 7.4%. A handful of double headers would further mitigate that increase, but even if you give Carlton all the credit, it would still be a smaller jump than the 9.5% experienced by Lincecum.
Bob Gibson’s career was coming to an end by 1974, but the legendary right hander did manage to pitch four games at Shea in the defined timeframe. In half the games, attendance far exceeded the Shea average, but both occasions also featured double headers (one on a Sunday and one also featuring Tom Seaver). When only a single game was on the bill, attendance at Gibson’s starts lagged the season average.
Of the four pitchers, only Tom Seaver appears to have been a bonafide drawing card. In his six starts as a visitor to Shea Stadium, attendance was nearly 70% higher than the average. However, as a former Mets’ legend, Seaver is really an exceptional case. What’s more, it’s worth noting that after his first two return trips to Shea, the walkup to see him take the mound abated significantly. In fact, in two of his final four starts as a visitor to Queens, attendance actually fell below the average.
Four Aces: Attendance Comparison for Select Legends, 1974-1984
|Starts||Game Avg||Season Avg||Difference|
*Excludes one Old Timer’s Game and one Opening Day.
Examining four starters over 10 years at one stadium doesn’t qualify as an exhaustive analysis, but this exercise illustrates how misleading memories can be. For whatever reason, exaggerating the past seems to be a rite of passage for baseball fans, even though most objective criteria suggest this is the sport’s golden age. And, maybe that’s how it should be. More than any other sport, baseball inspires an emotional reaction within its fan base, so it’s only natural that sentiment would obscure reality. That’s why the good old days always seem to get better the older we happen to get.