Forget the NFL, by the way. They play their all-star game after the championship has been decided. Who cares about football after the Super Bowl? Not me, although I barely care even before the Super Bowl, anyway.
Baseball's all-star game is far better than the NBA and NHL all-star games, which at least are also staged in mid-season. Here is why. The baseball all-star game looks like real baseball. With a zillion substitutions, true - but what's actually happening on the field looks exactly like regular baseball.
But in the NHL and the NBA, two things happen and they happen in both games. First of all, as played in the modern age, both games depend hugely on defensive systems, on team defense. This stuff goes out the window when the game is being played by players who never play together. In the NBA all-star game, you can't take 5 guys at random from 5 different teams, and expect them to rotate smoothly on defense. This applies, although probably not quite as much, in the NHL - where certainly every club also has a defensive system that they attempt to practise.
In addition, in both the NHL and the NBA, an "exhibition-game" mentality is in place. Which in these cases, means we're going to have a non-contact game. No hard fouls, no smearing someone up against the boards or giving them a two-hander in front of the net.
So this is why you get NBA all-star games where the losing team might score 130 points, and NHL all-star games where the losing team might score 8 goals. It doesn't seem at all like a regular game, let alone a well-played one, let alone one involving the best players in the league. It looks like a pick-up game.
Baseball doesn't have these problems. There are aspects of team defense to baseball, but it's not that complicated. Teams pretty much figured out how to relay throws from the outfield in the 1880s. Middle infielders turning a double play involves a pretty minimal level of team work. Graig Nettles was once asked what was the key to turning the 5-4-3 double play. Was it giving the second baseman a good ball to handle, where he likes to catch it? Not really. Nettles said "I could care less about the second baseman. The key is rushing the throw." There's team work for you!
Most of what we know as defense in baseball takes place on the pitcher's mound; the next most important item is an individual player's ability to react quickly and properly to a ball put in play. These guys are all members of the same team, but what they do at specific moments often does not at all require what we generally think of as "team work."
Finally, baseball is a non-contact game most of the time anyway. There are really only three opportunities in the game for contact and collision: 1) a fielder making contact with some part of the stadium, like an outfield wall: 2) a thrown baseball making contact with the hitter; 3) a baserunner making contact with a fielder. These really aren't large parts of the game, anyway. They do happen quite regularly in regular play, and sometimes they can be very significant. But we don't miss them when they're not around. Their absence doesn't distort the game, the way the lack of physical defense completely distorts a hockey game or a basketball game.
Besides - it's so cool that everybody keeps their own team uniform, rather than wearing some drab and anonymous "All-Star" jersey. I love that. This would never work in hockey, where stuff is going on so fast that the players on the ice think of their own teammates as "guys wearing the same colour."
I posed this very question - why does baseball have the best All-Star Game - once upon a time, on This Day In Baseball. AWeb made the point that pitchers always want to get the hitters out, and are always going to be trying to make good pitches. Because no one wants to experience what happened to Roger Clemens in 2004, or to Tom Glavine pretty well every time he showed up. The pitchers and hitters are actually competing, and it's contagious. Everyone's pride kicks in, everyone wants to show that they deserve to be there as well. And because everybody really is competing, it makes the non-competitive moments - Larry Walker turning around to hit RH against the Big Unit - both more memorable and, because they're so unusual, less irritating.
So, here are a few (a few? remember who's writing this little piece) - yes, a few selected highlights and a little tour through All-Star history.
The first All-Star Game was played on July 6, 1933 at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Connie Mack managed the AL squad, and John McGraw came out of retirement to manage the NL squad. The starting pitchers were Wild Bill Hallahan of the Cardinals and Lefty Gomez of the Yankees. In the second inning, Wild Bill walked Jimmy Dykes and Rick Ferrell. With two out, Lefty Gomez (of all people) drove in the first run in All-Star Game history with a ground ball single up the middle. The National League players were generally excited about seeing Babe Ruth, and he gave them something to remember in the next inning by swatting a two-run homer to right. The AL won the first game 4-2
They won the next game, too, but hardly anyone remembers. Charlie Gehringer led off the game with a single, and Giants starter Carl Hubbell walked Heinie Manush. This brought Babe Ruth to the plate, with two on and none out. Hubbell struck him out. Lou Gehrig was next, and Hubbell struck him out. That brought up the Beast, Jimmie Foxx. Hubbell struck him out too, to retire the side. In the bottom of the first, the NL jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a leadoff homer by Frank Frisch. Hubbell then picked up where he left off, fanning Al Simmons and Joe Cronin to start the second inning. Having fanned five Hall-of-Famers in a row, he allowed another (Bill Dickey) to reach on a base hit. He then fanned Lefty Gomez to end the inning - Gomez is also a Hall of Famer, although striking out a lifetime .147 hitter isn't quite as impressive as getting Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons, and Cronin. The AL would later pound out Lon Warneke and Van Mungo for 8 runs on the way to a 9-7 victory that no one ever talks about.
The AL made it three in a row the next year, behind 6 strong innings (!) from Lefty Gomez. Finally, in 1936, the NL managed to win one of these affairs. Dizzy Dean and Carl Hubbell tossed six scoreless innings between them. Joe DiMaggio became the first rookie to start an All-Star game, and it didn't go well - he went 0-5 and made an error in right field that led to an unearned run.
The 1937 game might have been the most significant All-Star game ever played - a Hall of Fame career was changed, drastically, that afternoon. President Roosevelt himself was in attendance at Washington's Griffith Stadium. Dizzy Dean is reported to have asked for the day off, but Cardinals owner Sam Breadon prevailed upon him to pitch. Dean had gone 82-32 over the previous three years, set an NL record for strikeouts in a game (17), and went into the All-Star break with a 12-3 record. He was 26 years old, and he had already won 133 games in the majors. But in the bottom of the third, with two out, Joe DiMaggio singled and Lou Gehrig homered to give the AL a 2-0 lead. The next batter, Cleveland's Earl Averill, hit a line drive back through the box that caught Dean on the foot, breaking his toe. St.Louis was in 4th place, 6 games back. They lost 8 of their next 13 games, and Dean returned to the rotation on July 21, just two weeks after being injured. Attempting to pitch with a broken toe, he injured his arm, and went 1-7 over the rest of the season. He would win just 16 more games in his career, the last of them before turning 30.
The NL won in 1938, thanks to some memorable AL defense. Frank McCormick led off the 7th with a single and Leo Durocher dropped a bunt down the third base line. Because Lou Gehrig was at 1B, the AL had Jimmie Foxx playing 3B. It had been years since Foxx had spent much time at 3B, and he threw the ball into the right field corner. Joe DiMaggio, playing RF because Earl Averill was in centre, tracked down the errant peg and threw it back in. Alas, DiMaggio threw it over the backstop. Which is how Leo Durocher scored on his own bunt single. In an All-Star Game.
After an AL win in 1939, in 1940 five NL pitchers combined on a three-hitter for the first All-Star shutout. A year later, the NL was trying to win consecutive All-Star games for the first time ever. It was July 8, 1941 - Ted Williams of the Red Sox was hitting .405, and Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees had a 48 game hitting streak. The AL trailed 5-3 heading for the bottom of the ninth. With one out, Ken Keltner and Joe Gordon hit singles. Cecil Travis walked to load the bases for DiMaggio. Cubs pitcher Claude Passeau got DiMag to hit a game-ending DP ball to short, but the relay throw from second-baseman Billy Herman went wide, allowing Keltner to score and bringing Williams to the plate. The Kid came through, launching a massive three-run walkoff homer against the Tiger Stadium roof. It's one of the first great All-Star highlights preserved in film - haven't we all seen the shot of Ted clapping his hands in delight as he runs down the first base line?
The AL won the first two World War II all-star games. The 1943 game was notable for two reasons. First, it was the first All-Star Game played at night. Second, Joe McCarthy had taken some flap over the years for playing his Yankees in the All-Star game at the expense of the other AL stars. So in 1943, he left all five of his Yankees on the dugout bench, and won the game with the rest of the league. The NL won the 1944 game, giving them just their 4th win in the first 12 games.
They were going to play at Fenway in 1945, but the game was cancelled because of travel restrictions. They reassembled at Fenway in 1946, and Ted Williams took charge in a 12-0 AL blow-out, going 4-4 with two homers, a walk, and 5 RBI. The highlight came Rip Sewell tried throwing his famous "eephus" pitch - a ridiculously slow blooper ball - to Ted Williams. The Kid hit it into the bullpen for his second homer.
The AL won again in 1947 and 1948, giving them an 11-4 mark in what was by now knowns as "The Midsummer Classic." The 1949 game was the first integrated All-Star game; while Larry Doby was on hand for the AL, the NL featured Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe. The AL had a secret weapon, however. Joe DiMaggio had missed almost the entire first half with a heel injury and wasn't voted to the starting lineup. But he was added as a reserve, and ended up starting the game after Tommy Henrich hurt his knee. Joltin' Joe drove in three runs, and the AL won yet again.
And then the tide turned. The National League won six of the next seven all-star games. It took them fourteen innings to win the 1950 game on Red Schoendienst's homer. The game's most significant moment occurred in the first inning, however. Ralph Kiner drove a ball to deep left field, and Ted Williams made a leaping catch against the wall. Unfortunately, for the Red Sox, he broke his elbow on the play (he stayed in the game, and drove in the run that gave the AL a 3-2 lead before leaving.) He would be out of action until mid-September.
The NL won again in 1951, 1952 (a rain-shortened affair), and 1953 to make it four in a row. The 1953 game featured the only All-Star appearance of one the greatest pitchers who ever lived. But the NL showed 47 year old (we think!) Satchel Paige no deference at all, roughing him up for three hits and a couple of runs in his one inning.
The AL broke off the NL run at 4 straight wins with a comeback victory in the 1954 game, but the NL won again in 1955 and 1956. In 1955, Stan Musial became the first man to hit 4 All-Star homers - this one came in the bottom of the 12th inning to give the NL a 6-5 victory. Stan the Man hit another in the 1956 game, which also saw Willie Mays hit his first All-Star homer in a 7-3 NL win.
In 1957, we encountered the first fan voting controversy. An organized write-in campaign resulted in almost the entire Cincinnati lineup being voted to start the All-Star game. Stan Musial was the only exception. An outraged Comissioner Ford Frick responded by removing outfielders Gus Bell and Wally Post in favour of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. Manager Walt Alston allowed Don Hoak and Roy McMillan to bat once before bringing in Ed Matthews and Ernie Banks. And Frick eliminated the fan vote, assigning responsibility for choosing the teams to a vote of players, managers, and coaches. The AL won the game, and won again in 1958.
In 1959, the majors tried a brief (four-year) experiment with playing two All-Star Games: in 1959, they played one in July, and a second game in August. The leagues split the games in 1959, 1960, and 1962. The 1960 games were played just two days apart: the second game saw Stan Musial hit his 6th and last All-Star homer, and Willie Mays have his second three hit game. In the second 1961 game, we had the first tied All-Star game. This one was created by a Boston downpour, with the two teams headed for extra innings in a 1-1 game. The AL's win in the second 1962 game staved off the NL's attempt to even the overall series: the AL still held a 17-15 lead as the majors returned to playing one game a year in 1963.
And then - the National League won the next eight in a row, every year from 1963 through 1970. It was the era of Mays, Aaron, Clemente. The junior circuit seemed utterly unable to compete. A sample NL lineup (1965):
Stargell, lf (later replaced by Clemente)
Allen, 3b (later replaced by Santo)
Marichal, p (later replaced by, among others, Jim Maloney, Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, and Bob Gibson.)
Billy Williams and Frank Robinson made pinch-hitting appearances.
Tony Perez won the 1967 game with a 15th inning homer off Catfish Hunter, to finally settle the longest All-Star game ever. They won in 1968 when Willie Mays led off the game with a single, took second on an errant pickoff, third on a wild pitch, and scored when Willie McCovey hit into a double play. For the game's only run. This was Mickey Mantle's final All-Star appearance - he hobbled up to the plate to hit for Sam McDowell, and struck out against Tom Seaver.
The 1970 game was played in Cincinnati, and was interesting for a number of reasons. The AL squad included a couple of players named Stottlemyre and Alomar; the NL team had an outfielder named Gaston, who would go on to manage the sons of Mel and Sandy to a couple of world championships. But the most memorable moment of the game, and one of the most unforgettable in All-Star history, came on the game's final play. The game was tied at 4-4 going into the 12th inning. With two out, Pete Rose and Billy Grabarkewitz singled. Jim Hickman of the Cubs then hit a single to CF. Rose came barrelling around third, and absolutely creamed Cleveland catcher Ray Fosse, knocking the ball loose and scoring the winning run. Fosse was never quite the same player again.
In 1971, the AL finally won one. Hank Aaron's first (finally!) All-Star homer helped the Nationals to an early 3-0 lead. But in the bottom of the third, Luis Aparicio singled and Reggie Jackson pinch-hit for Vida Blue. Jackson drove the ball an estimated 540 feet off the light tower at Tiger Stadium, as jaws dropped all over North America as it simply didn't seem possible to hit a baseball that far. Even on television. Later in the inning, Frank Robinson became the first man to homer for both leagues in All-Star play (he had already become the first man to win an MVP in both leagues.) The AL had stopped the bleeding at last, although they now trailed in the series 23-18.
So the National League went out and won the next eleven games, every year from 1972 through 1982. They won in extra-innings in 1972 - the NL had now won all seven All-Star games that had gone to extra-innings. They won handily in 1973 and 1974. They regularly spotted the AL leads, and then came back to beat them. They hung a loss on Catfish Hunter in 1975, Mark Fidrych in 1976, Jim Palmer in 1977, Goose Gossage in 1978. In 1979, they won 7-6 after Dave Parker in RF threw out Jim Rice at third base in the seventh inning, and Brian Downing at home in the eighth. In 1981, they won after coming back from the strike, with Mike Schmidt hitting a two run homer off Rollie Fingers in the eighth. AL manager Jim Frey ran out of position players, and Dave Stieb had to bat against Bruce Sutter in the ninth inning. He struck out.
In 1982, the NL won the first All-Star game played in a foreign country. (That would be Montreal, of course!) By 1983, St.Louis manager Whitey Herzog was suggesting that it might actually be a good thing if the AL finally won one of these games, after losing 19 of the previous 20. Coincidentally or not, Herzog's NL squad that July did not include Steve Carlton, or Tom Seaver, or Bruce Sutter, or Nolan Ryan. Mario Soto, an outstanding pitcher, got the start: but he was followed by Atlee Hammaker, Bill Dawley, Dave Dravecky, and Pascual Perez. Fred Lynn hit the first ever All-Star grand slam, and the AL cruised to an easy 13-3 win. Didn't seem to bother Whitey at all. Dave Stieb started and worked three hitless inning, allowing an unearned run, to get the win.
The NL won in 1984, as Fernanda Valenzuela and Dwight Gooden combined to strike out six hitters in a row in the middle innings. Alfredo Griffin went to the game as Damaso Garcia's guest, and ended up playing after Alan Trammell was injured. The NL won again in 1985, but the AL stopped this streak at a measly two games. Roger Clemens made his All-Star debut in Houston; he started the game and retired all nine NL hitters who faced him. The NL highlight was Valenzuela again, who struck out five in a row to match Carl Hubbell's legendary feat from the 1934 game. Valenzuela fanned Don Mattingly, Cal Ripken, Jesse Barfield, Lou Whitaker, and Ted Higuera - not bad, but not quite Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons, and Cronin.
In 1987, the greatest year of the hitter in many a moon, it took 13 innings before anyone could score in the All-Star Game. One of the interesting twists to this game was the presence of a pitcher on the AL team who had won zero games up to that point in the season. This had never happened before. HIs name was Tom Henke, and he would not win a single game in 1987. He almost won this game, however. Henke was the pitcher of record when the AL put the winning run on second with one out in the bottom of the ninth. They couldn't cash him in, and Henke worked the 10th and 11th as well, while Blue Jays fans screamed horrible, horrible things at Boston manager John McNamara, who was running the AL squad. Jay Howell finally lost it in 13 innings.
At this point, the AL regained its bearings and ran off six straight wins of their own. It was just like old times. In 1988, Terry Steinbach, who had hit a HR in the first major league at bat, hit a HR in his first All-Star bat; he later added a game winning sac fly. In 1989, Bo Jackson began building his legend. He ended the NL first with a fine catch off Pedro Guerrero with two men on base; then he led off for the AL with a monstrous homer off Rick Reuschel. In 1990, six AL pitchers shut down the NL on just two singles. After a lengthy rain delay, veteran Texas second-baseman Julio Franco (yes, Julio Franco was a veteran in 1990) greeted Rob Dibble with a two-run double to account for the game's only runs. Dave Stieb worked two innings in his seventh, and final, all-star appearance.
The game came to Toronto in 1991, and Blue Jay Jimmy Key was the pitcher of record and got the win when Cal Ripken ripped a three-run homer off Dennis Martinez. In 1992, Tom Glavine retired Roberto Alomar to start the game: he then allowed seven consecutive singles (Boggs, Puckett, Carter, McGwire, Ripken, Griffey, S.Alomar) to settle this one in a hurry. The AL won Cito Gaston's first All-Star game in 1993. This was the game when Randy Johnson sailed his first pitch over John Kruk's head; Kruk then waved feebly at the next three offerings, all the while practically running out of the batter's box. The game ended with hometown favourite Mike Mussina throwing in the Camden Yards bullpen, as Duane Ward finished the game. And oh, the howling that ensued.
Sparky Anderson said "What are they complaining about? If I was in a pennant race with Baltimore, Mussina would have pitched at least three innings." (Sparky wasn't kidding, either - that was exactly how he managed things in his All-Star games. Pitchers from his division rivals always had to work when Sparky managed.) Gaston, in a pennant race with Baltimore and New York, was not planning on using his own guy, Pat Hentgen, who was just along for the ride; the Yankees had requested that Jimmy Key work no more than one inning. So Gaston tried to be fair to the Orioles as well, and got roasted for it. Regarding Mussina's little exhibition in the bullpen, Cito said "Screw him, I won't take him next year."
But Gaston did take Mussina in 1994, and actually let him pitch in the 8-7 NL win that finally broke off the AL win streak. Lee Smith took a two-run lead into the bottom of the ninth, but Atlanta's Fred McGriff hit a dramatic two run pinch-hit HR to tie the game. Once the game went to extra innings, the NL had it in the bag. The NL always wins when All-Star games go overtime. Baseball celebrated by having a work stoppage and cancelling the World Series.
AL pitchers held the NL batters to just three hits in 1995: however, all of them left the yard at the Ballpark in Arlington, and the NL squeezed out a 3-2 win. They made it three wins in a row in 1996, as nine pitchers teamed up for the 6-0 shutout. The National League has not won since.
The AL's recent run of utter dominance (12 wins and a tie) began in 1997 when Sandy Alomar broke up a 1-1 tie with a two run homer off Shawn Estes. This was the game when Randy Johnson's first pitch to Larry Walker sailed over his head; Walker reversed his helmet and took up his stance in the RH batter's box for the next pitch. In 1998, once the two starters (David Wells and Greg Maddux) departed the scene, the floodgates opened: 28 hits and 21 runs followed. Tom Glavine had another nightmarish outing, and the AL won 13-8. At Fenway Park in 1999, Pedro Martinez fanned 5 of the 6 hitters he faced, tying an AL record in a 4-1 win. This game featured Derek Jeter's hilarious impression of Nomar Garciaparra in the batter's box, and the wonderful, unforgettable scene before the game of a frail Ted Williams surrounded by all the game's current stars, who just wanted to touch the hem of his garment and share a moment with the greatest hitter who ever lived.
Since then the AL has won 6-3 in Atlanta and 4-1 in Seattle. This last was Cal Ripken's last All-Star Game. He was voted to start at 3B, but starting SS Alex Rodriguez moved over to third for the first time in his life (not the last!), insisting that Ripken play short, where he had played so well for so many years. Cal hit a HR off Chan Ho Park in the third and won his second All-Star MVP. Albert Pujols made his first, and so far only, major league appearance playing second base.
In 2002, they played 11 innings in Milwaukee, and then ran out of pitchers. No one was happy about that. So in 2003, they added some spice to the proceedings. Home field advantage would go to the team from whichever league won the All-Star Game. The NL handed a 6-3 lead to as impressive a relief corps as one might ever hope to see: Billy Wagner, Eric Gagne, and John Smoltz. But in the seventh inning, Jason Giambi homered off Wagner to make it 6-4. In the eighth, Gagne got roughed up for an RBI double and a go-ahead homer by Hank Blalock. It was the only save Gagne would blow all year. Smoltz never did get into the game. But, even with home-field advantage, the Yankees lost the World Series.
Roger Clemens has pitched in 10 All-Star games, which is more than anyone. Don Drysdale's 19.1 IP and 19 Ks are All-Star records, and Lefty Gomez is the only man to win 3 All-Star Games. Gomez, Drysdale, and Robin Roberts have made the most All-Star starts, with 5 apiece.
Stan Musial and Willie Mays both played in 24 (!) All-Star Games. Musial's 6 HRs are the most in All-Star competition. Mays has the most hits (23), at-bats (75), runs scored (20), and stolen bases (6), while Ted Williams drew more walks (11) and drove in more runs (20) than anyone else.
(This was originally posted for the 2005 game. I've run out of original ideas, but I thought this might be new for many of you...)