“It’s an exhibition game!” We often see this sentence pop up in debates about the current ‘It Matters’ feature of the All-Star Game. But whenever I come across this, I hear it differently. I hear the astonished cry when you spot an endangered species. Like “Look, it’s a Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel!”
“Look, it’s an MLB exhibition game!”
A little over a century ago, exhibition games were woven into the fabric of the baseball year. Back before the establishment of fixed spring training camps, teams worked out in March on whatever “grounds” the team traveling secretary could lease in the warmer states (many were just cow fields in rural Georgia or the like). Since there was also no organized Grapefruit League, or even convenient ways for teams to travel to each other’s camps, the secretary’s next job was to bring in local college teams, semi-pro roughnecks, whoever could be found, to play exhibition games. Locals came to the games. Who knew when professional ballplayers would step out of the newspapers again nearby?
The trip back to Shibe Park, the Polo Grounds, or wherever, was more of the same. A wandering train route to college campuses and small wooden grandstand parks, drawing folks who would pay to see the exhibitions. Teams set this up not just for extra practice, but to help fund the trip and repay the team’s training expenses. If your team was starting at home, a couple exhibition split squad games might tune up the home fans before Opening Day too.
Even after spring training as we know it formed, exhibition games persisted through the season itself. Baltimore had lost major league baseball after 1903, but Baltimoreans continued to see several major league teams play every season. After playing a series in Washington, northern teams frequently stopped here to play exhibitions against Jack Dunn’s awesome International League Orioles. So what if the Orioles often beat them soundly – it wasn’t carried in their home market papers and the gate was good. Same scene in NY, where the Yankees sometimes played exhibitions against Negro League teams (and again kept it secret when they lost).
After each World Series ended, exhibition games might continue. Ruth and Gehrig would round up whoever else in the American League wanted to avoid an off-season job and go barnstorming, playing exhibitions all over the country. A game between the Bustin’ Babes and the Larrupin’ Lous drew decent crowds and netted the stars good spending money. Why? Not because it counted. Because of scarcity, yes. Because these guys were solidifying from the radio waves for a day. But also because watching exhibition games is fun. Relaxed fun, taking in the beauty of a ballgame for its own sake.
The development of formal and consistent minor league teams all over, the advent of television, MLB expansion and big player paydays all combined to extinguish this tradition. Its vestiges persist when the occasional MLB team splits off a squad to play an FL college team (but can’t hide when they lose, thanks to the webs). The last regular, pure exhibition game involving MLB players in America was the All-Star Game, before the recent rule change. Now ‘it counts.’
Why does everything have to count? I have no clue, but it appears I’m in the minority about that. I came to understand how small the minority is when I last attended an exhibition game at OPACY. In 2005, the Orioles were playing the Nationals at home in the final game of that spring. I was psyched. I thought it historic, the first time to see both of our area MLB teams play at our park. It was the first opportunity after the long, dead winter to see Orioles on the field at Camden Yards. How could you not be pumped? Then when I sat with the other (maybe) 7000 people who cared enough to come out. I was stunned. And disappointed. It didn’t count.
It counts in 162 games x 15 plus the post-season each year. I love to hang in the tension those games create as much as anyone. But I also love to lie back in my seat and just enjoy the way the ballplayers exhibit their grace and skill. “Look – baseball, played just because baseball is gorgeous!” Take pictures. How often do you see that?
PS - Written without benefit of the baseball books from which I learned the history, so I hope this is at least accurate in broad strokes. If it misses on details, please correct and forgive. If you see something dubious, I'm glad to dig up the citations later.