This is not going to be one of those articles about how great the old days were. I promise.
But (and you knew that was coming), it will include some nostalgia. Much needed nostalgia.
In the last 20 years there have been many, many changes in baseball, and even for a historian like me, they have mostly been positive. The wild-card and expanded playoff format has been wildly popular with fans. The increase in offense, though suspect due to the PED scandals, has resulted in a more exciting game that most fans seem to love, the All-Star Game extravaganza, which know lasts five days in the host city, is a happening that draws millions to the local economy and creates goodwill among generations of fans. Interleague play has also been a success, and now, with the leagues re-aligned to uneven numbers, interleague games occur every day.
That last one if what I am interested in. Interleague play and the state of the two leagues.
For a long time there were two leagues with distinct identities. The National League was the older league – dubbed the Senior Circuit. The American League, their roots in the far regions that what was known as “The West” (Kansas City and Minneapolis) at the time. The American League was so green that when they beat the Nationals in the first World Series between the two leagues, the NL refused to play them the following year. It wasn’t until 1994 that the Series wasn’t played again, that time because of a labor strike.
The point is, the American League was the stepchild to the National League. The National League had been tossing the sphere and swinging the wagon tongue since a few years after the Civil War. They had the best players and owners, and the finest ballparks. But by the era of World War I, the American League was doing just fine, thank you very much. In the cities where the two leagues were competing directly with each other (Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis), the younger league was fielding a better ballclub most of the time. The Red Sox won four titles in seven seasons. The White Sox won two pennants and were considered by many experts to be the greatest team ever to take the field. The Athletics won three Series in four seasons, and the Tigers were one of the most exciting teams in baseball with star Ty Cobb. Even Washington had baseball’s hardest thrower – Walter “Big Train” Johnson.
It’s the tradition of the American League that shouldn’t be lost as we move forward in the 21st century. Cobb, Johnson, Tris Speaker, Connie Mack, and Babe Ruth were the legends who made the American League a force. They wrote the history that was later added to by Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove, Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams. By Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, Brooks Robinson, and Reggie Jackson.
About 15 years ago the league offices were eliminated and all baseball operations were moved to the Major League offices. The leagues now remain in name only. There are no league presidents, the umpires are all paid by MLB, and we even have teams that have bounced back and forth across leagues (the Milwaukee Brewers and Houston Astros). League identities have largely been erased. The rivalry that once existed between the two leagues, is mostly gone. Mostly. (By the way, I think that happened in the early 1980s, when the AL broke through and finally started to beat the NL in the All-Star Game. Before that, when the Nationals won 31 of 37 games starting in 1950, and 19 of 20 from 1963 to 1982, the players in the Senior Circuit acquired a swagger and a superiority complex that made them feel as if their brand of baseball was the best. The fact that the ASG now “counts” in regards to determining the WS home advantage hasn’t succeeded in reviving that rivalry.)
The point here is that the players in the American League do have something to play for that’s larger than themselves and their teams. They have the tradition of the league that dates back to the McKinley Administration. Every time Justin Verlander toes the rubber, he is competing in the tradition of Walter Johnson. Each time Prince Fielder grabs the stick, he’s following in the footsteps of Larry Doby, the first African American to play in the AL. Derek Jeter carries the torch for the most successful team not only in American League history, but in all of American sports history.
The American League may only be a convenient way to situate the teams in divisions, a nifty little mechanism to create pennant race drama, a long ago relic that allows us to create to All-Star team, but it means something. The American League has a long, colorful, successful history going back more than a century. The Detroit Tigers are a large part of that – one of only three franchises still in the same city they were in during the first season of the loop in 1900.
When the All-Star Game is played on Tuesday, the Tiger stars aren’t only representing their team and city, they are also, hopefully, still representing the league of Ty, The Babe, and Teddy Ballgame.