A Baseball First Echoes Its Past

Six days ago, this ballpark was empty for a MLB game. (via Keith Allison)

Six days ago, this ballpark was empty for a MLB game. (via Keith Allison)

No one was taken out to the ballgame in Baltimore last Wednesday. No peanuts, no Cracker Jack and no one rooting for the home team – but the Orioles won anyway.

A sport that’s broken all kinds of traditions in recent years – adding Wild Card teams, interleague play and instant replay – snapped another one last week at Camden Yards. A game with no fans, at one of the most picturesque ballparks. It could have made a good Twilight Zone episode.

Major League Baseball made the decision to play in an empty ballpark in the wake of the rioting in Baltimore following the funeral of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old man who died after suffering a spinal injury while in police custody.

Despite the sad backdrop, some players tried to have fun. White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton tweeted, “We are gonna do our best to take the crowd out of it early.. Wish us luck..” Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph mimed signing autographs, and tipped his cap and took a bow to imaginary fans. Baltimore first baseman Chris Davis flipped balls into the stands at the end of innings, as players often do to dole out souvenirs.

“It was something I joked about before the game started that I was going to do, just as a fun thing to help everybody kind of relax,” Davis said. “It never fails, catch a ball to end the inning, it’s just reaction. But I thought it would be fun. The first few were in the lower section, and then I gave some love to the fans in the upper deck.” But there was no one there to chase the balls, or any of the lonely foul balls that hitters sprayed throughout the ballpark during the sunny afternoon.

When two Orioles hit home runs early, MASN TV play-by-play announcer Gary Thorne’s call, “Goodbye, home run,” could be heard throughout the ballpark.

The umpires got a bit of a break, a one-day hiatus from the razzing of fans. And players and coaches had to be a bit more guarded in this regard too, said O’s manager Buck Showalter.

“I think everybody was real careful about what they said from the dugout because everybody on the field could hear it, the umpires and them,” he said, noting that he could hear the bullpen phone ring all the way from the dugout. The crack of the bat, the smack of the ball into the mitt and other sounds of the game also could be heard clearly throughout the ballpark, as if it were an intrasquad spring training game.

While there were no fans to stand up to mark the seventh-inning stretch, the PA system still played “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” and the ballpark’s signature “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” by John Denver. In the eighth inning, the paid attendance of “zero” was announced in the press box, which – in stark contrast to the rest of the stadium – was packed to capacity.

The game generated coverage in newspapers overseas, such as the Daily Mirror, of London, which had a decidedly British take: “Despite not having the loud backing of their fans, the Orioles rallied to a commanding 8-2 victory. It was the only match played between the two this week with the other two clashes postponed due to the continued civil unrest in the American city.”

Fans may have been shut out from the “match,” but some still got a peek at the action, congregating outside the gate behind the bleachers in left-center field. They chanted, “Let’s go, O’s!” a quiet rallying cry on a quiet day. “They were heard,” said a smiling Showalter.

So were the reporters up in the press box, apparently. “I could hear every word you all were saying up there,” the manager told reporters, adding that the game “was kind of like instructional league, Gulf Coast League, Arizona League.”

“It was weird,” said White Sox second baseman Micah Johnson. “You can’t compare it to anything. It was definitely weird. It was quiet, there’s nothing going on. You hear everything. The atmosphere, it’s just not how baseball is (supposed) to be played.”

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, whose brother, former President George W. Bush, once owned the Texas Rangers, criticized the decision to shut out fans. “I’ll just say it sends the wrong signal not to have a baseball game with people in it,” Bush said at a National Review summit. “I think we need to recognize that life doesn’t just get paralyzed when these tragedies occur. You can’t allow that to happen because it might create more of them.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

On Twitter, people referred to the game with #ghostgame.

If it felt like a ghost game, maybe that’s because the home team was channeling the ghosts of its past. Before moving to Baltimore in 1954, the franchise was based in St. Louis and went by the fittingly nondescript name Browns. The team, playing second fiddle to the city’s more popular Cardinals, often ranked near the bottom of the American League standings – and attendance. Last year, the Orioles averaged more than 30,000 fans a game, but back in St. Louis, the team often played to a nearly empty ballpark.

The Browns never drew more than a million fans in any season, and in 1953, their last year in St. Louis, they drew just 297,000 fans. The next year, as the Orioles, the franchise more than tripled its attendance to 1.06 million despite both teams posting identical records of 54-100. By the 1990s, the Orioles were consistently drawing more than three million fans per season at Camden Yards.

In their half-century in St. Louis, the Browns won just one pennant, in 1944, but even that season drew only 508,000 fans. (The team lost the World Series to the Cardinals, four games to two, with all six games played at old Sportsman’s Park.) Even that measly half-million fan total represented one of the best attendance figures in Browns history.

Consider the 1935 season, in the middle of the Great Depression, when the Browns drew just 80,922 fans for the entire year – fewer than the Orioles now bring in for a typical weekend series. Rogers Hornsby, one of the greatest hitters of all time, led the Browns as player-manager, but at 39 he didn’t have much to offer as a player anymore, batting just .208 in 24 at-bats (150 points below his career average). He didn’t have much success as a manager that year, either, as the Browns finished in seventh place in the eight-team American League, 28-1/2 games behind first-place Detroit. The Philadelphia Athletics, another baseball club in a two-team city, came in last place but still managed to draw nearly three times as many fans as the Browns.

On April 30, 1935, the reported attendance was 1,000 fans for the Browns’ game with Detroit. Attendance wasn’t reported for the game on the preceding day, which was exactly 80 years before last week’s closed game at Camden Yards. But given the fact that the Browns lost said game 18-0 — with a resounding nine runs scored in the top of the eighth to emphatically lay the hammer on the Browns — it’s a safe bet that even this tiny crowd had significantly thinned out by the game’s final inning, and the Browns’ old ballpark in St. Louis was almost as quiet as its future home would be on the same day eight decades later.

Frederic J. Frommer is the author of four books on baseball, including You Gotta Have Heart: A History of Washington Baseball from 1859 to the 2012 National League East Champions. Follow him on Twitter @ffrommer.
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Marc Schneider
7 years ago

As I recall, during their late sixties collapse after the dynasty ended, the Yankees played an afternoon game at Yankee Stadium in September with a crowd of 415. Supposedly, the announcer-Mel Allen or Red Barber?-had the camera pan the “crowd” and got fired for it.

I know that the Braves regularly had crowds of 2-3000 during some very bad years in the 70s; Milo Hamilton, the Braves announcer at the time, criticized the fans for not supporting the team and he, too, got canned.

I don’t think most people realize how much baseball attendance has grown over the last 40 years. A million used to be the standard; now anything under 2 million is considered problematic.

7 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Red Barber,he was looking to get out of his contract and this did the trick.

Robert Haymond
7 years ago

The Yankees lost a major league farm team when the Browns went out of business. I remember when they (the Yanks) used to regularly get Brownie players during the regular season, usually on waivers, often with cash considerations to supplement the Browns’ poor attendance. Now the Yankees have to spend outrageous sums on ballplayers like Tanaka from Japan in order to stay in the first tier. And how’s that turning out, Folks?

7 years ago
Reply to  Robert Haymond

They.the Yanks, pulled off an amazing coup.They got both Bob Turley and Don Larsen after ’53.A bit of trivia, Bob Turley was,(and this may be out dated) the only Oriole pitcher to lead the league in strike outs with 185.

Marc Schneider
7 years ago
Reply to  Robert Haymond

They lost the Browns but picked up the A;s when they moved to Kansas City.

David P. Stokes
7 years ago

I think it’s disgraceful how MLB handled this situation. Certainly the safety of the public, the teams, and of the ballpark personnel needed to be considered, but the game should have just been postponed IMO. Playing it with the public locked out is a slap in the face to the fans who actually go to games–it basically says to them, “Blank you, the game is for the media and the TV audience, not the paying fans”.

Paul Swydanmember
7 years ago

Blame the unbalanced schedule. Now that teams in divisions outside of the one you play in only visit once a season, it makes for these sorts of headaches. There likely was only one common off-day for the remainder of the season that the White Sox and Orioles could agree to, and that was for the doubleheader. That likely left them up the creek. I haven’t done the research to confirm this, but that is my guess. In years long past, the White Sox would have made two visits to Baltimore, and this wouldn’t have been as big of an issue.

Detroit Michael
7 years ago

I’ll disagree. Major League Baseball did the best they could do under the circumstances. At least Orioles fans could cheer their team on by radio and television instead of cancelling the third game of the series.

7 years ago

In the Union Association, a major league which existed only in 1884 and then disbanded, there
was briefly a team called the Wilmington Quicksteps (I’m not making this up- you can check it
out on wiki, in a baseball encyclopedia, or on baseball reference, etc.) In their last ever game in
the Union Association, the Quicksteps had an attendance of zero- a record which might be tied (as
it has been), but will never be broken. This is reported in the Wilmington Quickstep’s entry
on wikipedia.

7 years ago

I always thought it was the Kansas City Athletics who were the Bombers’ unofficial farm team.