Baseball’s All-Star Game remains a thrill, in 2017 and 1963, though the event has evolved

 

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The pregame ceremony at Marlins Park was a colorful affair. (Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com)

By Craig Davis, Craigslegz.com

 

As a lifelong baseball fan and career sports journalist, I have always regarded the All-Star Game as a summer highlight.

But until covering the 2017 Midsummer Classic in Miami, I had only attended it once. It was a gap that lasted more than half a century.

Nonetheless, the memory remains vivid of that sunny Tuesday, July 9, 1963, walking along with the crowd from downtown to the lakefront stadium in Cleveland with my maternal grandfather. I was 10 and might as well have been walking on the moon (no one had done that yet) going to see baseball’s 34th All-Star Game.

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Many at the 1963 All-Star Game came from their offices in downtown Cleveland for the matinee event.

Baseball was different then, and so was America. John F. Kennedy still presided over Camelot, four months from the fateful day in Dallas that would begin the wave of violence in a turbulent decade.

 

The game wasn’t played for primetime television then. First pitch was at 1 p.m. Many in the crowd wore dress shirts and ties, having taken the afternoon off from offices in the city – and because that’s how people dressed to go out in those days, even for sporting events.

The All-Star event back then was just the game. No Home Run Derby the night before. No FanFest, the so-called world’s largest interactive baseball theme park that attracted more than 100,000 visitors to the Miami Beach Convention Center during the 2017 All-Star Week.

This year New York Yankees rookie phenom Aaron Judge put on a show in winning the Home Run Derby that in some ways overshadowed the game itself.

In 1963, there were no trimmings or enhancements. No interviews with batters in the on-deck circle or with outfielders wearing earpieces and chatting with the announcers while waiting for balls to be hit their way, as Fox did on the 2017 telecast.

It was just old-fashioned baseball under blue skies and puffy clouds. It was enough to be memorable all these years later.

Tickets were only $6, and they weren’t tough to come by. The occasion was a flop for scalpers. We were among only 44,160 there that day in cavernous old Municipal Stadium, which often drew more than 80,000 for football to watch the NFL’s Browns.

Anyone tuning in on NBC would have heard the velvet voice of Vin Scully, still early in a broadcasting career that would span 67 years. But my grandfather and I had a more enviable spot, sitting in the catbird seats – to borrow a pet phrase from another hall of fame announcer (Red Barber) – in the upper deck directly behind home plate.

It was our window to watch a stunning array of all-time greats, led by Willie Mays, who dominated the day, scoring twice and driving home two runners, one of them Hank Aaron, in the National League’s 5-3 victory.

We saw Stan Musial and Duke Snider make their final All-Star appearances as pinch hitters. Uber lefties Sandy Koufax and Warren Spahn were among pitchers who didn’t even get into the game.

Flash forward to July 11, 2017 and eight Hispanic members of baseball’s Hall of Fame were honored prior to the first All-Star Game in South Florida at Marlins Park in a part of Miami known as Little Havana.

Four of them were on the rosters of that 1963 game: Juan Marichal, Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Luis Aparicio. Marichal and Cepeda participated in the ceremonial first pitch in Miami.

The game was over in a crisp 2 hours, 20 minutes, and the crowd dispersed to the suburbs in plenty of time to catch the news with Cronkite and summer reruns of The Untouchables.

Still, with many more viewing options available today on various media platforms, the broadcast of the 2017 All-Star Game on Fox in primetime drew lower ratings than the afternoon telecast of the 1963 version on NBC.

Baseball has seen its status as a national pastime decline, for viewing and playing. Yet the All-Star Game, has expanded considerably as an event, spanning nearly a week.

In addition to the baseball activities, Miami had a Saturday night 5K electric run with 4,000 dashing through downtown through colorful tunnels of light. There was a Sunday morning mob for high-energy Zumba.

The 1963 game was pretty much a black-and-white affair. Which was fine. I’ve always cherished having seen the likes of Mays, Aaron, Clemente in the All-Star prime.

But while covering the opening of FanFest in Miami Beach my thoughts drifted to my 10-year-old self in that sort of baseball funhouse. Completing the connection to 1963 was Orlando Cepeda signing autographs in one area and bidding underway in another for an auction of Roberto Clemente memorabilia offered by the family of the late Pittsburgh Pirates hall of famer.

Just inside the door, kids were posing in front of the world’s largest baseball (Guinness certified) at 13 feet in diameter. There was a wide range of activities and attractions to appeal to differing interests, from collectibles to historical exhibits, artwork interactive games, clinics and numerous autograph opportunities.

MLB surveys of FanFest visitors from past years show attendees spend an average of 3½ hours enjoying the exhibits. I spoke to several who said they planned to return during the weekend.

“If you’re a fan or you have any interest in baseball whatsoever, this is the place you need to be,” said former Florida Marlin Jeff Conine, who was MVP of the 1995 All-Star Game.

Next year the tradition will continue at the nation’s capital at Nationals Park. In 2019, it will return to Cleveland in the 25th year of Progressive (originally Jacobs) Field.

The sixth All-Star Game in Cleveland will be on a Tuesday, July 9 – exactly 56 years after I sat with my grandfather in the upper deck behind home plate in the old stadium.

It was a vantage point that still resonates, the same view I had from the press box at Marlins Park in 2017.

 

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