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The joys of an afternoon game

Nothing like playing hooky from real life.
By Dave Wright


Question: What do the following numbers have in common?


Answer: They were attendance figures for games played last week at Dodger Stadium, Atlanta, Yankee Stadium, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Tampa Bay.

There would be nothing unusual about that except for two things:

1) In each case, the attendance listed is above the team’s season average.

2) All six games were midweek afternoon tilts.

David Wells excepting, major-league baseball has had a longtime love affair with day games. Ever since FDR turned the switch and lit up Crosley Field 72 years ago, however, the game has almost totally turned towards nighttime. It took the American League just 13 years to have every team put in lights. Thanks to Phil Wrigley, the senior circuit was slower to change. (Dragged kicking and screaming, the Cubs finally joined the light brigade in 1988.)

As a youngster growing up in Detroit in the 1960s, I looked forward to Thursday afternoons in the summer. The Tigers would designate them as Ladies’ Day games when women and boys and girls 14 and under got in for reduced prices. It hardly seemed to matter that the opponent was usually the Washington Senators or the Kansas City Athletics. For the parents, it was cheaper than hiring a babysitter. For us kids, it was a chance to run rampant and eat our way around the big ballpark we rarely saw on television.

In Minnesota, these same games were designated as Knothole Gang games. Kids were allowed in for free to run wild in what otherwise would have been the sparsely attended the left-field stands. I am sure there were other such setups around the rest of the country.

It may have been intended originally as a goodwill gesture or a sop to visiting teams so they could catch their train or plane for the upcoming weekend series. But the midweek day games quickly turned into a marketing opportunity. One day in Detroit circa 1961, somebody noticed more women were showing on Thursday afternoons and sitting down the third-base line or in the lower deck in left field. On a couple of occasions, the Thursday afternoon attendance dwarfed the normal Wednesday night game. The Tigers discovered the reason: women and children were coming to see colorful left fielder Rocky Colavito. The swarthy-looking Rock was a powerful hitter (he hit 139 home runs and had 430 RBI in four seasons there) who also had a good arm.

But that wasn’t the only reason. The kids loved Colavito because he did this odd routine at the plate before an at-bat. Rock would do some isometrics and end up by menacingly pointing his bat and pulling it back. This routine was lost on a lot of the women. They liked Colavito for a different reason. He had a full head of black hair, a fact that was duly noticed because he frequently had a batboy run his glove and hat out to him in left field.

Whatever the real reason, the Tigers started drawing well on Thursday afternoons, and Colavito never got the day off then. (This year, all of Detroit’s Thursday home games are in the daytime. Talk about a legacy continuing to this day….)

In other cities, major-league teams discovered they could sell these games to Park and Rec Associations. By the 1970s, teams like St. Louis were scheduling several midweek day games even though the gametime temp at old Busch Stadium might be 100 degrees. The Cardinals had discovered businessmen liked having lunch at the ballpark.

When the Tampa Bay Devil Rays opened for business a decade ago, they got in trouble for not scheduling enough midweek day games. Seemed a lot of senior citizens in Sarasota, Bradenton, Clearwater and other nearby communities wanted to go to midweek games but didn’t want to drive to downtown St. Petersburg at night. After a while, even the stubborn Devil Rays learned their lesson. Their attendance for last Thursday afternoon’s game with the Angels was 2,600 more than their season average.

The Yankees have always played a fair amount of Thursday afternoon games. Still, it is surprising (and a bit pleasing) to see the final Yankee Stadium this season against the Red Sox is a Thursday afternoon game. (August 30. Want tickets? Ebay has a pair of reserved on sale for $99.)

Not counting April and September (when some teams schedule midweek day games to avoid nasty weather), every major-league team has at least one midweek day game on its home schedule. Even the Dodgers — that symbol of ultracoolness, got into the act with a Wednesday afternoon game against the Phillies. It’s hard to top a season average of 46,337 but the Dodgers did it.

Last Thursday, here in Minneapolis, the Twins had about 8,000 more people drop in for a game with the Tigers. It was a gorgeous day, low 80s with a nice breeze. Unfortunately, we were heading indoors to the Metrodome. No matter. The outfield was a sea of orange, green and yellow shirts indicating the groups of kids who had been bussed for the game. (Amazingly, most of them stayed for the three-and-a-half hour game.) Although the Twins had little offense for five innings, the young crowd didn’t seem to notice. They chanted so incessantly a fellow might have thought he was at Wembley Stadium watching Chelsea FC and Manchester United.

Admittedly, there seemed to be fewer people in the Metrodome than the actual announced house. And it did appear a lot of people were walking around looking confused as to exactly where their seats were. It also may have not been the best day for the beer vendors. But the cotton-candy concession did a booming business. Most teams also contend, despite the high attendance figures for these games, souvenir sales suffer slightly.

Still, it says here midweek day games are a good thing. There are plenty of times where the big corporations fill the luxury boxes (to say nothing of the box seats) to capacity. And it doesn’t matter if it is true that the player association insisted on a few of these games or if teams are just doing this to give their employees a much needed night off.

In a sport where the World Series hasn’t played a day game since 1987 and one league plays with 10-man nines, it is nice to see some traditions hang on.

Besides, one never knows what you might see. If you had been at Tiger Stadium on one such Thursday afternoon (September 19, 1968), you would have seen history as Mickey Mantle homered off Denny McLain. It was the 535th of Mantle’s career, breaking a tie with Jimmy Foxx for (at the time) third place on the all-time list.

(Dave Wright is senior editor at August Publications.)