Baseball Fans Choose Wisely

The annual Major League Baseball All Star Game returns tonight in Cleveland, Ohio. Along with graduations, fireworks, barbecues and vacations, it is an American tradition to celebrate summer watching the game’s best players gathered together for one night under the stars on a Tuesday night in July. The All Star Game is a catalyst for nostalgic memories of childhood when only baseball cards, stick ball, wads of chewing gum and box scores mattered to most American kids.

In 1970 baseball returned the game to the fans by giving them the right, privilege and obligation to select the starting eight for both the American and National Leagues to play at least the first three innings of the Midsummer Classic.

Baseball had stripped their customers of the vote for 13 years. In 1957, Cincinnati fans had a “Reds letter day” by stuffing the ballot box and electing many of their Reds’ heroes to the starting lineup. The only non-Reds player voted-in by the Ohio partisans was Cardinal immortal Stan “The Man” Musial.

Come to think of it there was “Red Collusion”, but it didn’t emanate from Moscow but of The Queen City. The ballot stuffing was corrected without a Mueller investigation by MLB Commissioner Ford Frick. He replaced outfielders Gus Bell and Wally Post, good players, with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, thus joining Frank Robinson. It was the first time in All Star history that three starters of African American descent patrol the outfield. Collectively the three future Hall of Fame players amassed 2001 homers in their illustrious careers. For Robinson it would be just one of a number of firsts in his career: he was the first African American to win the Triple Crown leading the AL in HR, RBI and Batting Average in 1966 for the Baltimore Orioles and became that year to be the first player of any color named MVP in both leagues after being awarded it in 1961 leading his former team, the Reds, to the NL pennant. Additionally, Robinson would become the first African American manager when he assumed the helm of the Cleveland Indians in 1975. 

 One other African -American that arguably should have been in the starting lineup was Chicago Cubs great, two-time MVP and Hall of Fame, shortstop Ernie Banks (512 home runs). Nobody seems to have had a problem with the decision by the MLB authorities to replace three Caucasian players with three African-Americans.

Maybe there is something intuitively fair about baseball fans that transcends all other levels and segments of our culture and society.

Need more proof? Fast forward to 1970.

Baseball, because of the ballot stuffing snafu, denied the fans a vote until 1970, when Commissioner Bowie Kuhn rescinded the order and returned the All-Star selection to the fans. Ironically, Cincinnati was the host city for the game. The Reds in 1970 were racing to their first NL pennant since 1961 and would be embarking on a decade-long domination of the NL, winning six divisional titles, four pennants and two World Series with an assemblage of talent spearheaded by Tony Perez, Johnny Bench and hometown hero Pete Rose. Their offense was so lethal and productive that they would be nicknamed, “The Big Red Machine.” 

This time Cincinnati fans did not stuff the ballot box.  They couldn’t. Baseball fans nationwide saw to that. Only Bench and Perez were voted starters and had the privilege of performing in front of their home town fans. Rose earned his way on the team selected by the baseball authorities, albeit as a reserve. Rose, though, played the most significant role of the three by  smashing into Cleveland Indians catcher Ray Fosse  to score the winning run in the 12th inning  for a dramatic 5-4 National League victory.

Given the vote, the fans determined that the AL starters would be: Bill Freehan, Boog Powell, Rod Carew, Harmon Killebrew, Luis Aparicio, Frank Howard, Frank Robinson and Carl Yastrzemski. Carew, born in Panama, was injured and was replaced by Davey Johnson.

The players elected NL squad; in addition to Bench and Perez were Dick Allen, Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger, Aaron , Mays and Rico Carty.

Fans selected seven minority players to the starting lineup – eight, if you include Bench, an Okie,   who “had a fraction of Native American blood.” You can bet at the very least it was more Indian blood than fellow Okie “Pocahontas” Elizabeth Warren.

But it is Rico Carty that stands out the most. In 1970 voters submitted their choices using an “official” computer printout card by punching out their selections and mailing them to MLB offices. The list of players was limited, and Carty’s name was not included. Fans had to take the time and write in his name on a line provided on the ballot.

Baseball fans took the time to write-in their vote onto the NL team a minority player, who although a good player, was not Hall of Fame caliber like Mays and Aaron and returning to play baseball in 1970 after two insufferable seasons struggling to get healthy.

Carty  played 104 of the 162 games in 1969 and hit  .342. Maybe the baseball administrators based his exclusion from the ballot on the fact that  Carty missed all of the 1968 season to tuberculosis and his nagging, recurring injuries that kept him out of the Braves lineup for a third of the season in the 1969.

Regardless, the fans realized the Dominican Republic native was having a stellar season, one in which by season’s end Carty would lead the NL in hitting with a hefty. 365 average, slug 25 homeruns and drive home 101 runners.  Baseball fans knew he deserved the start and demonstrated it by taking the time and scribbling his name onto the computerized ballot.  Given the vote, the fans selected an all minority outfield for the NL with Carty starting in left field, Mays covering center and Aaron occupying right.

Mays, age 39 in 1970, would total his last 20-plus homer season of his career while Aaron, 36, would hit another 14 that year and 177 in his last seven seasons and retire the home run champ.  Both men were in the twilight of their illustrious careers. Nevertheless, baseball fans, respecting their talents, efforts and contributions to the game, selected them to start -- a salute to their individual greatness.

Rose was having another Rose season and could have easily been the chosen player to start.  A rational baseball fan would have reasoned that the charismatic Cincy native, a  hometown boy who made good, playing on a pennant winning team, having stats that would stack up in any good barroom debate against the others, a player that epitomized hard work, determination and hustle, the blue collar player who drove himself to be an All-Star could easily have started.

But he didn’t.

The fans opted for two immortal players and one having a career year who battled back from sickness and injury.

Too many fans had too much respect for the game and the players not to vote for them.

Likewise, Frank Robinson started in right, probably a subconscious decision by the baseball voters to see the “prodigal son” from Baltimore return home to glory.  Robinson was welcomed for one brief night by his once adoring appreciative fans of his first team, Cincinnati. 

Baseball may have a myriad of issues and problems, but recognizing the greatness in players no matter what race, color, nation or ethnicity is not one of them.

Enjoy this year’s game.


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