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May 1, 2020 [LINK / comment]

Pandemic puts 2020 baseball season in jeopardy

The 2020 Major League Baseball season should have started five weeks ago, and what originally seemed to be an annoying two-week delay is now threatening to doom the entire season. Opening Day was originally set for Thursday, March 26 (way too early), and one week later (April 2) the Washington Nationals were scheduled to host their first home game of the year (against the New York Mets), with the triumphant unveiling of their 2019 World Series championship banner. Alas, the glorious moment has been put on indefinite hold as the nation and the world wait to see whether this awful covid-19/coronavirus pandemic will somehow recede in time for baseball to be played.

Virtually no one expects baseball games to begin before July, which rules out any All Star Game this year. Presumably, the venue where it was supposed to held -- Dodger Stadium -- will become the host of the 2021 All Star Game. Earlier this month, Baseball executives were considering the idea of holding fan-free "quarantined" MLB games in Arizona stadiums: Chase Field in Phoenix, and the various "Cactus League" spring training ballparks in the area. As the 2015 Baltimore Orioles game proved, however, major league baseball without fans is an eerie and disturbing spectacle. Now the most likely scenario is playing perhaps half of the season beginning in July, with an altered schedule in which the existing leagues and divisions would be replaced by three regional divisions encompassing both leagues. The idea would be to reduce travel time to an absolute minimum. In such a scenario, the playoffs would probably be extended into November. Frankly, I don't care much for that alternative, either.

In all but two years from 1904 until 1960, there were 154 games in a complete major league regular season, allowing for 22 games for each pair of teams in the eight-team National and American Leagues. In 1918, however, the baseball season was shortened by about one month (canceling about 26 games in September) because of World War I, with the final regular games taking place on September 2. A total of 227 major league players were drafted that summer, including Eddie Grant of the New York Giants. He was one of three such players who died in combat, and in his honor a monument was later placed in center field of the Polo Grounds. Meanwhile, the "Spanish flu" (which did not originate in Spain) had been spreading from city to city in the United States, and as the autumn progressed, a second big wave caused a devastating loss of life as several cities were under mass quarantine: at least 548,000 Americans died of the flu from 1918 to 1919 (about one half percent of the entire population), and anywhere from 20 million to 50 million people died around the world. For a fascinating narrative, see Expecting that the public's fear of lingering contagion would cause a big drop in attendance, the major league owners decided to postpone the 1919 Opening Day until April 23, more than a week later than usual. The schedule changes resulted in 14 fewer games than normal. Nowadays, however, the 1919 baseball season is remembered primarily for the "Black Sox" scandal following the World Series.

In contrast, World War II did not result in significant baseball disruptions, other than a few night games in east coast cities being moved inland because of blackout restrictions. From 1962 until this year, all but four MLB regular seasons have consisted of 162 games. As the table below shows, the exceptions were the years when the players were on strike: 1972, 1981, 1994, and April 1995. The number of actual games varied among teams because of rained-out games that were never made up because neither team was in pennant contention.

Year Actual number of games
(approximate average)
Normal number of games Circumstances
1918 128 154 World War I
1919 140 154 Spanish flu
1972 156 162 Players' strike
1981 110 162 Players' strike
1994 114 162 Players' strike
1995 144 162 Players' strike

SOURCES: Baseball, An Illustrated History (1994), by Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns;; The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball 2003; The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2017

While researching the 1918 season, I "discovered" something that I had learned before but had forgotten about: the National League pennant winner Chicago Cubs used Comiskey Park on a temporary basis for the 1918 World Series! The White Sox' home had about 10,000 more seats than what was then called "Cubs Park," even though the latter was four years younger. Accordingly, I have updated the Baseball Chronology (annual) pages and Wrigley Field to include that fact, which was already included on the Anomalous stadiums and Comiskey Park pages. Speaking of which, my Comiskey Park diagrams are in need of some minor corrections...

Since the "Spanish" influenza outbreak happened over a century ago, it may be difficult to draw major conclusions as far as how baseball ought to respond to the current pandemic disaster. In those days there was much uncertainty, complacency, and outright ignorance, and strangely enough, those same human failings seem to be widespread today. It is hard to imagine that Americans in 2020 would accept the reopening of large-scale spectator sports while enduring a death toll of equal proportions. (Relatively speaking, 548,000 dead back then is the equivalent of 1,700,000 dead today.)

So what are we to do? The possibility of no baseball at all for the entire year is almost too painful to bear, but it's not as bad as the massive loss of life and economic distress that we are witnessing. I would go along with some kind of "salvage" arrangement to play a half season under an accelerated schedule, but only as long as fans are allowed to attend in person. Obviously, those folks attending games would be expected to wear masks for most or all of the time, but most importantly, there should be a strict limit on ticket sales, to keep fans apart. Pairs and perhaps groups of four should be allowed to sit next to each other, but going by the six-foot "social distancing" rule would necessitate three empty seats between unrelated fans. Even- and odd-numbered seat rows would likewise be staggered so that nobody sits directly in front of someone else. With such a system in place, a stadium's effective capacity would be only about 40 percent of normal. Since many fans would be reluctant to attend under the risky circumstances anyway, that would probably be mutually agreeable between the team owners and the fans.

In other news...

There are many other baseball developments for me to get caught up on, but I think I'll leave that until (hopefully) tomorrow... My apologies for such a long hiatus, folks. As soon as the spring semester is over I am determined to begin responding to the many e-mail messages I have received since last fall. Thanks as always for your understanding.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 02 May 2020, 1: 00 AM

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