A Cub Came Up with the Idea of Interleague Play 75 Years Before It Became Official.
By Scott A. Rowan
Baseball fans can only wonder where the MLB would be today if a Cubs executive had become commissioner instead of a former car salesman. Bud Selig was voted MLB’s commissioner in 1998 after a career as owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, president of Selig Executive Lease Company, and owner of several used-car dealerships in Wisconsin. Although he is credited with one of the most popular changes in baseball, the innovation was first suggested by Chicago Cubs president William Veeck decades earlier.
Reported Richard Justice for MLB.com on May 18, 2012:
Since it began in 1997, Interleague games have drawn an average of 33,285 [fans]. That number is 12 percent higher than baseball’s average in other contests. Last season , Interleague Play drew an average of 33,606. That was an 18.2 percent jump over what regular-season games had drawn to that point. Even when warmer weather, weekend dates and school being out are factored in, there’s no arguing the popularity of Interleague Play.
There is also no arguing whose idea it was, according to Holtzman. “In a National League meeting in 1922, [Veeck] proposed a schedule of interleague games at the midpoint of the championship season,” Holtzman wrote in a column for the Chicago Tribune on June 5, 1997, days before MLB’s interleague action finally began.12 “It was dismissed out of hand and never came to a vote.”
So what changed between 1922, when Veeck first suggested the idea, and 1997, when MLB finally warmed up to it? That’s easy, professional baseball reached its lowest point.
There was no World Series in 1994 due to a player strike that lasted from August 1994 until the two sides signed a new agreement in March of 1995. This was a first—even World War II hadn’t been able to cancel a World Series. Neither did the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which registered an 8.3 on the Richter scale moments before the start of Game 3 of the World Series between the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants. Fighting between players and owners managed to do what neither Mother Nature nor the Nazis could.
When the two sides finally agreed to terms and play resumed in 1995, Selig knew baseball had to do something to boost dreadful (yet predictable) attendance figures. How could they bring back the fans who felt wronged by the custodians of the national pastime? One of the first announcements after play resumed was the creation of an interleague schedule, a decision that fans, according to Justice’s story, clearly welcomed.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that it was a Chicagoan who suggested this idea, considering that the Cubs and the White Sox had their own interleague series, called the City Series, beginning back in 1903. When Veeck brought up his idea during a 1922 meeting of baseball officials, the suggestion had already been market tested for nearly 20 years in Chicago. But the idea was simply ahead of its time.
In 1903, James Hart, owner of the Cubs (then called the Colts), and Charles Comiskey, owner of the White Sox, agreed to have their teams play at the end of the regular season whenever either team was not in the World Series. They called the contests the City Series back then, but today it goes by several nicknames, including the Crosstown Classic and the Red Line Series. The games were technically exhibitions, not postseason games (nor did they count in official MLB record books).
Other cities and teams followed Chicago’s lead. In 1903, Philadelphia’s Athletics and Phillies played a similar series, as did St. Louis’s Cardinals and Browns, and cross-state rivals Cleveland and Cincinnati. New York baseball fans were denied the chance to see such a series, however, as the NL’s Giants and Dodgers refused to play their AL counterpart, the Americans (later renamed as the New York Yankees).
The Colts and the White Stockings played their first game on October 1, 1903, but only the local bookies were impressed. According to many reports, betting was heavy, but it was clear to newspaper reporters that the players had no interest in exhibition games after a grinding 140-game season. Increasing the players’ apathy was the fact that the two greedy owners staged the first City Series as a best-of-15 series.
“Chicago’s Colts met their local rivals the White Stockings yesterday for the first time in baseball history, on the West Side Grounds, and there was absolutely nothing to it,” was how the Chicago Tribune described the Colts’ 11–0 victory.13
Realizing he needed to motivate his players, Comiskey offered his team a $2,500 bonus if they won the series. The White Stockings rebounded accordingly, tying the series at seven games apiece. But a deciding game scheduled for October 16 was never played because NL player contracts expired on October 15, and the players wouldn’t play if they weren’t being paid. Of course, the players could have negotiated payment for one more game, but the Colts players voted the idea down, citing shortstop Joe Tinker’s wedding as a good enough excuse as any to call the season to an end. Comiskey viewed the tie as a victory and gleefully paid his players the $2,500 bonus.
The South Siders continued to get the better of their North Side rivals in coming years, winning 19 of the 26 City Series, including each one from 1931 to 1942, the final year of the exhibition.
In 1949, the Cubs and White Sox began their exhibition competition anew, this time as a single game played during the season with the proceeds benefitting the Chicago Park District’s baseball leagues. These games, which were very popular with fans, lasted until 1972. The Cubs fared better in this single-game format, winning 13 of the 23 contests. In 1986, the Windy City Classic revived the intercity battle, with the Cubs and White Sox playing a single game during the season until 1995.
Official interleague play began for all MLB teams in 1997, with the Cubs and White Sox playing a three-game series at both ballparks each season. But with a series dating back to 1903, the Cubs and the White Sox were playing interleague games before many teams even came into existence.
“Like a glacier, big-league baseball moves slowly and so it has taken a while—75 years—but William L. Veeck’s idea of a round robin of interleague games will begin,” Holtzman wrote in his 1997 Chicago Tribune column.
“SELIG HAD IT RIGHT ON INTERLEAGUE PLAY” read the headline of Justice’s 2012 column. But for justice to truly be served, fans need to remember that it was Veeck, the former Cubs president, who had it right first. Not Selig.
Richard Justice, “Selig had it right on Interleague Play,” MLB.com, May 18, 2012, http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20120516&content_id= 31423316&vkey= news_mlb&c_id=mlb.
Holtzman, Reader, 194.
“Colts Smother White Stockings,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 2, 1903.
Holtzman, Reader, 192.
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