Some baseball fans fondly remember the World Series day game, with stories of teachers wheeling television sets into classrooms and kids sneaking transistor radios into schools or rushing home to catch the last inning.
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“When it comes to the World Series, what we’re trying to do with our broadcast partners is what any good business would do,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said at a National Press Club luncheon in July 2018 when asked about bringing back the World Series Series Day. games on weekends. “We’re trying to put the game at the time we’re going to attract the biggest crowd – the time we’re going to get the most people to watch the game. That will continue to be our guidepost.”
Translation: MLB will not play World Series day games. You can put them in the pile of sacrifice bunts, pitchers hitting the ninth, and knuckleballs. .
And while that reality feels as reliable as four hours of game time and fans waving towels under the lights, the beginning of World Series night games came with controversy and dissent — and without a clear mandate. In fact, a violent midsummer storm in Washington in 1969 helped convince baseball to begin shifting the championship round to prime time.
Baseball began playing the All-Star Game at night in 1967, and the change was an immediate success — with excellent TV ratings in 1967 and 1968. But when a rainout at RFK Stadium the following year prompted MLB to hold the All-Star ’69 Game after the afternoon, the ratings crashed, only to rebound in 1970 when the game was played at night in Cincinnati. It gave MLB all the ammunition it needed to try for a prime-time World Series game.
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Six months later, in January 1971, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn announced that Game 4 of the 1971 World Series would be played at night.
“This innovation will allow millions of additional fans to watch baseball’s postseason classic. I feel that the television audience will be of the same size that watched the 1970 All-Star Game from Cincinnati,” Kuhn said.
There was more: the October 13, 1971 World Series game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles drew 63 million viewers, the largest television audience for a prime-time sports broadcast.
Then the following year, MLB expanded to two night World Series games — both on weeknights — but that sparked a backlash. As the Associated Press wrote a month after the 1972 World Series: “‘Television is the best,'” some critics argued. ‘Baseball has sold its soul to the tube.’
Kuhn pushed back on that narrative, telling the AP that he was “deeply disturbed by suggestions that baseball is now jumping to the whip of television interests and that we have surrendered control of baseball.”
On the contrary, Kuhn said, it was baseball, not the networks, that had pushed for night games.
“I brought up the subject to NBC,” Kuhn recalled. “They were skeptical and resistant. The World Series comes in the first 13 weeks of the new season for the television networks. It is a time when they are trying to establish viewing habits. They didn’t want to interrupt their regular shows with a one-shot deal like the series. We worked with them; they didn’t work on us.”
And, Kuhn boasted, “We beat out ‘All in the Family’ and other established shows on rival networks.”
Meanwhile, Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley, who had pushed for World Series night games since the early 1960s, argued that playing after dark gave working people a chance to see baseball’s showcase event. “I’ve been the working man’s best friend since the guy who invented the hour-and-a-half,” he crowed, according to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
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Still, critics continued to complain about World Series night games, based on two main arguments. One is that with postseason games often lasting three or four hours, kids on the East Coast have to stay up past 11 p.m. or midnight to watch an entire game — and baseball risks losing the next generation of fans.
The other is that baseball in October is often too cold to play at night – and this year’s World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and Houston Astros could prove challenging. While weather won’t be a factor in Houston, where the Astros play in a retractable roof stadium, up to two games will be played in Philadelphia in November, when nights can be chilly.
Weather became an issue at some of the early World Series night games, such as Game 2 of the 1976 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Cincinnati Reds in Ohio.
“When the second game of the World Series was to be played, at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, the temperature was a cool 49 degrees — hardly ideal, but acceptable,” New York Times columnist Dave Anderson wrote at the time. “When the game started tonight at Riverfront Stadium, a ‘freeze warning’ was in the forecast and the temperature dropped into the 30s – completely unacceptable for what is known as the summer game.
“But baseball’s television producer, Bowie Kuhn, demanded that the show go on. Bowie Kuhn was more interested in a Nielsen rating than in championship relations, a betrayal of the commissioner’s responsibilities.”
In its 2007 obituary of the former commissioner, the Times observed: “When Kuhn sat in the stands without a topcoat, apparently in denial while everyone else shivered, during Game 2 of the 1976 World Series on a cold night in Cincinnati, he became the object of ridicule. “
Baseball continued to mix in day games throughout the rest of the 1970s, usually on weekends. But in 1985, Kuhn’s successor, Peter Ueberroth, announced that every game in that year’s World Series would be played at night — and indeed televised our calling the shots.
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“The contract is before me,” he said. “ABC has the right to do that under the contract and I told the owners that I have been informed that we are going to have night games.”
The last daytime World Series contest was Game 6 of the 1987 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins — and it was played indoors in the Metrodome, meaning there was no sunshine to make it feel like an afternoon game .
As baseball writer Joe Sheehan observed, “It’s something when you see how quickly it happened. From October 12, 1971, there had never been a World Series night game. Since October 24, 1987, there had never been a World Series day game. It it took 16 years for baseball to turn its crown jewel into just another TV show.”
When MLB went all-night for good in 1988, Sports Illustrated writer Ron Fimrite pleaded for the return of today’s games — with a nod to late-night viewers.
“Night baseball in October simply doesn’t make sense to anyone outside a network boardroom,” he wrote, adding that it robbed baseball of what made it special. “Baseball’s top attraction became just another prime-time miniseries, and in the process lost much of its size and charm.”
Noting that some of the 1988 World Series games ended close to midnight in the Eastern time zone, Fimrite added, “It’s tough enough for school kids to watch games that late on TV, but what East Coast parents in good conscience could have taken his youngster out to the ballpark knowing that the little nipper wouldn’t be back in the sack until after one o’clock in the morning? And chances are, if the kid went to the game, he would have come home sniffling and hacking after spending half the night in near arctic cold.
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Fay Vincent, who was baseball commissioner from 1989 to 1992, the first years of all-night Fall Classics, said in a telephone interview that East Coast fans are primarily the ones pushing for World Series day games.
“I remember all the frustration and talking about why do the games start so late? Why aren’t they on earlier in the day?” he remembered. “And I’ll always say, ‘Look, the people who are moaning about the game being late are people who live on the East Coast. If you live in California, the game starts at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and the parents say to me, ‘Why is that at then? The kids are just getting home from school, and if they have after school activities, the baseball game will be over at 8.’ “
Vincent also dismissed concerns about losing young fans.
“The ad crown decides how to maximize profit and maximize audience — and it works,” he said. “It only works to the detriment of some people who want the world to be focused on New York or Washington. There are many ways to attract young people.”
At his appearance at the National Press Club, Manfred, who seemed a little annoyed at the question of World Series day games, noted that the sport hosts many playoff games during the day. And he pushed back on the narrative that baseball missed an opportunity to draw young fans.
“I understand that there’s a romantic notion out there about a World Series game being played during the day and that kids will flock from all over to see that game,” he said. “The fact is, we know who’s watching. We play day games during the postseason. We don’t actually attract more kids to those games, and given that fact, we’ll continue to play at the time we can get the biggest crowd we possibly can can pull because we feel that’s how we serve our fans.”