On disappearing the seven-inning-game doubleheader

Rob Manfred

Commissioner Rob Manfred at the draft day podium. He wants to end doubleheaders of seven-inning games. He’s wrong.

Granted, the terms “good news” and “Rob Manfred” are too often oxymoronic. But in the immortal words of a once-legendary radio commentator, Gabriel Heatter, there’s good news tonight. (Well, this morning, when I sat down to write.) The free cookie on second base to open each extra half-inning, Manfred promises, will disappear after this season.

The bad news is that, when it comes to Manfred’s commissionership, for every piece of good news you risk the presence of five or more pieces of bad. This time, it’s the seven-inning doubleheader. That, too, will disappear after this season.

This commissioner oversees baseball with the mindset of a man believing the offspring of a back-street affair between Rube Goldberg and the Mad Hatter should be a baseball executive. Now, on Tuesday, Manfred told the Baseball Writers Association of America that the free cookie on second and the seven-inning doubleheader will bedevil them no more.

Reaching further for the good news, Manfred didn’t quite upstage the Home Run Derby in Coors Field. Even he couldn’t possibly upstage that event, nebulous as it might be. Not when Derby participants wore number 44 on their uniforms in tribute to the late Hall of Famer Henry Aaron.

Not when Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, winning a second consecutive Derby, repeated something else after blasting 74 into the seats or beyond: as in 2019, he earned more for one night’s work than he earned in an entire season’s worth of his Mets salary.

Not when Shohei Ohtani—the Angels’ flavour of the season with the incomparable Mike Trout missing enough of it with injuries so far, and the prohibitive favourite to beat the Derby into submission—proved exhausted enough that the Nationals’ outfield star Juan Soto sent him to an early rest-of-the-night-off in a round-one swing-off.

Not when Trey Mancini usurped Ohtani as a sentimental favourite thanks to his courageous conquest of cancer and his return thereafter, sending the Derby into a final-round showdown with Alonso that came up a bomb short.

Not when Alonso audaciously proclaims himself the best power hitter in baseball today when a) he’s not even in the top ten among the Show’s 2021 slugging percentages; b) he’s not even in the top ten among the Show’s 2021 OPSes; and, c) he’s not even in the top ten among the Show’s 2021 double, triple, or home run hitters.

Manfred may say now as then that the cookie on second to open each extra half-inning and the seven-inning doubleheader were motivated by pan-damn-ic health concerns. But those might have been valid reasons which just so happened to offer him cover to indulge his itch to experiment and his inability to distinguish between what does and doesn’t require repairs.

To the “purist” the doubleheader of seven-inning games is about as palatable as a Kaeopectate on the rocks. But if the Good Old Days Powers had pondered the idea in those alleged Good Old Days, the doubleheader might not have gone the way of the Duesenberg in the first place.

What I wrote in April is worth revisiting: if we must have doubleheaders, the doubleheader of seven-inning games makes perfect sense. And you Old Farts yammering about it being just more kowtowing to today’s candy-assed players are hereby invited to stuff it.

“We saw teams play three doubleheaders in a single week at times last year,” wrote CBS Sports’s Mike Axias then. “MLB has to assume something like that will happen again, in which case seven-inning doubleheaders are a necessity. You can’t ask players to run themselves into the ground like that.”

There’ve been 37 doubleheaders played through the All-Star break this season. There are ten more scheduled for the rest of the seasons, and that’s before any that should crop up as a result of single-game postponements. There are also serious side issues to ponder.

When Madison Bumgarner pitched a no-hitter in one half of a late-April doubleheader, he collided with a pair of colliding rules. The no-hitter was defined officially, a long enough time ago, as nine no-hit innings. Well, now. The doubleheader’s seven-inning game still counts as a complete game if you happen to pitch all seven innings. Does it make sense to award Bumgarner a complete game but not a no-hitter, since he pitched the game entirely under a rule he didn’t exactly help to enact?

Just as Joe and Jane Fan forget or ignore that pitching injuries are as old and as widespread as pitching itself, they forget that there was a time when the old nine-inning-game doubleheader wreaked as much havoc as health upon the game they profess to love.

Once upon a time, the bottom-feeding teams played the most doubleheaders. “Poor teams need an added inducement to convince the fans to come out and see them,” wrote Chris Jaffe in a 2010 Hardball Times doubleheader study. “Perhaps more importantly, when they traveled on the road their opponents needed an extra bit of persuasion to convince rooters to see what promised to be some lackluster on-field performances.”

During the Great Depression, from 1930-34, National League teams averaged 36 percent of their seasons’ scheduled playing doubleheaders and American League teams, 30 percent. During World War II, the NL’s teams averaged 46 percent and the American League, 45 percent. The National League fell one twin-bill short of playing over half its games in doubleheaders in 1945.

Of course, nobody thought (or gave a damn) what playing that many doubleheaders of nine-inning games might take out of the people you paid your money to see at the ballpark in the first place. (Hint: It wasn’t the owners.) The 1943 White Sox would probably love to disabuse you.

For whatever perverse reasons, those White Sox alone played an unconscionable 44 doubleheaders that year. They included eleven in July, eleven between September’s beginning and the 1 October regular-season finish, and 27 pairs of doubleheaders played either on back-to-back days or with a single off-day between them.

The hell with Hall of Famer Ernie Banks’s fabled catchphrase, “It’s a beautiful day—let’s play two!” How would you like to play 36 innings of baseball in two or three days straight by design rather than by extra-innings happenstance. Quit fooling yourself. You’d be more exhausted thinking about it than the men playing those innings in such a stretch were playing them.

Writing in Doubleheaders: A Major League History, Charlie Bevis—English instructor at Rivier College, Society for American Baseball Research member and author—devoted an entire chapter to Banks and “Let’s play two!” and came up . . . almost as unable to decide its veracity than could most who knew Banks during his Hall of Fame career and beyond.

Banks may have intended the phrase to signify nothing more than his genuine love for the game and his place in playing it. Bevis suggested plausibly that, whenever the idea first occurred to him, Banks may well have deployed it especially as a way to fight back against cantankerously careless Cubs manager Leo Durocher, who seemed almost as bent on showing Banks up as a washed-up veteran as he was on just about anything else.

But “Let’s play two!” took on too much life of its own at a time when the doubleheader became seen far more deeply as a burden than a blessing. “Banks’s attitude,” Beavis wrote,

helped to establish the romance surrounding the doubleheader as the concept entered its demise phase in the 1980s, when players and fans alike rapidly fell out of love with the seven-hour marathon that the doubleheader had become. “I’ve never heard anybody say they like doubleheaders, except Ernie Banks,” Mike Hargrove said in 1991. “And I think he was lying.” Just ten years after Banks was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the doubleheader was nearly extinct on the major league baseball schedule.

When he isn’t baseball’s version of Professor Pepperwinkle, Manfred’s barely able to conceal that his core belief is the common good of baseball equaling making money for the owners. Well. The old style doubleheader ended up turning into the separate-game, day-night doubleheader, because the owners weren’t making as much money with the single-admission twin-bill as they used to think they did.

What does Manfred wish to secure after 2021? Don’t be terribly shocked if the doubleheader of nine-inning games returns to the separate-game, day-night doubleheader. Don’t be terribly shocked, either, if such mundane corresponding issues as player health don’t matter a damn. To Manfred, and even to Joe and Jane Fan.

The doubleheader of seven-inning games was one of Manfred’s few sound ideas, whatever its impetus. It should be retained. Single admission. For the sake of those who, you know, play the games in the first place, and those who buy the tickets, even if those who buy the tickets don’t always know what’s good for themselves or for the game.

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