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Baseball Strikes Out

Game can’t keep up with changing times

By R.E. Graswich
April 2022

My friend Bill Conlin would fill the room with unprintable words if he could hear what I’m about to say. But Bill is resting at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery and not likely to notice.

Bill was a baseball guy. The demise of baseball in Sacramento saddened him. He died two years before the River Cats arrived and never had the pleasure of wrapping his hands around a cold beer at Raley Field or Sutter Health Park. As a newspaper sports editor, he covered the burials of two Solons iterations, in 1961 and 1976.

So I hope Bill’s spirit forgives me for saying it’s a good thing Sacramento isn’t a baseball town these days. Because baseball is dying.

The theory that Sacramento was a baseball town for about 100 years is sacrosanct among old-timers and local history buffs. They point to black and white photos of Edmonds Field bleachers filled with fans in fedoras cheering the Solons. They cite an assembly line of youngsters who emigrated from area high schools to big league stardom.

All that’s in the past. And while the River Cats still deliver a valued product and attract decent crowds, the sweet and subtle pull of baseball, the magnetic urgency that once upon a springtime compelled fans to tune into games on radios and study box scores in sports pages, is long gone, along with transistor radios and daily newspapers.

Baseball is marching toward the graveyard, following Conlin’s two other favorite sports, prize fighting and horseracing. Baseball knows it’s dying and is desperate to slow if not reverse the slide. But it’s too late.

Only fundamental change—radical surgery—can save the game, and even that’s questionable. Baseball’s appeal has always been its timelessness and indifference to cultural shifts. Fundamental change would transform baseball into a different product.

The problems run deeper than labor disputes. They include sclerotic conditions of an ancient fan base, evolving consumer tastes, and digital competition for time and money. There are too many games. They extend too late into the night. Even customers who appreciate baseball’s lazy pace are driven to the exits by endless pitching changes.

Baseball owners see declining attendance but can’t respond. They talk about introducing a clock or changing the distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate, but traditionalists won’t allow such manipulations. Instead, a dying game gets a haircut and manicure, with new rules to stop defensive shifts and pitchers who cheat by smearing sticky stuff on the ball.

To understand baseball’s fate, study the response to its shameful history—the racist policies that prevented African Americans from playing in the majors. Jackie Robinson, who joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 as the first Black player, endured death threats, taunts and boycotts from Southern players, including his own teammates.

Sacramento played a role in a workaround to baseball’s Jim Crow outrage. In 1946, the West Coast Baseball Association was formed. The league featured African American players banned from baseball because of race. Teams followed the Pacific Coast League and were based in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland and Seattle.

Sacramento didn’t have a team. But the S.F. Sea Lions and Oakland Larks scheduled a dozen games at Edmonds Field, Riverside and Broadway. The Bee noted two Sea Lions stars, pitcher Art “Smokey” Demery, “a speedball right-hander,” and Jesse Alexander, “the one-armed centerfielder.” Alexander “is in the Sea Lions outfield strictly on his merits,” the newspaper said, adding, “Regular Coast League prices will prevail” at the ticket booth.

Gov. Earl Warren tossed the first pitch for the new league May 12 in San Francisco. Six days later, a crowd of 705 at Edmonds Field watched the Sea Lions defeat the L.A. White Sox 11-3. The league shut down two months later as the Dodgers prepared to finally end baseball’s segregation.

Jackie Robinson towered above bigotry. He thrived without regard to the game’s racism and fear. Seventy-five years later, the problems are different. But a fatal stubbornness endures until the end.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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