The Fourth of July and baseball are irretrievably linked. The celebration of American independence in midsummer and the game share many traditions. Across America on the Fourth of July, baseball tournaments and games were played as part of celebrations of America’s birthday. Major League baseball is a foremost part of the July Fourth tradition. The holiday also marks the traditional midpoint of the regular season. It is baseball superstition that teams leading the standings on the Fourth of July often go on to play in the World Series. While the addition of division playoffs and wild card teams to post-season baseball has somewhat altered this superstition, a glance at the major league standings on July 4, 2018, found that seven of the ten teams leading the standings on that date went on to appear in the playoffs. Seattle, Arizona and Philadelphia fell from the top 10 and were replaced by Oakland, the Dodgers and Colorado.
On July 4, 1939, one of the most iconic moments in baseball history occurred in Yankee Stadium. Lou Gehrig, afflicted with ALS and soon to retire from baseball, told fans, “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”
In my youth, July 4 was generally a great baseball day because most teams played doubleheaders. The doubleheader, two games played on one day, was a long baseball tradition on Sundays and summer holidays. It has now become a baseball dodo bird, fairly extinct. It exists now solely to make up games canceled due to weather. While major league teams may play two games on one day, they often clear the stadium between games so fans must pay separate admissions, thereby protecting ticket revenue. But major league teams do promote fireworks extravaganzas on the Fourth and teams wear special uniforms that are prominently offered for purchase on the MLB webpage as well as in stadiums. Major league owners maximizing profit is as much a tradition as those historically associated with the Fourth of July.
I was fortunate to spend part of my Fourth of July watching the Springfield Sliders battle the Terre Haute Rex in an afternoon game at Robin Roberts Stadium. The game featured many traditions associated with Fourth of July baseball, including an honor guard of Marine Corp veterans presenting the colors before singing the National Anthem. Unfortunately, it also featured a 30-minute weather delay as lightning appeared in the sky south of the stadium. The weather this spring and summer has wreaked havoc on baseball games, from tee-ball to the majors. The Sliders had three games rained out in June including two major Friday night promotions. The loss of those fireworks nights cost the team two nights of 1,500-2,000 fans. In the second half of the season, four more fireworks nights are scheduled.
It has been a difficult summer for the Sliders as they fell to a record of 9 wins and 20 losses after their 7-4 loss to Terre Haute. There are some bright spots on the team. Second baseman Brendan Ryan, who attends SIU Edwardsville, is having an excellent summer. His batting average is .400, placing him second in the Prospect League. In the field he is the definition of a hustling, gritty infielder. He has the dirtiest uniform on the squad and in Thursday’s game fielded his position with skill, executing a fine over-the-shoulder catch on a pop fly to shallow right field and helping turn a quickly executed double play in the fourth inning to end a budding Terre Haute scoring chance.
The Sliders continue to provide great entertainment value for fans attending games. Activities abound between innings and every break in the action offers some potential reward or gift. Even with their woes on the field, the Sliders rank third in the Prospect league in average attendance. Because the Prospect League plays a split season, perhaps a rebound in the second half of the summer might still bring the Sliders into playoff contention. Owner Todd Miller remains optimistic and energetic. Throughout the league, attendance is down due to weather. But Miller continues to work at building crowds. When the doors opened at Robin Roberts Stadium on July 4, he was at the front gate making certain everything was in order.
This year America’s birthday found itself somewhat mired in controversy as its meaning and raison d’etre became a political football to be tossed around by politicians hopeful of scoring political points. But for one afternoon in Springfield there was an opportunity to celebrate the game America invented and enjoy an afternoon at the ballpark. Keep in mind there are plenty of games remaining in July and August. Check out the Sliders.
Stuart Shiffman’s columns on baseball appear this summer in Illinois Times print and online editions.