Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
The Nats and the Pirates playedthrowback baseball at Nationals Park over the Independence Day weekend. It was a true doubleheader: One ticket got you two games.
Twin bills of this sort have been out of vogue for years; the last scheduled real doubleheader in Major League Baseball took place more than 15 years ago. Since then, the day/night format, in which one game is played in the early afternoon, then the stadium is cleared and another paying crowd is admitted for an evening game, has taken hold.
In fact, Saturday’s true doubleheader, which began in mid-afternoon and went late into the evening, only came about as a result of a meteorological mishap. The teams were originally scheduled to play a single game on May 17. But Nationals management postponed it based solely on thunderstorm forecasts. At game time, the field was dry and the skies were blue.
Had the opponent been more marketable than Pittsburgh, the team would have no doubt gone the day/night route on Saturday, too. But rather than have the Nats play before paltry crowds twice in one day, management added the make-up game to a scheduled singlet. They invited May’s jilted ticket-buyers to get the twofer for no additional charge, then promoted the heck out of the event. More than 39,000 fans showed up.
Joe Vastano of Stafford, Va., was among those who bought tickets for the postponed game. On May 17 he’d pulled his son out of school and made the hour-ish drive to Nationals Park, only to learn about the lamest rainout in baseball history. But Vastano cashed in his rainchecks for Saturday’s doubleheader, giddy at the chance to show his kid how Dad watched baseball as a boy.
“The first baseball game I ever went to was a Mets/Cardinals doubleheader at Shea Stadium [in 1977],” Vastano said. “I grew up with doubleheaders. I love doubleheaders, real doubleheaders. The old way. Two-for-one baseball.”
Real doubleheaders weren’t always flukish, particularly around this time of year. Back when baseball was indeed the national pastime, the Fourth of July and doubleheaders went together like Bogie and Bacall.
You can look it up. The July 5, 1934, front page of The Washington Post, for example, features a story by Sports Editor Shirley Povich, the guy who the press box at Nationals Park is named after. The home team had just lost a doubleheader to Jimmy Foxx and the Philadelphia Athletics. Povich had sympathy for the “[t]wenty-thousand fans” that “filtered from Griffith Stadium at the end of the 4 ½ hour proceedings with their collective jaw on their chests.”
Two nine-inning baseball games and an intermission in four-and-a-half hours? How quaint is that? Saturday’s Nats/Pirates proceedings took six-and-a-half-hours.
(‘Course, sportswriting has changed a tad since Povich’s heyday, too. A sample graf from Povich’s piece: “That first game started off like an innocent-looking pitching duel between Al Crowder and Alton Benton until both teams started to go slug-nutty along about the cocktail hour when hits became as free as the sunlight and runs as cheap as sunburn.” You go, Shirl!)
Povich also wrote up a Nats/Yankees doubleheader that was scheduled for Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1941, but got rained out. All these years later, his day story reads like baseball porn: “It was to be an Independence Day doubleheader, the league-leading Yankees were hot, Lou Gehrig’s memorial was to be unveiled, Joe DiMaggio was in the midst of his record batting streak, and a goodly crowd of 70,000 was to be there.”
Before the 1955 season, the new Baltimore Orioles made news by deviating from what the Post called “the Fourth of July doubleheader tradition.” They scheduled only a single Independence Day game against the Washington Senators at Memorial Stadium. (Yes, there was a time when D.C. was the better baseball town.) Turns out the Greater Northeast Baltimore Association had “protested [that] a doubleheader would interfere with its preparations” for its annual fireworks display. So the club, which had just relocated from St. Louis, cancelled its holiday twin-bill with Washington.
But the O’s swiftly declared that they’d try to re-do the game as “part of a twi-night doubleheader” later in the season.
No wonder: Doubleheaders were once treated as a basic right. The Senators’ official 1964 home schedule, for example, included 10 such events.
But not any more. Other than for makeup games, there hasn’t been a true doubleheader since a June 7, 1996, twofer between the Minnesota Twins and Oakland A’s. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, in a 2009 essay on the demise of the doubleheader, pinned the death on the dollar. “The game grew too popular (and salaries too expensive) for owners to forfeit an entire gate,” Verducci wrote.
By Saturday, the absence of doubleheaders was so complete that even serious baseball fans at Nationals Park were surprised to learn they were attending one. Martin Connolly, in town from Boynton Beach, Fla., brought his two sons, expecting only a single game. As hardcore fans do, Connolly showed up early to watch batting practice, only to learn that the Nats and Pirates decided it was too hot for outdoor warm-ups. His disappointment was tempered by the news, delivered via a sunburned and soggy reporter, that his ticket for the first game would allow him to stay for the second game.
“I don’t need to buy another ticket?” Connolly asked. “A real doubleheader? Really?”
Connolly then yelled to his kids: “You wanna stay for the second game?” They yelled in the affirmative.
“Oh, geez,” Connolly said as the economics of a freebie ballgame began to sink in. “Now it’s gonna cost me $400 to feed everybody all day.”
Mel Hartung, 76, stayed for both games. After Pudge Rodriguez’s 8th inning pinch-hit RBI single won the nightcap for the Nats, Hartung, a D.C. native, still had plenty enough energy to reminisce (“I’d go to doubleheaders at Griffith Stadium and pay 50 cents to get in and Cokes were a dime”) and also to rail about Jayson Werth (“Did you see his swing? Who’s his hitting coach?”).
The Nats haven’t announced any plans to revive the Fourth of July twin-bill next year. But the true doubleheader format is about to get a boost: Next Saturday, the A’s will host the Anaheim Angels for two games and charge one admission price. The games were announced before the season, the first time any MLB team has put a true doubleheader on its schedule in 15 years.
The A’s are making the twin-bill a centerpiece of a promotion billed as an “’80s Weekend” that will also feature an MC Hammer Bobblehead giveaway.
Daniel Shostak of Silver Spring stayed for both Nats/Pirates games and couldn’t rave enough about his day: “All day long we were talking about doubleheaders—Memorial Day and Fourth of July doubleheaders,” says Shostak, who turns 50 this year. “I love doubleheaders. That’s what we grew up with.”
Shostak runs a business called Strategic Affairs Forecasting, an outfit whose mission statement says it “identifies and examines the ideas, trends, and events transforming the future.” Based on Saturday’s event, Shostak says he’s bullish on a return of the true doubleheader to baseball.
“Long-range forecasting is my business, and I think there’s business in playing doubleheaders,” says Shostak. “You don’t do it on a weeknight, and you don’t do it when the Cardinals are coming in with [Albert] Pujols. But you do it on a weekend, with a mid-market team like Pittsburgh. The Lerners did a very good job putting this on and promoting the doubleheader. Look at the crowd today: This brought people in to watch baseball. Whatever money they lost on ticket sales they certainly made up on concessions. On pure statistics, it was a good business day.”