Bill Veeck was missing a leg, but not an imagination.
While operating teams in St. Louis, Cleveland and Chicago, the baseball maverick devised wacky giveaways and gimmicks that fellow owners wouldn’t have touched with a 44-inch bat. On various occasions, Veeck employed a clown as his third-base coach, a 3-foot-7 performer as his leadoff hitter, flash-card-waving fans as his manager.
Yet there was one promotion — curiously, one that succeeded almost everywhere else — that even this baseball Barnum detested: Old-Timers Games.
“I could never understand how it either entertained the fans or benefited baseball to show the great old names as wheezing, balding, arthritic old men,” Veeck wrote in his 1962 autobiography, Veeck As In Wreck. “To the younger generations, the fabled old stars they have read about are made to look ridiculous. To their contemporaries, there may be a temporary wave of nostalgia, but it is followed by a wave of sadness at the realization that they themselves are becoming wheezing, balding, arthritic old men.”
For a half-century after World War II, the two- or three-inning pregame exhibitions involving aging ex-players in various stages of decline were a popular baseball staple. A mixture of nostalgia and often-unintentional comedy, Old-Timers Games became much-anticipated annual events in almost every major-league city.
But, as with so much else, history needed time to catch up with Veeck. In 2019, those endearing and entertaining baseball showcases have virtually disappeared. Only the Yankees, who in June staged their 73rd consecutive Old-Timers Game, and, less frequently, the Dodgers, carry on a tradition that researchers believe dates to 1875.
The Phillies haven’t hosted one since 1993. Teams didn’t issue press releases or conduct news conferences to reveal the reasons they abandoned the games. They just faded away.
Some contend the games have been replaced by reunion weekends such as those the Phillies hold around their annual Wall of Fame inductions. Returning players can still reunite, golf, party, and step briefly into the spotlight during pregame introductions. But they don’t have to suit up and play.
Others suggest today’s wealthier alums might be more jaded, less inclined to potentially embarrass themselves by stumbling around a ball field in uniforms too snug for their post-career physiques.
“Back when we were having them, it was a different era,” said Larry Shenk, the retired Phillies PR executive who planned and promoted several Old-Timers Games at Connie Mack and Veterans Stadiums. “We had guys like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Gus Zernial. They were all very appreciative and anxious to come back. I don’t know what the temperature reading would be in the modern era. I’m not sure they have the same feelings about them.”
After 1947, when the Yankees updated the tradition and gave it a form, other teams began scheduling the games, which tended to serve a dual purpose: They filled seats — a 2015 study revealed that for their Old-Timers Games, the Yankees had experienced an average increase of 13,000 fans. They also gave teams the opportunity to publicly acknowledge their history.
Baseball historian Keith Robbins, who presented a paper on the subject at the 2015 Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and America, called the games “a secular baseball communion for remembering heroes past.”
“Successfully staged,” Robbins said, “Old-Timers Games validate that the club is acting as a worthy caretaker of the public’s trust.”
If some former players never liked the exhibitions, others relished the chance to get back in uniform. Stan Musial, for example, played in eight of them in 1973 alone, including one that attracted a crowd of 44,176 to the Vet and featured such fellow Hall of Famers as Mantle, Mays, Dizzy Dean, and Duke Snider.
Though many point to that Yankees game on Sept. 28, 1947, as the first of the modern Old-Timers Games, they have a surprisingly long history. According to author/researcher John Thorne, the tradition dates to 1875, when one of baseball’s seminal nines, the New York Knickerbockers, were feted by a game at Hoboken’s Elysian Fields.
Robbins said there were at least 10 such games featuring retired ballplayers in the 1800s, including one in Philadelphia. Players and not the clubs were the impetus behind them, and their aim usually was to raise money for indigent or ailing ex-players, none of whom then had pensions.
With the rise of mass media came increased interest in these gatherings. A 1930 exhibition at Braves Field in Boston, involving players from the 1880s through the 1920s, was broadcast nationally on radio. The stars’ reunion was so well-received that one Boston fan asked Honus Wagner to autograph the baby he held in his arms.
Eventually, players got pensions and teams, recognizing their fan appeal, took control of the games. In the 1980s, companies such as Equitable and Upper Deck began sponsoring them and commissioner Peter Ueberroth pondered the formation of an Old-Timers League.
Philadelphia hosted its first, a benefit that raised $1,000 for dying pitcher Bobby Matthews, in 1897. It would be 42 years until the city saw another.
On Sept. 10, 1939, the Athletics staged a three-inning, Shibe Park matchup of players from their 1910-14 and 1929-31 dynasties. The older A’s triumphed, but one of them, 65-year-old Topsy Hartsel, had to be helped off the field when he collapsed while chasing a ball in the outfield.
The Phillies joined the trend in 1951 to commemorate the National League’s 75th anniversary. Through 1993, the team regularly scheduled the games. Afterward, a few home-run hitting contests took place on reunion weekends, but gradually the performance-based elements disappeared.
Sometimes, the matchup would be A’s vs. Phillies, or AL vs. NL, or a particular Phillies team — such as the ’83 pennant-winners — vs. a collection of All-Stars.
Those who played in them include Home Run Baker, Cy Young, Ty Cobb, Rabbit Maranville, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Robin Roberts, Hank Aaron, and Richie Ashburn. Among the managers were Connie Mack, Joe McCarthy, Leo Durocher, Jimmy Dykes, Eddie Sawyer and Walter Alston.
At the 1970 game that pitted former A’s against ex-Phillies, Dykes, one of the managers, was driven onto the Connie Mack Stadium field in a 1929 Rolls Royce. In 1970, 67-year-old Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer appeared befuddled when he ran onto the Vet’s artificial surface. “What the hell is this stuff?” he muttered. And in a ’79 game there, Mays chased down a long fly ball, his over-the-shoulder catch reminiscent of the one he had made in the 1954 World Series.
These exhibitions — with auxiliary events that often consumed a weekend — could be costly. Players had to be transported, usually by air. They had to be housed in hotels, fed three meals a day, and constantly entertained.
“For one of the games at the Vet, when we brought the Whiz Kids back, I was in charge of the hospitality suite at the hotel,” Shenk said. “One night, we saw the sun come up.”
While they weren’t financially compensated, players sometimes received thank-you gifts. “One year, we gave them all red Weber charcoal grills,” Shenk said. “That wouldn’t fly today.”
Surprisingly, with games involving bats, balls and over-the-hill, often out-of-shape athletes, insurance issues weren’t a concern. But maybe they should have been.
When the Phillies and A’s met in 1970, for example, Connie Mack Stadium’s final season, the A’s Hal Wagner, 55 at the time, insisted on catching one inning.
“It was hotter than hell that day,” Shenk recalled. “He came back to the dugout, and he was sweating and red-faced. I thought we were going to lose him.”
But there are some old-timers who look as if they haven’t lost a step.
When the Yankees held their 73rd Old-Timers Game on June 23, 49-year-old Mariano Rivera, who’ll be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday, hit an inside-the-park home run, picked up the save, and also played center field.
“Every time I’m on that field,” Rivera said, “it’s priceless.”
Fans here loved the Old-Timers Games — Vet crowds when they were played ranged from 37,745 in 1992 to 50,391 a year later — and so did the participants.