By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The All-Star game used to be can’t-miss television.
There was a time when the dislike between the American and National Leagues was palpable and there was a real disdain between the two leagues’ participants. It had nothing to do with homefield advantage in the World Series or any other manufactured reward.
There was no interleague play and the two sides did not intermingle during the regular season. Familiarity between the two leagues has led to complacency. There is no edge when Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants goes behind the plate and sees Robinson Cano step into the batter’s box.
Decades ago, Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds would step on the field and sneer when he saw Fred Lynn of the Boston Red Sox.
There wasn’t as much dislike coming from the American League players toward their National League counterparts, but the years of taking a constant beating gave the American Leaguers a lust to win that was almost never quenched.
Rose took over as the National League’s de facto captain once Willie Mays faded in the 1970s. Prior to that, Mays would find a way to beat the American Leaguers nearly every year with his bat, glove, arm or speed.
The National League won every All-Star game from 1963 through 1970 and then from 1972 through 1982. That’s 19 out of 20, and it was a fair indication of the strength of the star power of the two leagues.
The National League regularly trotted out Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Johnny Bench, Willie McCovey, Joe Morgan and an array of pitchers like Juan Marichal, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax.
The American League had little besides Brooks Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Frank Robinson (once he was traded from the Reds to the Baltimore Orioles prior to the 1966 season) and a fading Mickey Mantle. On the pitching front, Jim Palmer, Mickey Lolich, Mel Stottlemyre and Jim “Catfish” Hunter got the call. All good-to-great pitchers, but they could not match the power of the NL hurlers.
Many All-Star games were close, but the NL would always find a way to finish off the AL with a clutch hit or shut-down pitching. In 1970, Rose scored his famous game-winning run after a collision with Ray Fosse on a hit by Jim Hickman of the Cubs. Two years later, Morgan drove in the winning run in the 10th inning.
In between those two games was the 1971 classic at Tiger Stadium. The wind was blowing out that night and the game featured six home runs, all by future Hall of Famers. The most famous of those was the titanic shot hit by Reggie Jackson off the light transformer over the right field roof. Frank Robinson and Harmon Killebrew also belted homers for the American League. Aaron, Clemente and Bench hit home runs for the National League.
The game was a shocker, because the American League won by a 6-4 score.
Eventually, the great National League players would retire and the American League talent deficit would narrow. The American League would run off its own streak, but it came without the ferocity the NL displayed in its run.
There is no longer a disdain between the two leagues. Free agency and interleague play are the big reasons for that.
It’s no longer like that as marketing and manufactured rewards have eclipsed the competition, and the players no longer have the passion they once did.
The All-Star Game was once a magical day that allowed the best players to show off their skills and prove who was best. Those were heady days and made the All-Star game a memorable day on the sports calendar.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.