On a hot July evening in Charleston, South Carolina, almost 2,000 baseball fans made their way to Joseph P Riley Jr Park, a pleasant if somewhat clumsily-named ball park on a bend in the Ashley river. Their local minor league team, the RiverDogs, were playing against the Columbus RedStixx. But on a beautiful night for baseball in 2002, the stadium gates were padlocked.
Not that the fans had expected any different. This was ‘Nobody Night’, an effort to set an unbeatable world record for baseball’s – and, come to think of it, any sport’s –lowest attendance. Fans happily reconvened at a nearby tailgate party, stocked with discounted beer and snacks. Some brought deckchairs and peered through gaps in the gates. “We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have truly terrible seats,” one local told the Associated Press.
Fans did get to see some action from a better angle later on. At the bottom of the fifth inning, the official attendance was recorded (zero) and the gates thrown open. Refreshed patrons reclined on “Shoeless Joe Hill”, a grass bank overlooking the field, while kids searched for foul balls in the bleachers. Columbus won 4-2, with all six runs scored while the stadium was empty.
One baseball fan from Illinois, who had hoped to catch a game while on vacation, was not impressed. “I don’t think it’s a real good idea. I thought it was kind of silly,” he said. Perhaps he should have known better. The RiverDogs have a long track record of quirky promotions, many of which are cancelled once the headlines have been grabbed. Vasectomy Night and OJ Trial Night (with free orange juice) are two of their most notorious offerings. Both of them, you may be surprised to hear, were not received with unanimous praise.
Many minor-league clubs have to offer something different to get fans through the gates, and Charleston do it better than most. The franchise are owned by the Goldklang Group, an executive team that also has a stake in clubs in Minnesota, Massachusetts and New York. One investor (officially the group’s Director of Fun) is actor Bill Murray, who has a home in Charleston and is often spotted at “The Joe”.
Nobody Night was the brainchild of another group member, Mike Veeck, and stadium announcer Jim Lucas, who spent 12 years calling plays alongside his visually impaired colleague, Don Wardlow. Lucas provided forensic visual detail, while Wardlow chipped in with useful statistics. It was Veeck who gave them the gig – a gift for innovation runs in his DNA.
Veeck’s father, Bill, made his name as an owner with the Chicago White Sox, St Louis Browns and Cleveland Indians. Veeck Sr’s mantra was “don’t break the rules, but test their elasticity.” He hired a clown as Cleveland coach, buried the team’s championship pennant and once sent out a 3ft 7in pinch-hitter. Veeck Sr also masterminded the White Sox’s notorious Disco Demolition Night in 1979, a vinyl-burning gimmick that descended into a riot.
For every publicity stunt, there were moments of true inspiration. Veeck Sr was the man who first planted the ivy at Wrigley Field in 1937, a sight that made Murray fall in love with baseball 20 years later. He brought pyrotechnics and radio broadcasts to ball parks. Most importantly of all, he signed the first African American to play in the American League. Larry Doby went on to lead the Indians to the 1948 World Series.
Veeck Sr died in 1986 but his widow, Mary Frances, was in no doubt he would have approved of his son’s most famous stunt. “She looked at me this morning over coffee and said ‘Bill would’ve loved this’,” Veeck Jr said in 2002. “‘You spend your whole life figuring out ways to draw ‘em in and now you’re keeping ‘em out’.”
Eighteen years on, and crowdless games are a looming reality for baseball, and all other sports in North America. Throughout major-league history, fans have always been there. Across all four major leagues, only one game has ever been played in an empty arena. That was in 2015, when civil unrest in Baltimore meant the Orioles-White Sox matchup was played behind closed doors.
With the only spectators watching from a hotel overlooking Camden Yards, the Orioles-White Sox game broke an MLB record for the lowest-ever attendance, which had stood since 1882 when Worcester played Troy in front of six paying customers. It added a grim footnote to the baseball record books, one that is set to be extended in the near future. We may yearn for the days when a zero attendance was something out of the ordinary.
Major league baseball teams are currently trying to find a path to restart in a nation devastated by the coronavirus outbreak. From triple-headers in Arizona to robot umpires, precious little has been left off the table. The current best-case scenario appears to be a shortened, regional season, behind closed doors.
MLB bosses fear every game played without fans will cost the league $640,000, and minor-league teams will be hit particularly hard by cost-cutting measures. They largely survive thanks to connections with big-league franchises – the RiverDogs, for example, are affiliated with the Yankees.
Financial uncertainty may lead to a sharp reduction in affiliate teams, and a balance of power shifted even further in favour of the big leagues. Minor-league sides could lose their independent, pioneer spirit and become little more than feeder teams. The alternative is a grim reversal of Charleston’s most famous night – plenty of fans, but no team to watch.
As Bill Veeck once said, “there are two seasons in America – winter and baseball”. That tradition is under threat but his son remains hopeful. “Baseball has survived everything that team owners have done to it,” he told CBS earlier this month. “God knows it can survive a pandemic”.