When Ernie Banks walked into the Chicago clubhouse on the Fourth of July and said, “Let’s play two,” he wasn’t just whistlin’ Dixie. Ernie played for the Cubbies from 1953 until 1971, a time when it was a given that, unless there was some kind aberration in the league schedule, wherever you played on the Fourth, in the majors or in the minors, you’d play two. Not to do so would be positively un-American.
Doubleheaders weren’t just a Fourth of July phenomenon. Regularly scheduled twin bills were a staple of baseball. There were sixteen (16) in the Tigers 1961 schedule. Seven years later, the championship ’68 club played nine regularly scheduled doubleheaders, plus two more that represented rescheduled rainouts. Why not play two? Crowds were guaranteed to be good. Why pay $3.75 for a box seat for one game, when you could see two for the same price? Tight pennant race? Sweeping a double header or dropping both ends of one was agony or ecstasy. Splitting one was a little like kissing your sister.
Doubleheaders made for more off days, which in turn meant more travel days and an easier time making up games. Initially, night games weren’t universally popular – a novelty only, too late to bring the kids, especially on a school day. But crowds could be trained into night attendance with twi-nighters. While most doubleheaders were on a Sunday, Tuesday night was ideal for a twilight / night game combination. Tuesday twi-nighters meant that Monday could be an off day – good for travel at the end of a series, or just welcome time to rest after Sunday’s doubleheader. (When the schedule included a doubleheader on Sunday and a twi-nighter on Tuesday, travelling secretaries got long, hard looks from the guys on the field, especially when a particularly perverse law of baseball came into play. An inordinate number of those twin bills ran into extra innings.)
But back to the Fourth of July. At Briggs or Tiger Stadium, there were no special ceremonies just because it was the Fourth. This was about baseball. Having two ball games was the ceremony. Fireworks didn’t come into play until Bill Veeck treated the White Sox to his patented exploding scoreboard (something which was viewed with mild contempt in some quarters – if a Tiger hit a home run at Comiskey, Mickey Lolich used to set off party poppers in the bullpen.) There wasn’t time for ceremony, anyway, not with 20 minutes between games. (Only Boston split day and night games, and then only in April for Patriot’s Day.) There was barely time for the grounds crew to spiff up the infield and players to toss a few balls to loosen up for game two. There was barely time between games for fans to get a hotdog or an extra box of popcorn – barely time to tally up the scores from the first game and find a vendor who still had scorecards for the second game. Oh, it was nice if a Marine color guard turned up before the first game for the national anthem, and maybe, instead of the usual recorded version, Fat Bob or somebody equally good would be there to sing it. Until Jose Feliciano set fans on their ears during the 1968 series, regardless of who sang, you could be sure of music that was in itself a rousing, thoroughly militant statement of patriotism.
The fireworks belonged to the games – especially when Hank Greenberg was on the roster, or later Norm Cash and Rocky Colavito. In the late 50s or early 60s, if the fourth fell on a weekday, fans chanted, “Hey PawPaw, pretend its Sunday!” in hopes of a similar result.
So, pick a Fourth of July some fifty years ago. Play two. Take in a pair at the Corner of Michigan and Trumbull. Gates open at 11:30, and the first game starts at 1:30. The second will be under way about 4:00 or 4:30 at the latest, and at 7:30 or 8:00 p.m., families stagger home, carrying or leading exhausted kids, all of whom are slightly sick from too many hotdogs. Probably the second game has lasted well past somebody’s bedtime. There’s plenty to talk about – a foul ball that should have been called fair, a clean pickup at second and relay to first for a double play, autographs collected before the game, friendly ushers who remembered the family from the last time they were there, how good the seats were, promises to try a different section next time… What could be more American than that? And how better to celebrate the birthday of the country?