Last Saturday night marked the 50th anniversary of one of the most dramatic events ever shown live on network television: the tragic ring death of welterweight champion Benny “Kid” Paret at the hands of challenger Emile Griffith in a title bout held at Madison Square Garden on March 24, 1962.
No viewer of that ABC broadcast will ever forget the image of Paret trapped in a corner absorbing 29 uninterrupted punches from Griffith, 18 in six seconds. Referee Ruby Goldstein seemed as stunned as viewers at this incredible barrage, and when he stopped the fight too late Paret was near death as he slid down the ropes.
Although no one knew it at the time, when Peret collapsed to the canvas he took a big part of network and public interest in boxing with him. Anyone who witnessed this spectacle was affected by the result, and as millions of viewers sat stunned at the brutal scene they had witnessed in their own living rooms, sponsors and network executives must have been squirming.
It would be many years before another prizefight appeared on a network broadcast, and never again would boxing become a regular part of prime time television. The risk of another Paret-style tragedy was simply too great, and once the networks wrote-off professional boxing, the fight game became largely irrelevant to sports fans and almost invisible to the public at large.
A similar precipitous fall from grace was seen 13 years later in the world of thoroughbred racing, following the ill-fated match race at Belmont Park between the undefeated filly Ruffian and 1975 Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. Gut-wrenching images of the filly’s breakdown midway through a race she was leading contributed to network and fan abandonment of another major sport, one that may never fully recover from the fallout of that tragic event.
Hard to believe, but little more than 50 years ago the three most popular sports in America were baseball, boxing and racing - not necessarily in that order. Of this venerable trio, only baseball has retained some of its former glory.
Sustaining baseball’s popularity with the American public over the last half-century has been a delicate operation, ever-dependent on constant television exposure and some sophisticated life support techniques that include multiple tax breaks, two generations of taxpayer-built ballparks, and the ability of cable operators to bundle the costs of regular season games into a basic package that gives every consumer who wants TV access the unwritten obligation to contribute to baseball’s general welfare fund.
Meanwhile, baseball’s elites have given fans decades of diminished performance through overexpansion and multiyear contracts. The net result has been to redefine baseball’s central purpose and attraction, formerly known as the pursuit of unpredictable game results fairly achieved by the best talent available to each team over a 162-game span.
Today, with salaries that guarantee even mediocre players financial security for themselves and for generations of their offspring, career preservation often trumps the need to win. This tendency is especially evident both in the way pitchers are handled, and in the way they pitch.
Baseball has been transformed into a world where five or six-run leads are never safe from the consequences of an unwritten ban on pitching inside; from hurlers who are too dependent on strikeouts; from slap hitters who run-up the count more to get into the opponent’s bullpen than to get on base; and of course from the strict observance of pitch counts to satisfy both the demands of player agents and those of the front office.
As we enter the 2012 season, some gaudy attendance figures and the recent $2 billion selling price of the Dodgers tell us that baseball isn’t exactly on the precipice, certainly not in the way boxing and racing were before two shocking events gave networks the opportunity to pull the plug.
In fact, if baseball ever does fall to irrelevance the likely cause will be the terminal boredom it produces among fans with its continued pursuit of the five-inning start as a standard for modern pitchers.
We can be confident that Bud Selig and at least some owners love those 12-11 contests that take 3:20 to finish. After all, they give Bud a chance to say his brand of baseball gives substance to the axiom that “The Game Is Never Over…,” while those long games give owners precious minutes of quality time to sell more beer and team junk.
Meanwhile, Budball 2012 certainly demonstrates the truth as expressed long ago by another Wisconsin legend, Vince Lombardi, because in modern baseball winning certainly isn’t everything.