Closing Shot: Baseball’s Swing At Interleague Play

Twenty-five years ago, Major League Baseball needed an image boost and finally experimented with a scheduling change that would launch a new era in the sport.

By Ted Keith
Interleague play was approved shortly after MLB suffered through a costly labor showdown.getty images

With a future president in the owner’s box and a future powerhouse on the field, the charmingly named Ballpark in Arlington spent the first few years of what would be a brief existence as the site of some memorable baseball theater. The $191 million home of the Texas Rangers opened in 1994 with George W. Bush as managing partner and before the team moved across the street in 2020 it would have twice as many names (four) as World Series (two). Nevertheless, before the decade was over it had already witnessed a perfect game (by Rangers lefty Kenny Rogers), an All-Star Game (in 1995), three division championships and even a scene that would later be immortalized by Hollywood (in “The Rookie”).

Why, then, do such luminaries as Darren Oliver and Glenallen Hill factor so prominently in the ballpark’s history and, for that matter, baseball history? Because the most lasting contribution the ballpark made during its 26 seasons may have taken place on June 12, 1997, when it hosted a Rangers-Giants game that marked the first regular-season contest between American and National league teams in MLB history.

For their first 96 years of coexistence, interleague play had been confined solely to exhibition games, All-Star Games, the World Series and the imagination. That changed when Oliver threw the game’s first pitch, at precisely 7:11 p.m. local time. One inning later, Hill became the first designated hitter for an NL team in the regular season. Before the Giants’ 4-3 win that night was complete, three other interleague games were underway and so too was a new era in baseball history. Starting in 2023, teams will play 46 interleague games a year, roughly triple the number when it debuted.

Suggestions about adopting interleague play had been around since the Depression, but it never came close to happening until the aftermath of the 1994-95 labor dispute that decimated baseball’s public image.

As one of their attempts to win back fans, Commissioner Bud Selig and the owners pushed for interleague play, voting unanimously for the plan on Jan. 18, 1996. They weren’t the ones who needed convincing, however.

“If we really want to know whether interleague play is the way to go, let the fans vote,” Atlanta Braves pitcher Greg Maddux said at the time. “They’re the people who pay for tickets, right?”

The early returns were a landslide. With the novelty of never-before-seen showdowns like Mets-Yankees and Blue Jays-Expos finally taking place, interleague attendance in 1997 was up 21% compared to intraleague affairs.

While some of that was due to the fact that most of the interleague games took place on dates and at times that were conducive to strong attendance anyway — such as the summer months when school was out and warmer weather enticed fans to spend a day at the ballpark — there were also significant gains on television. Fox’s first interleague games saw a 9% increase over the comparable weekend from 1996, while local broadcasts in markets both big and small had huge bumps; the first regular-season Subway Series game in New York since the Giants and Dodgers left town in 1957 gave the Mets their highest local rating in six years, while Fox Sports Pittsburgh had its highest rating ever for a Pirates game against the lowly Royals.

Initially approved on an experimental basis just for 1997, the early financial success ensured that interleague play would forever be intertwined with the national pastime. Eventually, all the profit made a prophet out of Selig, who had offered a prescient forecast when interleague play was approved: “This will be a tremendous success.”


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