The Yankees Need A Bill Veeck

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The Yankees have finally gone and done it.

For the first time in my memory (read: since I’ve started going to games) they’ve done a weird promotion. Behold: Yankees Cowboy Hat Day, Sunday, August 10. Because what screams “odd” better than cowboy hats in New York with a Yankees logo on the front?

But is it enough?

It’s no secret that the Yankees do not sell out Yankee Stadium anymore. Strangely enough, it was only after the infamous 2004 meltdown that the Yankees began to sell out nearly every game. In 2005, according to Baseball Almanac, they broke the 4 million mark for the first time, averaging slightly over 50,000 a game, and they posted their highest attendance in 2008–that being the last year of the old ballpark may have had something to do with that. The new ballpark has around 5000 fewer seats than the old, but in 2009, with the new stadium smell still stuck to the seats, they still managed to sell out nearly every game. Since then, however, attendance has dropped. 2013’s average attendance was a shade less than 40,500. This year’s is 42,494 through June 22 as per ESPN–and this is counting all the people who buy tickets but do not show up.

The Triple Play game in 2013 featured low attendance due to bad weather.
The Triple Play game in 2013 featured low attendance due to poor weather.

(For those of you who will complain that 40,000 per game is still more than most teams: look at the NFL. If a game is not sold out the league actually strips the home team of its TV broadcast rights for that game. For a team that spends this much on payroll, bringing as many fans to the ballpark as possible–and thus selling out the ballpark as much as possible–is paramount.)

Two of the reasons for this decline are obvious. First is ticket prices. The days of 5 dollar tickets are long gone, unless MasterCard or someone else is running a special promotion. Otherwise, the cheapest seats will run about $20-$25 each, and let’s not even talk about the prices of the seats inside the concrete moat. Moreover, because of the new stadium’s bowl design, the cheap seats are farther from the field than they were in the old Stadium, which had a stacked tier design. And even with these lowest of ticket prices, if one decides to eat at the ballpark, the day can quickly become very expensive.

The second reason is the on-field product. Put simply, if you want to attract more fans, you have to win. In 2010, attendance actually went up from the previous year because the Yankees were fresh off of their 2009 championship. Last year’s drop is the result of people not wanting to see a team that was struggling day in and day out. The Mets very rarely fill even half of the ballpark these days thanks to a long string of sub-par seasons; even the 2012 Red Sox, doomed to last place in the AL East, had attendance levels fall–so much so that their sell-out streak was snapped that year and they had to cut prices to get people to attend games.

The third reason is less obvious. Promotions and special events. Simply put, the Yankees are terrible when it comes to promotions.  Although they have introduced a very popular bobblehead series and are giving away a cowboy hat, there is really nothing on their promotional list that really excites, except Old Timers’ Day, the new Monument Park plaque days, and possibly the Brian McCann fathead. In April, three of five of their promotional days involved calendars, and one of the other two was an herb seed packet night–completely useless for someone who doesn’t have space (or the will) to grow herbs. One of their upcoming promotions is a Dunkin’ Donuts gift card pre-loaded with a whopping two dollars. I distinctly remember one of last year’s giveaways: two tiny tubes of sunscreen that I probably misplaced as soon as I got home. Not only this, they also run most of the same promotions year in and year out.

Hideki Matsui Bobblehead Day was sold out, or very nearly so.
Hideki Matsui Bobblehead Day was sold out, or very nearly so.

To this, compare the promotional giveaways of the Los Angeles Dodgers. A fleece blanket in April for a cold game, and a corresponding sleeved blanket in September. Replica jerseys for kids and adults. Postgame movie screenings. Bobbleheads galore. A Vin Scully microphone. An Andre Ethier barbecue apron, just in time for summer. Heck, even the Mets gave away a canvas print of Shea Stadium! Clearly, the Yankees are severely lacking in this department. Good promotions can draw fans–I visited Citi Field and the awful Mets on my own volition this year just to snag a 1969 Nolan Ryan bobblehead–and a combination of a good team with good promotions can draw even more, but the Yankees seem to be relying solely on their on-field product.

It doesn’t help that there is no fan experience in the ballpark whatsoever, thanks to a lack of space. The architects of Yankee Stadium managed to fit the ballpark into a plot of land smaller than the one on which the original Yankee Stadium stood. While a marvelous feat, it also meant that there was virtually no room for any family friendly diversionary activities. There is one pitch speed radar gun by the main food court, but this, and the other two main attractions–the Museum and Monument Park–close before first pitch, which means that fans have fewer than two hours to actually do anything before the game–provided one can actually get inside, as those two areas are always crowded. There is no place where one can sit down and enjoy a meal. Compare this to Citi Field: there is an area behind center field where kids can participate in fun activities while parents watch on while munching on Shake Shack or Blue Smoke. Above the Jackie Robinson Rotunda there is a plaza with tables and benches where one can take food and drink before returning to the game. The main focus at Yankee Stadium is on the baseball, and rightly so, but for a fan who only gets to go several times a year and needs to maximize time spent, it can be disappointing after a while.

So how can the Yankees turn this sorry state of affairs around? For that, we turn to Bill Veeck and Charlie Finley.

Bill Veeck was a pioneer in baseball if there ever was one. The story goes that he bought the Philadelphia Phillies during World War II, as the team was struggling, aiming to fill the ranks with Negro League players–and thus break baseball’s color barrier. This did not come to pass, although with his next team, the Cleveland Indians, he signed the American League’s first black player, Larry Doby, and immediately rid the team of those who did not accept Doby’s presence. When the Indians failed to make the playoffs in 1949, after winning the World Series the year prior, Veeck held a funeral for the 1948 pennant.

With the St. Louis Browns, he signed Eddie Gaedel, a midget, for a promotion. Gaedel walked on four pitches in his only plate appearance in the big leagues. Veeck was the one who added the exploding scoreboard in Chicago that would set off fireworks for a White Sox home run, a tradition that many teams carry on today. He was the first owner to place player surnames on the backs of jerseys; nowadays, a jersey with a number only is a rarity in baseball. The White Sox’s infamous polo shirts and shorts uniform was also a Veeck idea, as was Disco Demolition Night, when fans brought in unwanted disco records that were blown up on the field before the second game of a doubleheader. The Sox wound up having to forfeit that game to the visiting Detroit Tigers, as the field was unplayable and a riot had formed.

Charlie Finley, longtime owner of the Athletics in Kansas City and Oakland, also had uniform shenanigans of his own. He began to dress up the team in his favorite colors, kelly green and gold with white shoes, a look that was famously disliked by Mickey Mantle. Speaking of the Yankees, he disliked them so much that he refused to trade his best players to New York, as the A’s had done for so many years, and even created a “K.C. Pennant Porch” that mimicked Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right field. (Of course, all of this work was undone by the advent of free agency.) He replaced the elephant mascot with a live mule, officially changed the team’s nickname from “Athletics” to “A’s,” and installed a mechanical rabbit to bring fresh baseballs to the plate umpire.

I’m not saying that the Yankees have to do anything as these two men did, but there are several things that I think could bump up attendance a tick.

Kids run the bases. More than a few teams in the league do it, and it’s time the Yankees joined in. They could tie it in with Mark Teixiera’s Foul Territory show and have a “Team Tex vs Team Ells” competition, too, for Sunday day games in the middle of a homestand.

Replica jersey day/night, for both kids and adults. This would work extremely well if the Yankees decided to throw back at some point, especially to the uniforms before the Babe Ruth era. Or couple it with a fan-designed jersey day, where one lucky fan gets to have his uniform design worn by the team for a day and given away to the first 18,000 fans.

Old-fashioned bat days, and more than one a year. Instead of a pre-determined player, guests would get a replica bat that could be one of three or four players.

Beer guys/gals. An idea borrowed from the Japanese leagues, beer vendors would lug kegs around instead of bottles and fill cups for whomever wants a brew.

Take an idea from the Dodgers and hold postgame movie screenings. That giant HD video board in the outfield just begs to be used like this. On that note, it seems that many baseball teams are showing Team USA’s World Cup matches on their video boards before the game and during breaks in the game. Perhaps a few viewing parties are in order for the World Cup and the Olympics?

#TanakaTime special promotions. They have to milk his starts for all they’re worth, just as the Mets did with Matt Harvey last year. Perhaps a special cheering section like they have in Japan for the hitters every time he starts?

This is one that isn’t going to please Stadium security: relax stadium rules on taunting. Part of the reason that the Stadium seems so quiet nowadays is that there is a rule against taunting the opposing team or fans of the opposing team, and even the famed Bleacher Creatures have bought into it. Taunting is what constitutes much of the crowd noise in stadiums during lulls in the action or even when plays are being made, but it is punishable by ejection, so many don’t do it. Of course it should never escalate into physical violence, but taunting the opposing team is a time-honored tradition of every sport.

These are things that, honestly, shouldn’t take much effort for the Yankees to do, but can significantly raise interest in the ballclub, even if the on-field product is mediocre as it is today. Especially with collectibles, they’ll be getting fans to come back over and over again if they can push the right buttons, which is good for the bottom line and for appearances.

All photographs are copyrighted to the author. Please do not use without permission. Thanks for reading!
All photographs are copyrighted to the author. Please do not use without permission. Thanks for reading!
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