At first glance, the questions, and their answers, seem obvious. Only very good players are chosen as all-stars, and there is indeed a high correlation between players chosen to an all-star game and players chosen for a Hall of Fame. In Major League Baseball, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Stan Musial were selected to the most all-star games in history, and of course all three are in the Hall of Fame. In the National Football League, Merlin Olsen and Bruce Matthews played in the most Pro Bowls, and both made their Hall of Fame easily. In the National Hockey League, Gordie Howe, Ray Bourque, and Wayne Gretzky—the most all-star appearances; you know where they ended up. And so on.
But are the very best players always selected to all-star games? And is every all-star a future Hall of Famer? The short, and frankly easy, answers are no and no. In the four major North American team sports—baseball, basketball, football, and hockey—fans contribute to the all-star selection process, and favoritism rather than merit is usually the dominant factor in selection. There is nothing wrong with that—the all-star game is for the fans, after all. And many more players can have one, or two, or three great seasons (or half-seasons) that earn them all-star recognition, but one, two, or three great seasons do not make a great, and thus Hall of Fame, career.
For these reasons, fan selection and limited excellence, all-star selections are not reliable indicators of lasting greatness. And, indeed, an all-star game is what it is: an exhibition game, a promotion for its sport by showcasing its star players, whether transitory stars—those off to a great start in the season and thus visible at the time of all-star selection—or fading stars—those selected primarily on reputation; Willie Mays is one of the top five greatest baseball players ever, but based on his statistical records, he did not deserve to be selected for MLB's All-Star Game in his last three seasons—that was a popularity vote. Football treats its all-star game, the Pro Bowl, as an afterthought: The game is played after the Super Bowl, and is consistently the lowest-rated NFL game of the season.
The Historical Impact of Exhibition Games
This is not to say that exhibition games historically are simply vanity events. On the contrary, they can be eye-opening experiences. In baseball's pre-integrationist era, during the off-season teams of Major League stars would barnstorm around the United States and even abroad; American superstars visiting Japan before World War Two played besuboru against the Japanese, who had been introduced to the sport in the 19th century, thus spurring the development of Japanese baseball. But the pre-integrationist barnstormers received a surprise when they played against Negro League players in the United States as those stars such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Cool Papa Bell proved every bit as good as Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy Dean, and even the Bambino himself, Babe Ruth. To their credit, the Major Leaguers doffed their caps to the Negro League stars; Dean reputedly declared that Paige was the greatest pitcher he'd ever seen. Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey went further: He signed Jackie Robinson to play for the Dodgers—the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues in the 20th century—and the rest is definitely history.
Perhaps the biggest exhibition shock of the post-World War Two period came in 1972 with hockey's Canadian-Soviet Summit Series. A Canadian team comprising the cream of the NHL—future Hall of Famers Phil Esposito, Bobby Clarke, Brad Park, and Ken Dryden among them—played an eight-game series against the Soviet Union's Central Red Army team, the first four games in Canada, the last four in the Soviet Union. The Canadian team, widely considered—even by themselves—to be the best hockey players in the world, received a rude awakening: The Soviets were excellent hockey players; anchored by goalie Vladislav Tretiak, they left Canada with a two-to-one lead in the series (Game Three was a tie), and they left the Canadian players spluttering their bewilderment à la Phil Esposito's famous outburst on national television.
This wasn't merely a matter of national pride, although it certainly became tantamount to a panic. The series occurred during the Cold War, and although it was originally billed as the "Friendship Series," the undercurrent was clearly of an Us versus Them variety emblematic of what political scientists liked to call the East-West Struggle. In the end, the West prevailed: Team Canada rebounded to win three of four in Moscow, and thus won the series, four games to three—although Clarke's Game Six slash of Valeri Kharlamov's ankle, fracturing it and hobbling the Soviets' star left winger for the rest of the series, smacked of dirty pool. The iconic moment of the series was Paul Henderson's game-winning goal in Game Eight that handed the Series to Team Canada; the journeyman forward enjoyed an excellent series against the Soviets, which has become the justification for Henderson's inclusion in the Hockey Hall of Fame. (The entire series received a tongue-in-cheek treatment three decades later courtesy of the CTV sitcom's Corner Gas episode "The Good Old Table Hockey Game.")
MLB's All-Star Game: "This Time It Counts"—but Why?
But leaving aside these exceptions, the all-star game doesn't really matter. Or does it? As of this writing, Major League Baseball's 82nd All-Star Game is scheduled to be played on Tuesday, July 12, at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. The winner of the game, either the American League or the National League—and there will be a winner—will determine which team will have home-field advantage in the World Series. Huh? Why is an exhibition game responsible for determining home-field advantage in the World Series? Because since the 2002 tie-score All-Star Game, which saw a halt to the game with the score knotted 7-all in the 11th inning, "this time it counts," or so goes the Fox Network marketing slogan. So, to maintain interest in the game, Major League Baseball under Commissioner Bud Selig decreed that the League that won the All-Star Game would have home-field advantage when that League's team advanced to the Fall Classic.
With only eight contests performed this way, the sample size is too small to draw any inferences concerning home-field advantage determined by which League won the All-Star Game and which League's team won the World Series. The American League won every All-Star Game from 2003 through 2009, and an AL team won the World Series in four of those seven years (2004, 2005, 2007, 2009). The National League won the All-Star Game last year, and an NL team did win last year's Series. Also, there does not seem to be much correlation between whether the All-Star Game itself is played in an AL or NL park—the AL won in four NL parks, and the NL won in an AL park last year.
On the other hand, the question of home-field advantage in the World Series is an interesting one. In the last 30 World Series, from 1980 to 2010 (remember, there was no World Series in 1994), the team with home-field advantage won 23 times—and in series that went to seven games, which happened eight times during this stretch, the team with home-field advantage won all eight times.
Ah, 'twas not always thus, though, for the 56 years previously, from 1924 to 1979. (1924 is the year that the "2-3-2" format of two games at home, three away, and the final two at home, if the final three games are necessary, became the standard format. Prior to that, there was no convention to Series games—some years even had best-of-nine series.) Prior to 1980, teams with home-field advantage won 27 series and lost 29 series; in series that went to seven games, teams with home-field advantage won just 9 series while losing 16 series. During this period, while teams with home-field advantage won eight series consecutively, from 1939 to 1946, teams with home-field advantage also lost eight series consecutively, from 1965 to 1972.
All told, however, since 1924, teams with home-field advantage have won 50 of 86 series, making who gets last at-bats before the hometown crowd somewhat worth coveting—although in series that go seven games it's a crapshoot: Yes, hometown teams have won the last eight seven-game series in a row. But is there a streak of losses looming, as before 1980—including the years 1955 to 1958, when hometown teams lost four seven-game series in a row?
With a little historical trending to buttress the psychological appeal of home-field advantage, that honor should not rest on such an arbitrary device as winning the All-Star Game. The sensible approach is to award home-field advantage to the team with the best regular-season record, and if that proves to be a wash, use one or more additional metrics (record within the team's division, total runs scored, total runs prevented, run differential, and so on) to break the tie or to weight each team to determine who gets the advantage.
That might not be ideal, but it beats the current method. And why is the current method so bad? For one thing, that home-field advantage, an additional edge for any team that has been working all year to get to the World Series, is to be decided by an ad hoc team assembled to play an exhibition game. That ad hoc team will have only a fraction of the players from the team that does eventually make it to the World Series. Moreover, that ad hoc team will have more players who won't make it to the postseason. The All-Star Game is played at mid-season, and barring the odd miracle or two, the also-ran teams are already apparent; this year, the Orioles, Royals, Astros, and Padres are just happy to be represented because they'll be watching the Fall Classic at home this year. What about "league pride," of wanting to win just to help whichever team ultimately represents your league? Those days of league affiliation, let alone team affiliation, disappeared with the reserve clause.
Furthermore, even that all-star team might not even be the best team possible, anyway. In addition to the fan vote—is Derek Jeter really the best shortstop in the American League this year? Jhonny Peralta might not think so—is the requirement that each team be represented by at least one player. This T-ball, everyone-gets-to-play approach is perfectly fine—for an exhibition game. It is not for any competition that could have an impact on the outcome of a championship series.
Moreover, just because a player is selected to the All-Star squad doesn't mean he will actually play in the game. This year, a conspicuous number of players initially selected will not play in the game. Some, such as Alex Rodriguez, have legitimate injuries that will prevent their playing (Rodriguez underwent surgery the day before the game); others have declined to play, preferring to take the rest instead; still others, such as San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Matt Cain, pitched on the Sunday before the game and are sitting as per their regular rest between starts. Some baseball commentators (such as ESPN's Eric Karabell) have decried the selfish attitude of today's players who don't care about the game or the fans.
Boycott! Wait—What Boycott?
What has gone unspoken is whether there might be a case of "blue flu" among some of the players. "Blue flu" refers to a passive protest by workers who "call in sick" instead of reporting to work. (The term "blue flu" is a reference to the color of police uniforms and of police not explicitly striking because of a dispute.) Why would baseball players be protesting?
Last year, the state of Arizona passed legislation, SB 1070, a state senate bill targeting illegal immigrants that was almost draconian in its scope to racial profiling. Upon its passage, which has spurred other U.S. states to draft similar legislation, not only civil rights groups but even Major League Baseball protested its extremity. Perhaps not all of MLB (St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa went on record last year supporting it), but high-profile players such as Adrian Gonzalez and Albert Pujols went public stating that they opposed the bill. Why would they do so? Given that Arizona is a border state and a focal point of immigration from Latin America, SB 1070 cannot help but target primarily Latinos and Latinas, and Gonzalez and Pujols are Latino players. And with more than one-quarter of all MLB players of Latino heritage, this was an issue that hit home. Even the players' union, the Major League Players Association, voiced its concerns and hinted, in 2010, of a possible boycott of the 2011 All-Star Game, to be held in Phoenix, Arizona.
A sports boycott of Arizona is not unprecedented. In 1993, NFL owners (who, don't forget, didn't have a Gandhi in the bunch) threatened to move the Super Bowl from Arizona for its continued refusal to acknowledge the Martin Luther King, Jr., national holiday. And don't forget that MLB has a long history of activism, starting with Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color line in 1947; an event that current Commissioner Bud Selig has memorialized through the retirement of Robinson's uniform number 42 across all teams (Mariano Rivera, coincidentally not attending this year's All-Star Game, is the last grandfathered player to wear it); continuing through the humanitarian efforts of Roberto Clemente, the game's first Latino superstar who died while on a mercy mission following the devastating 1972 Nicaraguan earthquake, that resulted in MLB's Roberto Clemente Award recognizing a player's community service; and even including the dismantling of the reserve clause in baseball contracts, initiated by Curt Flood's resistance that eventually led to free agency—and ending the decades-long practice of teams' treatment of baseball players as if they were chattel.
In truth, a number of the most extreme elements of SB 1070 were struck down almost immediately; however, it remains on the books as Arizona law, and has encouraged other states to introduce similar legislation even as actions to mitigate it or repeal it altogether continue. Yet the MLPA has softened its stance toward boycotting, claiming by 2011 that the law has been defanged, and it has urged players not to shun the All-Star game. Players such as Gonzalez and Pujols, who were vociferous in their protests of SB 1070 last year, have been silent this year. Well, perhaps not quite. Gonzalez, with a monster year so far, was chosen as a starting first baseman and appears delighted to be playing for the American League. Pujols, recently injured and posting sub-standard numbers (for him, anyway), was not chosen but has expressed his willingness to go to the game if called. Given the number of absences this year—for whatever reason—he just might make it before game time.
To be fair, no one expects professional athletes to be activists, at least not nowadays. Frankly, the level of outpouring last year was surprising, although it did indicate just how integral Latin players are to baseball and how the Arizona law affects Latinos and Latinas overall. And, let's be honest, a boycott or protest of the All-Star Game would be symbolic. After all, the Arizona Diamondbacks would continue to operate in the state, with a much bigger impact than a high-profile but one-time exhibition game, as they did last year, when the law was first passed, and will continue to do so once the All-Star Game is over. This isn't to associate the Diamondbacks with SB 1070 directly, but to note that MLB operations overall are hardly inconvenienced by the controversy.
How Much is the All-Star Game Worth?
But although symbolism can make an impact, just how much of an impact does an all-star selection make to the overall evaluation of a player's legacy? As we have seen, the best players are not always selected to an all-star game, and even when they are, they might not participate. And even when they participate, they could be prone to injuries detrimental to their careers. In the 1937 baseball All-Star Game, a line drive broke pitcher Dizzy Dean's toe; subsequently, he altered his pitching mechanics to favor his healing toe and hurt his arm permanently. In the 1970 game, Pete Rose barreled into catcher Ray Fosse to score the winning run ("it" counted to Pete back then, apparently), dislocating Fosse's shoulder. The infamous incident is claimed to have derailed Fosse's career, although Fosse was prone to injury for the rest of his career.
Of course, all-star games also produce some genuinely great moments, as you would expect when the best players compete against each other. In the 1934 MLB All-Star Game, future Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell struck out five other future Hall of Famers in a row: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin. Exactly fifty years later, Fernando Valenzuela and Dwight Gooden combined to strike out six consecutive batters including future Hall of Famers Dave Winfield, Reggie Jackson, and George Brett. In the 1962 National Basketball Association All-Star Game, Wilt Chamberlain scored 42 points (including 17 of 23 from the floor) and pulled down 24 rebounds, while in the 1988 All-Star Game, Michael Jordan notched 40 points including 16 in the last six minutes. In hockey, Wayne Gretzky scored four goals in the third period of the 1983 NHL All-Star Game, while Mario Lemieux garnered six points (three goals, three assists) in the 1988 game, still the all-time record for the NHL all-star game. And of course Paul Henderson pulled out all the stops in another exhibition game, the 1972 Summit Series, to earn his lasting legacy. Finally, in the NFL's Pro Bowl—oh, sorry, we're still waiting for highlights to appear.
But apart from hockey's Summit Series, which admittedly is a different animal, does anyone remember who won those all-star games? Do they matter except as showcases for the sport and its fans? No, they don't. They are exhibition games. They shouldn't have an effect on the outcome of the regular season or the postseason, as is the case with MLB's All-Star Game. And they should be weighed carefully as an assessment of the overall skill and effectiveness of any given player's legacy to his sport.
So, how much is the all-star game worth? It's priceless—for the fans and for the sport in general. But I wouldn't put too much stock in totting up a player's all-star appearances when considering him for a Hall of Fame.