Hollywood Flashback: Major League Baseball Staged a Crowdless Game in 2015

Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Five years ago, before the coronavirus outbreak put a halt to professional sports games, the Baltimore Orioles played the Chicago White Sox inside an empty stadium amid rioting in the Maryland city.

Five years ago, the 133-year-old record for fewest paying fans at a Major League Baseball game was broken. It had been set in 1882, when only six people watched the Worcester Ruby Legs of Massachusetts host the Troy Trojans of Alabama. But the record went to zero — as would have happened with current sporting events had the NBA, NHL and MLB not postponed games because of coronavirus — when the Baltimore Orioles played the Chicago White Sox on the afternoon of April 29, 2015.

The fan-free day was brought on by civil unrest in Baltimore after the death of 25-year-old African American Freddie Gray, who had received a spinal injury while in police custody. The Hollywood Reporter said the Orioles' decision was made "in light of the city's rioting." Gary Thorne, the Orioles' play-by-play television announcer, says: "The situation in Baltimore was tense. There was a fear that playing the game might create a place in the downtown area for more turmoil both inside and outside the stadium." 

Similar situations had unfolded before. For example, the Los Angeles Dodgers postponed four games during the 1992 riots after the Rodney King verdict. But this was the first time a game went forward in an empty stadium. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which has 45,971 seats, held only the players, three scouts sitting behind home plate and 92 reporters in the press box. One Orioles employee retrieved foul balls from the grandstands. "Ladies and gentlemen" were asked to stand for the national anthem. When the announcer made the traditional report of paid attendance, he said, "Zero." During the seventh-inning stretch, no one sang along with John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" (which plays in the stadium after "Take Me Out to the Ballgame").

The word "eerie" was used frequently to describe the scene. "You realize how much the crowd adds to the ballgame," says Thorne. "How important it is to have that ebb and flow of excitement." Before the game began, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said, "This isn't the way you want to make history." In nine innings, the Orioles won 8 to 2. 

This story first appeared in the March 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.