Our Game, Part 3

EbbetsField

EbbetsField

This concluding part of Our Game continues from: http://goo.gl/e7IjtK.

The Sixties
A chaotic decade for our country, the 1960s were worrisome, stormy years for baseball as well, with dramatic changes in league composition, playing styles, competitive balance and, most distressingly, the game’s appeal to the American people. Baseball endured its ordeal by fire, and came through not unscathed but strengthened.

The departure of the Dodgers and Giants in 1958 created a vacuum in New York and an increased hunger for baseball in new boomtowns like Houston, Atlanta, and Minneapolis. Enter Branch Rickey, nearly eighty but still possessed of a keen nose for new opportunity. The great innovator who had already brought baseball the farm system and integration now created the Continental League, a paper league with paper franchises. Nonetheless, Rickey’s mirage worried Organized Baseball into expansion.

Two of the Continental “franchises”—the future New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s—were admitted for 1962. The American League was authorized to commence its western foray one year earlier with the expansion-draft Los Angeles Angels and the relocated Minnesota Twins (the latter being the transplanted Washington Senators, who were replaced in the nation’s capital by an ill-fated expansion team that migrated west to become the Texas Rangers).

Other franchise shifts and startups in the decade saw baseball’s original vagabonds, the Milwaukee Braves by way of Boston, move to Atlanta in 1966. Two years later the erstwhile Athletics of Philadelphia, having failed in Kansas City, directed their caravan toward Oakland.

The A’s were quickly replaced in KC by the Royals, one of two new teams introduced in each league with the expansion of 1969. This in turn precipitated divisional play and the League Championship Series, both inventions much decried at the time but now generally applauded. And in one of baseball’s more forgettable debacles, the expansion Pilots of 1969 lost their course in Seattle after only one year and ran aground in Milwaukee, where they were rechristened as the Brewers. The National League’s expansion into San Diego and Montreal proceeded more smoothly, although Padres’ attendance lagged expectations and the Expos’ Olympic Stadium (replacing the stopgap Jarry Park) took longer to open its dome than Michelangelo took to paint St. Peter’s.

Larry Sherry, by Jim Trusilo

Larry Sherry, by Jim Trusilo

On the field, the big-bang game of the 1950s was giving way to a pitching-and-defense formula, at least in the National League, which began to outstrip its long-time tormentor at the box office and in World Series and All Star confrontations. Speed returned to the equation, too, as personified by first Maury Wills and then Lou Brock (though both were preceded, in the AL, by Luis Aparicio). And a revolution in baseball strategy was brewing, as the 1959 success of such relievers as Larry Sherry, Lindy McDaniel, and Roy Face paved the way for the universal adoption of the bullpen stopper in the 1960s.

In the American League expansion year of 1961, the first played to a 162-game schedule, the Bronx Bombers hit a whopping 240 homers. Sluggers Harmon Killebrew, Norm Cash, and Rocky Colavito all hit more than 40 homers; Mickey Mantle hit more than 50. These totals were troubling to Commissioner Ford Frick, but nowhere near as consternating as the 61 homers struck by Roger Maris to top the game’s most famous record, the 60 that Babe Ruth had walloped in 1927. After seeing the National League’s scoring increase in 1962, its first year of expansion, Frick became concerned that pitchers were becoming an endangered species. He said:

I would even like the spitball to come back. Take a look at the batting, home run, and slugging record for recent seasons, and you become convinced that the pitchers need help urgently.

Disastrously, Frick convinced the owners to widen the strike zone for 1963 to its pre-1950 dimensions: top of the armpit to bottom of the knee. The result was to increase strikeouts, reduce walks, and shrink batting averages within five years to levels unseen since 1908, the nadir of the Dead Ball Era. The once-proud Yankees, who had continued their long domination of the American League to mid-decade, saw their team batting average sink to an incredible .214 in 1968. That year produced an overall AL mark of .230 and a batting champion, Carl Yastrzemski, with an average of .301.

Roger Maris, by Jim Trusilo

Roger Maris, by Jim Trusilo

As pitchers vanquished batters, seemingly for all eternity, the bottom line was that the fans stayed away in droves. Attendance in the National League, which in 1966 reached 15 million, fell by 1968 to only 11.7 million. In fact, despite the addition of four new clubs in 1961–62, attendance in 1968 was only 3 million more than it had been in 1960. Critics charged that baseball was a geriatric vestige of an America that had vanished, a game too slow for a nation that was rushing toward the moon; its decline would only steepen, they claimed, as that more with-it national pastime, pro football, extended its mastery of the airwaves.

The sky was not falling, despite the alarms. The owners acted quickly to redress the game’s balance between offense and defense, reducing the strike zone and lowering the pitcher’s mound. But the most important change may have been one that was introduced in 1965 and was only beginning to take effect: the amateur free-agent draft. Typically successful teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Braves, and Cardinals had stayed successful because of their attention to scouting. Consistently they were able to garner more top prospects for their farm systems than clubs with less deep pockets or more volatile management. Now, teams that had fallen on hard times need not look toward a generation of famine before returning to the feast. Now, dynasties—awe-inspiring but not healthy for the game—were suddenly rendered implausible. Now, baseball had a competitive balance that could produce a rotation of electrifying successes among the leagues’ cities, like the ascension of the Boston Red Sox from ninth place in 1966 to the pennant the next, and the amazing rise of the New York Mets from the netherworld they had known to world champions in 1969. The game would still have some hard rows to hoe in the 1970s, but there was no mistaking the reversal of its downturn: in the new age of “relevance,” baseball was back.

The Seventies
The 1970s saw a continuation of the trend toward new stadium construction that had marked the 1960s and may well have triggered that decade’s batting drought, as hitter’s havens like Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, and Sportsman’s Park fell to the wrecker’s ball. The 1960s had brought new ballparks to eleven cities—San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, Bloomington (Minnesota), New York (NL), Houston, Atlanta, Anaheim, St. Louis, Oakland, and San Diego. In 1970–71, baseball bade farewell to old friends Crosley Field, Forbes Field, and Shibe Park as new stadiums—artificial-turf clones of each other—sprang up in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. Other new parks were built in Arlington (Texas), Kansas City, Montreal, Seattle, and Toronto (the latter two, expansion franchises added to the American League in 1977), and Yankee Stadium underwent a massive facelift.

Henry Aaron

Henry Aaron

All this construction activity seemed to bespeak the game’s profitability. Indeed, attendance was climbing in almost all major league cities, as heroes like Henry Aaron, Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson, and Pete Rose, to name but a few, gave the fans plenty to cheer about. And the controversial adoption of the designated hitter innovation by the American League in 1973 gave a further boost to hitting while giving fans much to argue about, which after all is one of the game’s great pleasures.

But the game’s financial health was imperiled by rising unrest over labor issues, centered on the reserve clause which bound a player to his team in perpetuity while denying him the opportunity to gauge his worth in the free market. The reformulation of the relationship between players and management became the hallmark of the decade and sorely tested fans’ devotion to the game.

It began with the momentous case brought against Organized Baseball by veteran outfielder Curt Flood in 1970, challenging the legality of the reserve clause. The Supreme Court ruled against Flood the following year, but the tenor for the 1970s had been set. A thirteen-day player strike delayed the opening of the 1972 season, and arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in 1975 (in what has come to be known as the Messersmith–McNally case) that a player could establish his right of free agency by playing out his option year without a signed contract. The writing on the wall was clear: free agency was the wave of the future.

Big-name players like Jim Hunter, Reggie Jackson, and Rich Gossage migrated to New York and lesser lights like Wayne Garland and Oscar Gamble signed elsewhere for figures that seemed incredible. In the race to sign available talent some owners spun out of control while others like Minnesota’s Cal Griffith, without corporate coffers behind them, had no choice but to sit on the sidelines. Player movement among stars jeopardized fan allegiances, pundits alleged, as Gossage and Jackson played for three teams in three years and championship teams like the Oakland A’s and Boston Red Sox were broken up through trades that were forced by the specter of impending—and uncompensated—free-agent departures.

(Comfortingly to the historian, all this hubbub had occurred in very much the same way in 1869–70, before the advent of the reserve clause, when Henry Chadwick was fulminating about the perniciousness of players “revolving” from one team to another simply to advance their fortunes. Also, baseball’s first avowedly professional team, Harry Wright’s Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869–70, were roundly abused for constructing their powerhouse team with “mercenaries” from other states—thus scorning baseball’s core appeal to civic pride.)

Reggie Jackson's confection

Reggie Jackson’s confection

What actually compromised fan loyalties in the ’70s was not player movement—it took Yankee fans, oh, maybe, ten minutes to regard Reggie as a born pinstriper—but player salaries. When the major league minimum was under $5,000 or so and only a Mantle, Williams, Musial, and DiMaggio made $100,000 a year, fans saw their heroes as, by and large, working colleagues who had the supreme good fortune to play ball for a living. If a star made a splendiferous salary, that was socially useful as a proof that any worker could make it big if only he had sufficient ability to emerge from the pack. But when stars began routinely to command seven-figure salaries, and, more importantly, the annual wage of the average major leaguer rose to six-figure levels, and eventually seven figures, many adult breadwinners struggled to remain fans.

That they succeeded is testament to their love of the game, for fans have had a difficult assignment in reshaping their views of baseball players along the lines of media stars. The princely compensations of actors and pop musicians have long been accepted by the public as the verdict of the marketplace. If the movie The Terminator makes hundreds of millions of dollars for its studio and distributor, then Arnold Schwarzenegger’s multimillion-dollar fee for the film seems not out of line. Analogously, if the Dodgers were fabulously lucrative for ownership, then a lofty salary for Steve Garvey ought not to have given rise in the 1970s to resentment among the fans. This sort of reeducation is by no means complete, but barroom banter about baseball in the 1990s was not as bitterly one-note about “greedy players” as it had been fifteen years previous.

And one didn’t hear a peep about pro football replacing baseball as the national game.

The Eighties and Nineties
The game on the field in the 1970s had been marked by an unprecedented commingling of power and speed; the great teams of Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Oakland; the return to prominence of the Yankees; and the historic exploits of Henry Aaron and Pete Rose. The game in the ’80s would begin with the Philadelphia Phillies, led by free-agent Rose and future Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, ridding them of a historic stain. Until their victory over the Kansas City Royals in 1980, the Phils were the only one of the original sixteen major-league franchises never to have won a World Series (the St. Louis Browns had to accept the help of their modern incarnation, the Baltimore Orioles).

Mike Schmidt in SPORT, 1984.

Mike Schmidt in SPORT, 1984.

The next year brought baseball’s darkest moment since the Brotherhood revolt and ensuing Players League of 1890, as major-league players walked off their jobs at the height of the season and didn’t return for fifty days. By that time even diehard fans were thoroughly fed up with baseball’s seeming inability to resolve its problems fairly and with dispatch. Talk of a fan boycott never amounted to much, but as players and management looked toward their Basic Agreement negotiation in 1989—the centenary of the Brotherhood’s break with Organized Baseball—both reflected back on the damage wrought in 1981.

The 1980s brought unprecedented parity on the playing field and misery off it. The drug problem endemic in our society struck baseball, inevitably as well, and Rose’s itch for gambling disgraced him and the game. Baseball’s victims are highly publicized and their fall from grace is judged more reprehensible for all the advantages that today’s players enjoy—but the game is an American institution reflecting what is wrong with our people as well as what is right with them. In this most difficult area of addictive behavior baseball managed —as it did with integration—to lead America rather than follow it.

The year of 1989 became a nightmare, with Commissioner Bart Giamatti’s expulsion of Rose followed by his own sudden and shocking death days later. This was followed by a second finding of collusion by owners to undermine the free-agent market, and finally a Bay Area World Series rudely interrupted by an earthquake. But baseball recovered even from these calamities, as well as a spring training lockout in 1990, to embark upon an era that gave promise of unprecedented prosperity. The attendance of the Toronto Blue Jays exceeded the 4 million mark while the team captured back-to-back World Series, the first such feat since the Cincinnati Reds of 1975–76. And in 1993 the National League expanded to fourteen teams, welcoming franchises in Miami and Colorado that were instantly and wildly prosperous, with the Rockies setting an all-time attendance peak of nearly 4.5 million fans.

And then came 1994, a year of wonderment on the playing fields, as Ken Griffey, Jr., Matt Williams, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Tony Gwynn, Greg Maddux, and a host of others appeared to be initiating a new golden age of baseball . . . until play stopped on August 12. The leagues, which had divided into three divisions for the first time, now had no opportunity to try out their new idea of an additional round of postseason play, with the introduction of a wild card team that had not been a division winner. When Opening Day 1995 rolled around, play still did not resume for a while. This momentous event hung as a cloud over the game for years to come.

The Iron Horse and the Big Fella.

The Iron Horse and the Big Fella.

As fans, we had been presented with a dilemma. Should we side with the players, who went on strike hoping to extend their gains of the previous two decades … or with the owners, who stood fast in insisting upon a balance between costs and revenues? As fans, we tried to side with the game of baseball, and to wish that its most intense contests would revert to the field of play. And we rooted especially against the use of replacement players, perhaps especially because it would have ended Cal Ripken’s pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games played.

When Major League Baseball finally returned, with splendid seasons in 1995 and 1996, some fans continued to withhold their affections. Attendance did not swiftly return to 1993 levels. But a monumental 1998 season enriched baseball’s treasure storehouse in so many ways, that disaffected fans had to give the game another chance. There was the excitement of the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and the awesome 125-victory total of Joe Torre’s New York Yankees, including eleven wins in the postseason. Gloriously, baseball’s ghosts came back to life, in the daily press and in dinner-table conversations everywhere. Roger Maris, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig played invisibly alongside the heroes of today.

The New Millennium
Over the following years, baseball continued to give the fans home runs and more home runs until historic records were shattered and resistance capitulated to celebration. Even in the wake of the World Trade Center catastrophe of September 11, 2001, baseball provided a reminder to the healing nation that nothing could signify a return to normalcy like a ball game punctuated by a home team home run.

Barry Bonds’ assault on the season home run record, established by McGwire’s 70 in 1998, was followed by his toppling of Hank Aaron’s career high of 755. But allegations of steroid use tainted his marks, as they did the epic pitching feats of Roger Clemens. And then there was the morning after, the game’s remorse for how it had permitted too much of a good thing—which, despite Mae West’s testimonial, proved not altogether wonderful. The Mitchell Report commissioned by MLB revealed a pervasive use of performance-enhancing drugs. Despite the Cock Robin game of “Who killed Baseball?” the fact remained that everyone had a hand in the steroids scandal that fueled the era’s home run derby, and besides, baseball was a fabulous invalid.

Barry Bonds, hero

Barry Bonds, hero

This decade brought other wonderments, from the Boston Red Sox cracking the Curse of the Bambino in 2004 to the Cubs finding yet another novel way to preserve their own curse, that of the billy goat. Larger players, smaller stadiums, a shrinking strike zone, the death of the complete game and the rise of situational relief pitching … these are as much the decade’s legacy as anything else.

In 2011, a year of severe economic downturn in the country at large, baseball more than held its own. In the last week of the season it marked the 200,000th game in its unparalleled history. On the last day of the regular season three postseason outcomes up for grabs were decided within minutes of each other, on national television. And a brilliant World Series provided in Game Six a contest unique in the sport’s annals: the Cardinals rallied from two run downs in the ninth, one strike away from ending their improbable season, to tie the Texas Rangers on a clutch triple by St. Louis native David Freese. They accomplished the feat again in the following inning, and then won on Freese’s home run in the eleventh.

The race dilemma in baseball and the nation had not been magically resolved on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson took the field for the first time in a major league game. Nor was Jackie’s impact reserved for his race; the rise of the Hispanic player in our era owes much to him, and to Roberto Clemente. Ichiro Suzuki and Hideo Nomo have been the great Asian players in Major League Baseball, but certainly there are more heroes to come.

The Weather of Our Lives
Ever changing in ways that are so small as to preserve the illusion that “nothing changes in baseball,” the game has introduced, in the lifetime of some of us: night ball, plane travel, television, integration, bullpen stoppers, expansion, the amateur draft, competitive parity, indoor stadiums, artificial turf, free agency, the designated hitter, wild card contestants, interleague contests, international play, and expansion to thirty teams. Not far off, perhaps, are further expansion and an intercontinental World Series.

Ichiro Suzuki

Ichiro Suzuki

For fans accustomed to the game’s languorous rhythms and conservative resistance to innovation, the changes of the past forty years in particular seem positively frenetic. Yet for all its changes, baseball has not strayed far from its origins, and in fact has changed far less than other American institutions of equivalent antiquity. What sustains baseball in the hearts of Americans, finally, is not its responsiveness to societal change nor its propensity for novelty, but its myths, its lore, its records, and its essential stability. As historian Bruce Catton noted in 1959:

A gaffer from the era of William McKinley, abruptly brought back to the second half of the twentieth century, would find very little in modern life that would not seem new, strange, and rather bewildering, but put in a good grandstand seat back of first base he would see nothing that was not completely familiar.

It’s still a game of bat and ball, played without regard for the clock; a game of ninety-foot basepaths, nine innings, nine men in the field; three outs, all out; and three strikes still send you to the bench, no matter whom you might know in city hall. It’s the national anthem before every game; it’s playing catch with your son or daughter; it’s learning how to win and how to deal with loss, and how to connect with something larger than ourselves.

“Baseball,” wrote Thomas Wolfe, “has been not merely ‘the great national game’ but really a part of the whole weather of our lives, of the thing that is our own, of the whole fabric, the million memories of America.” Spring comes in America not on the vernal equinox but on Opening Day; summer sets in with a Memorial Day day game and does not truly end until the last out of the regular season. Fall begins with the World Series; winter begins the day it ends.

Where were you when Bobby Thomson hit the shot heard ‘round the world? Or the night Carlton Fisk hit his homer in the twelfth? Or when the Mets, with batter after batter one strike away from their team’s loss in the World Series, staged their famous rally? Where were you when Freese hit the triple and then the home run? These are milestones in the lives of America and Americans.

We grow up with baseball; we mark—and, for a moment, stop—the passage of time with it; and we grow old with it. It is our game, for all our days.

3 Comments

Magnificent. Really wonderful to read. Peter G.

Superb article!

FABULOUS! MAN AMAZING READ! THANK YOU!

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