David Voigt’s History of Baseball, Part 7

Capehart Wilshire TV, 1950

Capehart Wilshire TV, 1950

This is the seventh installment of David Voigt’s history, as fine a brief telling of the tale as I know. This series commenced at: http://goo.gl/E4adJX.

Baseball’s Postwar Era, 1946-1960

Victory in World War Two unleashed a host of pent-up changes which altered American society. Among the most welcomed was a steadily expanding economy which increased jobs, wages, and consumer spending.

Bolstered by such growth industries as housing, television, and automobile production, the tide of economic prosperity transformed the nation into an affluent society of dynamic abundance. Moreover, most Americans shared in the fruits of this abundance. With plenty of discretionary income, Americans spent ever-increasing amounts for leisure and recreational purposes. From a total of $11 billion spent in 1946 on such pursuits, such spending topped $18 billion by 1960. By then, the most popular leisure activity was television viewing, with nearly 80 percent of American households of 1960 boasting at least one TV set. And the number of American households increased sharply along with the nation’s booming population. A postwar marriage boom fueled a fifteen-year-long baby boom to add to the nation’s population growth. And in this era, millions of Americans forsook older cities for new suburban homes, a trend that sped the growth of new urban regions.

But postwar America was also faced with disturbing and controversial changes. At home, long-festering opposition to racial discrimination and segregation now saw black Americans using political action movements to batter away at sources of inequality.

Similarly, increased union activity by organized workers was aimed at securing bigger shares of the fruits of abundance. And on the international front, the nation found itself thrust into a role as defender of the free world against Communist expansion. At this time a mounting arms race with the Soviet Union had America and the Russians stockpiling nuclear weapons and extending their rivalry into space exploration. This international ideological struggle translated at home into increased federal spending for defense and space programs, a continuation of the military draft, and a pervasive fear of Communism which spilled over into political campaigns.

1953 Milwaukee Braves

1953 Milwaukee Braves

At this time most of these forces and others impacted upon major league baseball. For openers, the rising national prosperity boosted attendance and revenues, but shifting population centers now tempted some club owners to abandon old sites for greener pastures elsewhere. By 1958 five such franchise shifts had occurred. In 1953 the NL Braves became the first breakaway franchise when they abandoned their traditional Boston haunts for Milwaukee; in 1954 the penurious AL Browns departed St. Louis for Baltimore, and the following year the equally penurious AL Athletics moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City. Such moves were controversial, for they destroyed a long-standing, fifty-year-old status quo in major league baseball. But the biggest public uproar echoed from Brooklyn and New York City, when fans of the NL Dodgers and Giants saw these teams move to the West Coast, respectively to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Following upon those moves, a rival major league, the Continental League, threatened to plant teams in some abandoned cities, but mostly in new population centers that now hungered for major league baseball. The urgent need to defuse the Continental League threat and the lesser need to assuage bereft New York fans prompted major league owners to expand the major leagues at the end of this era.

Meanwhile, these breakaway franchise movements, while increasing major league attendance and revenues, were weakening the minor leagues by pre-empting some of the strongest minor league territories. At the same time attendance at minor league games was being undermined by the increasing radio and television broadcasts of major league games. For the minor leagues, such blows were crushers. From an all-time peak in 1949, when the minors fielded 59 leagues with over 7,800 players and attracted 40 million fans, the number of minor leagues steadily dwindled. By the early 1960s, the number of minor leagues had shrunk to nineteen, with fewer than 2,500 players and total annual attendance of less than 20 million fans. By then, major league owners were learning that there was a piper to pay; for the decline of the minors confronted the major leagues with a chronic, persistent problem of talent scarcity. To cope with the knotty talent shortage problem, major league clubs engaged in costly bidding wars for the services of promising young players.

And in addition to bidding for “bonus babies,” major league clubs recruited black players both at home and in Latin America. Since such moves failed to solve the problem of talent scarcity, by the end of this era the majors were challenged to find ways of subsidizing the surviving minor leagues, to prevent these vital nurseries of playing talent from drying up.

1954 KC Athletics ashtray

1954 KC Athletics ashtray

But baseball’s talent scarcity problem was also aggravated by the television revolution. As television producers soon learned that other sports attracted viewers, they took to subsidizing rival team sports such as professional football and basketball. As these and other sports gained in popularity, young athletes turned to them in increasing numbers. Indeed, at many schools and colleges baseball now ranked as a minor sport. But television bestowed blessings as well as problems upon baseball. In 1950 baseball telecasting provided $2.3 million in new revenues and by 1960 such annual income topped $12 million. As television income enhanced the value of major league franchises, its potential now became a major consideration in the relocation of franchises. For now, as at the present time, owners clung to the policy of negotiating their own local television contracts. But owners of this era worried over television’s impact on live attendance at games. In 1946 a record 18.1 million fans attended major league games and in 1948 rising annual attendance peaked at 21.3 million. Thereafter annual attendance sagged, falling below the 20 million mark during the 1950s. For this turnabout, some owners blamed television for making a free show of the games. But aging parks, located in congested and declining center cities whose populations were shifting to suburban areas, also accounted for the decline. In other ways television altered the game. The steadily increasing number of night games now transformed major league baseball into a primarily nocturnal spectacle , except at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

Night baseball was a trend encouraged by the televising of games as producers found night games to be more profitable. And by making celebrities of players, television triggered a rise in player salaries which would reach astonishing proportions in later years. Moreover, by scooping newspapers on the coverage of the outcome of games, television forced baseball writers to adopt a new, more probing style of baseball coverage. But such mixed blessings failed to deter owners of this era from reaping revenues from local and national television contracts. However, it is unlikely that any owner of this era could have envisioned a coming time when television revenue would exceed that of ticket sales at games. Nor could many owners at the dawn of this era envision the revolutionary impact of the racial integration of baseball.

Nevertheless, in 1947 major league baseball became a major front in the ongoing battle for racial equality. That year Branch Rickey’s “great experiment” introduced Jackie Robinson as the first known black player in this century to play in the major leagues. Playing first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers that year, Robinson endured a trying ordeal of acceptance, but he passed the test magnificently. A .297 batting average sparked a championship season for the Dodgers and won Robinson the Rookie of the Year honors. More important, his success paved the way for other black stars to follow in his footsteps. By 1958 some hundred black Americans and some eighty black Hispanics played in the major leagues, mostly with NL teams, where their feats helped to exalt the NL over the AL. In Robinson’s footsteps there followed such future Hall of Famers as Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks, and Roberto Clemente. However, the opening of doors into the white major leagues doomed the black major leagues to extinction. By 1950 the era of the great black majors was over. As for the white majors, the recruitment of black players only temporarily alleviated the growing talent shortage.

Jackie Robinson, Ebbets Field 1947

Jackie Robinson, Ebbets Field 1947

Meanwhile, the postwar surge in labor union activity in the nation at large was exerting its influence on the major leagues. In 1946 a mounting number of grievances against owners prompted major league players to organize under the newly formed American Baseball Guild. Headed by Boston attorney Robert Murphy, this fourth unionizing attempt by major league players now had players forming chapters on each team, electing player representatives, and demanding higher salaries, fringe benefits, and a pension plan. A strike threat that year was defused when owners conceded a minimum salary of $5,000, some fringe benefits, and a pension plan to be funded by national radio and television income. The latter concession was portentous; not only were owners committed to the pension principle, but an important precedent was set by giving players a share in national media revenue. Such concessions undercut the Guild, which soon died out. But when the owners attempted to abolish the pension system in 1953, player representatives from the sixteen clubs hired New York attorney J. Norman Lewis to represent their cause. Out of this crisis came the Major League Players Association; under Lewis’ leadership, the Association fought a successful battle to retain the pension system. But the Association languished after this struggle and late in this era came under the leadership of Robert Cannon, who ran the Association as a company union until 1966. Then, under Marvin Miller’s efficient leadership, the Association became a formidable collective-bargaining agency for the players.

Meanwhile, the Mexican League crisis of 1946 added to the growing tensions between players and owners. That year Mexican League promoters enticed a handful of major league players to jump to Mexican League teams with offers of high salaries. When Commissioner A.B. Chandler blacklisted the jumpers, one of them, Danny Gardella, sued in the federal courts. When a Circuit Court of Appeals found for Gardella, the threat to baseball’s reserve clause was serious enough to persuade the owners to settle the case out of court. Subsequently, congressional investigations into baseball’s monopolistic practices also threatened the reserve clause, but no legislation followed the work of Congressman Emmanuel Celler’s probings.

Nevertheless, by creating the Major League Players Association and by linking pension payments to national television revenues, the militant players of this era laid the groundwork for massive salary breakthroughs to be reaped by a future generation of players. But for now the players had to content themselves with salaries which at least topped those of their forebears. During the 1950s, 75 percent of player salaries ranged from $10,000 to $25,000 a season. However, three superstars , Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Stan Musial , received annual salaries of $100,000 a season.

But if organized players showed signs of gaining wealth and power, the powers of baseball commissioners were waning. Indeed, when Landis died in 1944, it soon became apparent that the owners would not abide another powerful commissioner. Thus Landis’ successor, Commissioner Chandler, was denied a second term in 1951. For his part, Chandler blamed his assertive stance on such issues as his support of the pension plan, his opposition to Sunday night ball, and his defense of the rights of minor league players, for his ouster. Be that as it may, the flamboyant Chandler was replaced by Ford Frick, who served for fourteen years as the compliant tool of the owners.

At this time the changing ranks of club owners included a new breed of wealthy businessmen who deferred to powerful owners like Walter O’Malley of the Dodgers and Dan Topping of the Yankees. By wielding influence on the owners’ powerful executive committee, their powers far exceeded those of the commissioner.

Among the playing rule changes of this era, the 1950 recodification narrowed the strike zone and a 1954 rule permanently restored the sacrifice fly rule. Of important future significance was a 1959 rule which reacted to the designs of new, publicly financed ballparks in Milwaukee, Kansas City, Baltimore, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and which anticipated the coming new park-building boom. This rule ordained that parks constructed after 1959 must conform to minimum distances of 325 feet from home plate to the right and left field fences.

Joe Page, by Hy Peskin

Joe Page, by Hy Peskin

On the playing fields, improved fielding was attributed to bigger, more flexible gloves. And the homer production of this era owed much to players wielding lighter, more tapered bats, to the required use of protective headgear, and to the frequent replacement of balls. A team now used as many as 12,000 balls in a season. Offensively such changes resulted in unprecedented homer barrages, with NL hitters averaging more than 1,100 homers a season during the 1950s. What’s more, NL hitters regularly also bested AL batters in batting averages and stolen bases. Credit for this turnabout went to the greater number of black stars in the NL. Robinson became the first black star to win a Most Valuable Player Award, and after Robinson received that award in 1949, seven black stars, including sluggers Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks, and Willie Mays, won NL MVP awards in the 1950s. But the most celebrated stars of this era were DiMaggio, Williams, and Musial. DiMaggio retired after the 1951 season with a .325 lifetime batting average, while Williams and Musial starred throughout this era. When he retired in 1960, Williams, despite years lost for service in World War Two and the Korean conflict, owned a .344 lifetime batting average, six AL batting titles, 521 homers, and a pair of Triple Crowns. And when Musial retired in 1963, his credentials showed a .331 lifetime batting average, seven NL batting titles, and an NL record of 3,630 lifetime hits, evenly divided at home and on the road.

For the battered pitchers these postwar years were nightmarish. ERAs hovered around 4.00 in the NL and just below that seasonal mark in the AL. To cope with their batting tormentors, pitchers now relied more upon sliders and some clandestinely employed illegal deliveries like the spitball. Managers responded by deploying relief pitchers. At this time “short relievers,” capable of dousing late-inning rallies, now became valued specialists whose exploits were measured by saves and honored late in the era with annual “Fireman of the Year” awards. Among the best of this era’s “firemen” were Joe Page of the Yankees, Jim Konstanty of the Phillies, Roy Face of the Pirates, and the much-traveled Hoyt Wilhelm. Indeed, the knuckleball-throwing Wilhelm lasted twenty-one seasons. When he retired in 1972, he had appeared in 1,070 games, with 227 saves and a lifetime ERA of 2.52. But able starters were by no means extinct at this time.

Among the very best, lefty Warren Spahn of the Braves went on to win 20 or more games in a dozen seasons, and retired with 363 lifetime victories. To honor the outstanding pitchers of each season, in 1956 the annual Cy Young Award was instituted. The first recipient was Don Newcombe, the black pitching ace of the Brooklyn Dodgers. From 1956 through the 1966 season, only one award was given annually in the major leagues, but thereafter the best pitcher of the year in each league received a Cy Young Award.

Baseball’s Postwar Campaigns: AL, 1946-1960

In this era the AL lagged behind the NL both in offensive performance and in annual attendance. For this reversal of fortunes, some observers faulted AL owners for taking a back seat to their NL counterparts in the signing of black stars and in the occupation of such choice sites as Los Angeles and San Francisco. But the AL’s biggest problem was the overwhelming superiority of its own New York Yankees. By winning eleven of fifteen postwar-era campaigns, the Yankees made a mockery of the concept of competitive balance. Moreover, by their perennial dominance, the New Yorkers attracted the lion’s share of AL attendance, to the detriment of their overmatched competitors. Indeed, such was the magnitude of the Yankee oppression that after 1948 no AL team but the Yankees won a World Series until 1966. For their part, the Yankees won nine world titles, thus singlehandedly maintaining the AL’s domination in the annual test of strength between the two majors. Nevertheless, by the end of this era, the growing strength of the NL was evidenced by their team’s victories in three of the last five World Series encounters and by victories in nine of this era’s seventeen All Star Games.

But when each of the first three AL postwar campaigns produced a new champion, prospects for competitive balance looked bright. In 1946 the Boston Red Sox won their first AL pennant since 1918 to help foster this illusion. League-leading hitting by Red Sox batters, fronted by Ted Williams’ .342-38-123 stickwork, and 45 wins posted by pitchers Dave “Boo” Ferriss and Tex Hughson, boosted the Red Sox to 104 wins and a 12-game romp over the defending Detroit Tigers.

But after the Red Sox lost a hard-fought seven-game World Series battle at the hands of the Cardinals, another two decades would pass by before this club won another AL pennant.

As the Red Sox faded to third in 1947, the Yankees rebounded from a third-place finish to notch their first postwar pennant. DiMaggio batted .315 with 20 homers and 97 RBI to lead the team’s .271 batting assault. Besides leading the league in homers and batting, the Yankees also fielded the league’s best pitching staff; Allie Reynolds, newly acquired from Cleveland, won 19, and rookies Specs Shea and Vic Raschi combined for 21 wins. Reliever Joe Page won 14 and tied for league leadership in saves with 17. It was enough to carry manager Bucky Harris’ charges to a 12-game win over the second-place Tigers. Then, for a second time, the Yankees downed the Dodgers in World Series play.

Larry Doby, 1950

Larry Doby, 1950

The following year the Yankees, Red Sox, and Indians hooked up in a furious pennant struggle that ended in a tie between the Indians and Red Sox. To settle this first seasonal deadlock in AL history, the two teams played a sudden-death playoff game in Boston. By downing the Red Sox 8-3 in that game, Cleveland won the 1948 AL pennant and went on to beat the Boston Braves in the World Series.

League-leading team batting (.282), homer production (155), pitching, and fielding powered the Indians, whose home attendance of more than 2 million fans was unsurpassed in this era. Player-manager Lou Boudreau led the Indians with a .355 average; outfielder Dale Mitchell batted .336, and outfielder Larry Doby, who joined the team in 1947 as the first black player in the AL, hit .301. Pitchers Bob Lemon, Bob Feller, and Gene Bearden accounted for 59 victories, but the pitching staff got an important boost when owner Bill Veeck acquired the legendary and aging Satchel Paige from the black majors. Paige contributed 6 victories and a save to the team’s winning cause.

At this point the resurging Yankees dashed all hopes of continuing the league’s pattern of competitive balance. Regrouping under manager Casey Stengel, the Yankees snatched ten of the next twelve AL pennants, including a record five in a row beginning with the 1949 conquest. In the torrid 1949 race, the injury-ridden Yankees edged the Red Sox by a game. Needing a pair of victories to overtake and conquer the Red Sox, the Yankees hosted the Bostonians in the closing days of the campaign and won both games. Key performances included relief pitcher Joe Page’s 27 saves and 13 victories, and a .346-14-67 offensive effort by the ailing DiMaggio. Though he was sidelined much of the season by injuries, the Yankee Clipper’s heroics helped to offset Williams’ tremendous performance for the Red Sox. Williams’ .343 batting average was barely edged out by George Kell, and his 43 homers and 159 RBI led all rivals.

Over the next three seasons, the Yankees prevailed in three close races, edging the Tigers by 3 games in 1950, the Indians by 5 games in 1951, and the Indians by 2 games in 1952. Nor did they stop there. In winning for a fifth straight season in 1953, the Yankees enjoyed their only comfortable edge in their record skein as they downed the perennial bridesmaid Indians by 8.5; games. In winning a record five consecutive AL pennants, the great Yankee pitching triumvirate of Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and lefty Ed Lopat combined for a sparkling 255-117 won-loss record. That victory total included two no-hitters pitched by Reynolds in the 1951 campaign. In 1950, future Hall of Famer Ed “Whitey” Ford joined the Yankee staff; Ford’s 9-1 pitching performance was a decisive factor in the team’s winning stretch drive of that season. Offensively, manager Stengel relied on star performers like DiMaggio and catcher Yogi Berra and successfully platooned such able hitters as outfielders Hank Bauer and Gene Woodling.

Joe DiMaggio

Joe DiMaggio

When age tolled on the great DiMaggio, who retired after the 1951 season, or when the Korean War military draft snagged young stars like Ford and Billy Martin, general manager George Weiss summoned rising stars like Mickey Mantle and Gil McDougald from the Yankee farm system. Shrewd trades by Weiss also landed key performers like Johnny Mize, pitcher Ed Lopat, and relief pitcher Bob Kuzava. In World Series action, the relentless Yankees captured five classics in a row. Three times, in 1949, 1952, and 1953, they toppled the Dodgers. In 1950 they swept the “Whiz Kid” Phillies, and in 1951 they defeated the “Miracle Giants” in six games. In two of these encounters, Kuzava’s relief pitching was a deciding factor. And at the pinnacle of their success in 1953, the Yankees could boast of having won their last seven World Series encounters.

The following year, the Yankees won 103 games, their best record under Stengel’s leadership, but manager Al Lopez’s Cleveland Indians won the 1954 pennant with an AL record-breaking 111 victories. Second baseman Bobby Avila’s .341 hitting won the league’s batting title, and Larry Doby’s league-leading 32 homers and 126 RBI headed the team’s league-leading 156 homer barrage. With a 2.78 ERA the team’s pitching staff was unmatched; the starting trio of Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, and Mike Garcia accounted for 65 victories. But like the 1906 Chicago Cubs, who lost the World Series of that year after winning a major league record 116 games, the Indians fell to the New York Giants, who swept to victory in the 1954 World Series.

The 1954 victory was also Cleveland’s last AL pennant to this day. What followed was another assertion of Yankee tyranny. Regrouping in 1955, the Yankees went on to win a string of four consecutive AL pennants. By this time most of the heroes of the 1949-1953 Yankees were gone. To replace the great pitching trio of Reynolds, Raschi, and Lopat, Weiss traded for pitchers Bob Turley and Don Larsen and summoned catcher Elston Howard, the first black player to wear a Yankee uniform, from the farm system. In a close race the 1955 Yankees edged the Indians by 3 games, with Berra winning his third MVP award for his latest offensive performance. Berra batted a workmanlike .272, and his 27 homers drove in 108 runs. Outfielder Mantle batted .306, and his league-leading 37 homers were accompanied by 99 RBI. And Ford’s 18 wins led AL hurlers. But in World Series action the Dodgers finally turned on their Yankee tormentors as they won the fall classic in seven games.

In 1956 Mantle’s Triple Crown performance (.353-52-130) and Ford’s 19 pitching victories paced the Yankees to an 8-game victory over the Indians. In the aftermath of that victory, the Yankees faced the Brooklyn Dodgers for a seventh and last subway World Series. The next time these two rivals met, the breakaway Dodgers would represent the West Coast city of Los Angeles. What followed was an epochal struggle which the Yankees won in seven games. But Larsen’s brilliant pitching in the fifth game stamped this World Series with the mark of immortality. With the Series tied at two games, Larsen pitched a perfect game; it was the first no-hitter in World Series history and the first perfect game pitched in the majors in over thirty years. But the stubborn Dodgers carried the Series another two games before succumbing.

Over the next two seasons the Yankees won two more AL pennants. In 1957 the Bronx Bombers wielded league-leading batting and pitching to down the runner-up White Sox by 8 games. Mantle’s .365-34-94 performance won the switch-hitting superstar another MVP Award. Rookie shortstop Tony Kubek’s .297 hitting won him Rookie of the Year honors, and rookie Tom Sturdivant’s 16 victories led the pitching staff. Nevertheless, the 1957 Yankees lost the World Series in seven games to the transplanted Milwaukee Braves. But the 1958 Yankees avenged that loss. Winning easily by 10 games over manager Al Lopez’s White Sox, the Yankees led the AL in team batting, homers, and pitching. Turley’s 21 victories led AL pitchers and Mantle’s 42 homers led the league’s sluggers. Then, in a rematch with the Braves, the gritty Yankees overcame a three-games-to-one deficit to win the 1958 World Series in seven games.

1959 Chicago White Sox pennants

1959 Chicago White Sox pennants

The following year slumping performances by Mantle and Turley contributed to the Yankee’s third-place finish. The collapse enabled perennial runner-up manager Al Lopez to drive his Chicago White Sox to a 5-game victory over the Indians. The White Sox batted a weak .250, but they led the league in stolen bases, fielding, and pitching. Veteran pitcher Early Wynn, a future Hall of Famer, notched 22 victories in his last great seasonal performance, and relievers Turk Lown and Gerry Staley fronted the league’s best bullpen crew. But the White Sox lost the 1959 World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

That fall the decision by AL owners to expand the league to ten teams in 1961 sounded the knell for the league’s hallowed eight-club format and 154-game seasons. As the postwar era ended with the 1960 campaign, the Yankees rebounded to win by 8 games over the Baltimore Orioles. Although soon to pass from the Yankee scene, general manager Weiss pulled off another canny deal by obtaining outfielder Roger Maris from the Kansas City Athletics. With Maris leading the league in RBI, and Mantle in homers, the well-armed Yankees faced the Pirates in the 1960 World Series. Yet despite a World Series record .338 team batting average, which produced three crushing victories over the Pirates, the Yankees lost the classic in seven games. Hard after this defeat, Weiss and manager Stengel were forced into retirement, although the pair soon surfaced in their familiar capacities with the NL’s expansion New York Mets.

Meanwhile, with the passing of the 1960 season, the AL prepared to enter the dawning era of expansion.

Part 8 tomorrow.


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