David Voigt’s History of Baseball, Part 8
This is the eighth 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.
Postwar Campaigns: NL, 1946-1960
In this era much of the credit for boosting NL stock above that of the AL belonged to Branch Rickey and Walter O’Malley of the Dodgers. Dodger general manager Rickey built the superb farm system which fueled the Dodger dynasty, and it was Rickey too who successfully pulled off the coup of baseball’s racial integration. When Jackie Robinson made his successful debut in 1947, Rickey enjoyed a temporary corner on the market of black players whom his scouts recruited from the fading black majors and from Latin American countries. Moreover, when Dodger owner O’Malley engineered Rickey’s ouster in 1950, the aging genius joined the Pirates and laid the groundwork for that forlorn team’s rise to power. And as a final touch, it was Rickey’s presence among the would-be promoters of the rival Continental League movement in 1959 that goaded major league owners into expanding their circuit in order to deflect the threat.
But the 1957 West Coast move of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants was O’Malley’s doing. Indeed, these moves stirred the Continental League movement. And it was O’Malley, the most powerful and influential owner of this era, who persuaded his colleagues to embark upon the expansionist course. Thus while Rickey and O’Malley plied different courses of action, these embattled rivals together forced major league baseball to adapt to a changing American society. But the rise of the Brooklyn Dodger dynasty in the NL of this era was mostly Rickey’s handiwork. And an effective piece of domination it was. Of the sixteen NL campaigns of this era, the Dodgers won seven and narrowly missed winning three others. And yet the Dodgers, who won only two world titles, were upstaged by an even greater Yankee dynasty. Nevertheless, the Dodgers lorded over other NL teams. In these years the Braves won three pennants and a World Series; the Giants won two pennants and a World Series; and the four one-time winners-the Cardinals, Phillies, Pirates, and Reds- accounted for two World Series victories. At least it made the NL a better- balanced circuit than the Yankee-dominated AL of this era.
As the NL’s postwar era unfolded, the outcomes of the first three campaigns produced an illusion of competitive balance similar to that in the AL. Here too the first three races produced three different winners. The 1946 race pitted the Dodgers against a Cardinal team which Rickey had assembled in his previous tenure at St. Louis. In a donnybrook race, the two teams finished the season in a dead heat.
To settle the issue of this first true deadlock in NL history, a best-of-three playoff series was set, which the Cardinals won by sweeping the first two games. Overall, the Cardinals used league- leading pitching, batting, and fielding to assert their superiority. Pitcher Howie Pollet’s league-leading 21 victories and 2.01 ERA led the pitching staff. And a pair of outfielders powered the Cardinal offensive: Musial’s .365 hitting won the league batting crown, and Enos Slaughter’s 130 RBI topped all others. In the World Series the Cardinals toppled the favored Red Sox in seven games.
As it turned out, St. Louis fans would have to wait another seventeen seasons before a Cardinal team again scaled the heights.
Meanwhile in 1947 attention of fans everywhere riveted upon the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson’s debut as the first black player of the century to play in the majors. When Commissioner Chandler suspended manager Leo Durocher, Burt Shotton took over the reins of the club and stationed Robinson at first base. Advised by Rickey to turn his cheek against racist slurs, which came mostly from the Cardinals and Phillies, Robinson responded stoically and successfully. His .297 batting that year won him NL Rookie of the Year honors, and his example opened the way for more black players to follow. With outfielders Pete Reiser and Dixie Walker topping the .300 mark at bat, and with pitcher Ralph Branca winning a league-leading 21 games and bullpen master Hugh Casey saving a league-leading 18 games, the Dodgers beat the Cardinals by 5 games. That year the Dodgers also had the satisfaction of seeing their hated rivals, the Giants, finish in fourth place despite a record 221-homer barrage. But in World Series play, another local rival, the Yankees, downed the Dodgers in a grueling seven-game struggle.
In 1948 the Dodgers slipped to third as ex-Cardinal manager Billy Southworth drove the Boston Braves to a 6.5;-game victory over his former Redbird team. It was Boston’s first NL pennant since 1914 and its last as a Beantown franchise. Boston’s pitching trio of Johnny Sain (whose 24 victories led all NL hurlers), Warren Spahn, and Vern Bickford fronted the NL’s most effective staff. And the team’s league-leading .275 batting attack was fronted by outfielder Tommy Holmes (.325), and by infielders Al Dark (.322) and Bob Elliott (100 RBI). But when the Braves met the Indians in World Series play, the Indians dispatched the Braves in five games. Landing the 1948 NL pennant was the last gasp of this faltering franchise, which five years later would move to more profitable pastures in Milwaukee.
As the Braves faded in 1949, the Dodgers asserted their dynastic power.
Over the next five seasons the Dodgers won three NL races and lost two others by heartbreakingly narrow margins. In 1949 Robinson’s league-leading .342 hitting helped the Dodgers eke a 1-game victory over the Cardinals. Joining the MVP Award-winning Robinson were black stars Roy Campanella, who batted .287, and pitcher Don Newcombe, whose 17 wins paced the staff. Outfielder Carl Furillo batted .322 and outfielder Duke Snider and first baseman Gil Hodges, who combined for 46 homers and 207 RBI, paced the team’s league- leading homer assault. But then, for a third time, the Dodgers bowed to the Yankees in the World Series.
In 1950 the Dodger “Boys of Summer” lost by 2 games to the Phillies’ “Whiz Kids.” Phillies’ ace Robin Roberts averted a possible deadlock by outpitching Newcombe on the final day of the season. With youngsters Roberts and Curt Simmons combining for 37 wins, and relief ace Jim Konstanty winning 16 and saving 22 for a Most Valuable Player Award performance, the Phillies boasted the league’s best pitching. At the plate the team was powered by Del Ennis, who drove in a league-leading 126 runs, and by young Richie Ashburn, who batted .303. But late in the season the team lost pitcher Simmons to the Korean War military draft. His absence tolled on the Phillies, who were swept by the Yankees in the World Series.
Over the winter of 1950, Dodger owner O’Malley forced Rickey out of his general manager post, but Rickey’s departure spared him the agonies of the Dodgers’ 1951 season. As the fateful campaign unfolded, the Dodgers soared to a 13.5;-game lead in early August. But in the September stretch, the “miracle” New York Giants rose to deadlock the Dodgers at the season’s end. In the unforgettable playoff series between these traditional rivals, the Giants rallied to win the decisive game on outfielder Bobby Thomson’s dramatic ninth-inning homer. In baseball folklore, Thomson’s winning blast is immortalized as “the shot heard round the world.” Indeed, it was a miraculous season as the Dodgers, paced by the hitting of Robinson and Campanella, led Giant hitters by 15 points. But black stars Monte Irvin (who batted .312-24-121) and rookie Willie Mays (who hit 20 homers) powered the Giants, who also got a .303 performance from team leader Al Dark and a .293 performance with 32 homers from the heroic Thomson. Moreover, Giant pitchers Sal Maglie and Larry Jansen each won 23 games, to pace the league-leading Giant pitching staff. However, the Giants’ celebrated “Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff” was tarnished by defeat at the hands of the Yankees in the 1951 World Series.
But at this point the snakebit Dodgers picked themselves up and went on to capture the next two NL pennants. In 1952 they outlasted the Giants by 4.5; games, and the following year they coasted to a 13-game win over the transplanted Milwaukee Braves.
In the hard-fought 1952 race the Giants suffered the loss of Mays to the military draft. It was a crushing blow for the Giants, but Dodger crushers led the league in homers. Snider, Hodges, and Campanella combined for 75, and this trio drove in nearly 300 runs. The pitching was shaky. Able starters Preacher Roe, Carl Erskine, and Billy Loes won 38 games, but reliever Joe Black made the difference. With a 15-4 record and 15 saves, Black enjoyed the best season of his brief career. The following year, Erskine picked up after the slumping Black and posted a 20-6 record to lead the staff. Behind him the mature Boys of Summer beat a hefty tattoo, leading the league in batting (.285) and homers (208). Rebounding from his previous year’s slump, Furillo batted .344 to lead the league, and Campanella’s .312-41-142 record won him another MVP Award. It added up to a two-year domination of the NL, but in World Series play the Dodger champs twice fell to their Yankee nemesis; in 1952 they lost the Series in seven games, and the following year they fell in six games.
Shortly after the 1953 Series loss, O’Malley picked the little-known Walter Alston to skipper the club. Although Alston would manage the team for twenty-three seasons, a longer skein than any of his managerial colleagues, his 1954 debut was inauspicious. That year the Dodgers lost to the Giants by 5 games. Offensively the Dodgers outbatted and outscored their rivals, but the Giants matched the Dodgers in homer production and fielded the league’s best pitching staff. Returning from military service, Willie Mays led the league in hitting with a .345 mark, and his 41 homers and 110 RBI firmly established his credentials as one of the leading stars of the decade.
That year also saw the ex-bonus baby Johnny Antonelli come into his own as a pitcher. His 21 victories and 2.30 ERA paced the Giant pitching staff, which was the league’s best. But the Giants were cast as underdogs in the World Series against the powerful Cleveland Indians. However, a sensational fielding play by outfielder Mays doused a promising Indian rally in the first game, and key pinch hits by “Dusty” Rhodes in each of the first three games triggered winning rallies. The result was a four-game sweep of the Indians.
But the Giant victory was also the team’s last as longtime residents of New York. Over the next two seasons, the battle-wise Dodgers rebounded to win another pair of back-to-back pennants. Each year it was the Braves who finished second; in 1955 the Dodgers lapped the Milwaukee Braves by 13.5; games, and the following year they held off their rivals by a single game. In 1955 outfielders Snider (.309-42- 136) and Furillo (.314), and catcher Campanella (.318-32-107) paced the offensive. For his heroics, Campanella won his third MVP Award of the decade. Newcombe’s 20 wins headed the dominant pitching staff. In the aftermath of the easy victory, the Dodgers also managed to defeat their Yankee tormentors for the first time as they won the 1955 World Series in seven games.
For the team’s fanatical followers, this was to be the first and only world title they would see flying over Ebbets Field. In 1956 the Dodgers repeated, but only by the narrowest margin. League-leading performances by pitcher Newcombe (27 wins) and Clem Labine (19 saves) and a league-leading 43 homers by Duke Snider were needed to atone for the team’s .258 batting. And in the aftermath of the grueling 1956 campaign, New York-area fans witnessed the last subway World Series matchup between the Yankees and Dodgers. Although the Dodgers won the first two games, they lost the Series in seven games. What’s more, this Dodger team became the victims of the first no-hit game in World Series history when Yankee hurler Don Larsen hurled his perfect game in the fifth game.
As owner O’Malley laid plans for his team’s postseasonal move to Los Angeles in 1957, his Dodger team fell to third. The following season, the team’s first in Los Angeles, they fell further, to seventh place. In these years there was no stopping the well-balanced Milwaukee Braves. As the first breakaway franchise to win a major league pennant in this century, the 1957 Braves attracted over 2 million home fans, who saw the team down the Cardinals by 8 games. Outfielder Hank Aaron’s 44 homers and 132 RBI led the league’s hitters, and veteran pitcher Spahn’s 21 wins led the league’s pitchers. Third baseman Ed Mathews supplied additional power with 32 homers and 94 RBI, and starting pitchers Lew Burdette and Bob Buhl combined for 35 victories. Then in World Series play the underdog Braves treated their fans to Milwaukee’s only world title to this date by downing the Yankees in seven games. The following year the Braves repeated, scoring an 8-game victory over the rising Pirates. Spahn’s 22 victories again led NL hurlers and Burdette added 20 victories. At the bat Aaron showed the way with .326-30-95 hitting, with Mathews adding 31 homers and first baseman Frank Torre batting .309. But in a World Series rematch with the Yankees, the Braves blew a commanding three-games-to-one lead, and the avenging Yankees won in seven games. To the Yankees went the honor of becoming the first team in over thirty years to rebound from such a deficit in World Series play.
As the decade of the fifties drew to a close, the transplanted Los Angeles Dodgers recovered from their seventh-place finish of 1958 to end the Braves’ two-year reign. In a brilliant September stretch drive, the Dodgers won thirteen of fourteen games to deadlock the Braves at the end of the campaign. And for a change the Dodgers won the playoff series by sweeping the Braves in two games to claim the NL pennant. The Braves outhit, outhomered, and outpitched the Dodgers, but the Dodgers led the league in fielding, and outfielders Duke Snider (.308-23-88) and Wally Moon (.302-19-74) supplied power enough, and the bullpen saved 26 games. In World Series action against the White Sox, the Dodgers won in six games. The Dodgers’ victories included a sweep of its three home games, which were played at the Los Angeles Coliseum, where a record 270,000 fans jammed the converted football stadium to witness the triumphs.
But the Dodgers fell to fourth in 1960 as the Pirates, a team constructed by Rickey, beat the Braves by 7 games. Manager Danny Murtaugh’s “Bucs” batted a league-leading .276; shortstop Dick Groat’s .325 batting led the NL hitters, and future Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente batted .314. Vern Law’s 20 pitching victories led the starters, but reliever Roy Face was the bellwether of the staff. Face appeared in a league-leading 68 games, won 10 and saved 24, and posted an ERA of 2.90. In World Series play the Pirates were thrice battered by the Yankees, but they won the 1960 classic in seven games. Second baseman Bill Mazeroski’s tenth-inning homer in the finale at Forbes Field secured Pittsburgh’s first world title in thirty-five years.
The Expansion Era: 1961-1968
In this turbulent decade of American history, major league baseball’s tradition-breaking expansion ranked as one of the lesser social disturbances. A time of massive social unrest, the strident sixties saw most established institutions targeted by would-be reformers. Sparking the fires of unrest were the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, the great black civil rights leader. In the wake of these tragedies came storms of protest demonstrations supportive of increased freedom for individuals and for oppressed minorities. But as the decade wore on, the major focus of the protests centered on the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
This country’s latest struggle against the spread of international Communism began in the mid-1960s and lasted until 1973. An unpopular war, the Vietnam involvement consumed over 50,000 American soldiers’ lives, polarized the nation into factions embattled over the morality of the war, and ended in a political and military defeat. Moreover, the violent protests against the war spilled over into other social institutions. Thus demonstrations and protest movements by black Americans aimed at securing civil rights and economic betterment erupted at times into urban riots. And among other discontented minorities, many women organized into protest movements and demanded economic and political equality. At this time the widespread consciousness-raising appealed to many Americans, who supported such slogans as “Freedom Now” and affected new lifestyles in social relations, speech, clothing, and hairstyles. And by the end of the decade such supporters included numbers of major league ballplayers, who sought relief from long-established paternal controls imposed upon them by baseball law and custom.
Meanwhile, other forces of change were reshaping the nation and its national game. In this decade the nation’s population soared past 200 million, with nearly half that number concentrated in some thirteen sprawling urban regions. Thus even as major league owners embarked upon an initial expansion course in 1960-1961, these new demographics portended further expansion of the two leagues along with the possible relocation of teams now situated in deteriorating urban areas.
Nevertheless, amidst all the disturbing changes the nation’s economy continued to prosper. Although they were sapped by continuing inflation, the average wages of all workers rose to an annual figure of $8,000 by the end of the decade. As a result, annual spending for recreation rose to $18 billion, with television viewing continuing to reign as the most popular leisure outlet.
The continuing popularity of televised sports programs, now shown in color with ever-improving visual effects, was a boon to professional sports. While baseball profited from this popular medium, so did half a dozen rival sports. Among these, professional football expanded rapidly under the impetus of hefty national TV contracts which clubowners shared equally. By occupying most of the major urban regions, pro football now threatened baseball’s pre-eminent position among the nation’s favorite team sports. Indeed, in 1967 professional football’s Super Bowl outscored the World Series in television ratings.
In stark contrast to pro football’s bold expansionist course was major league baseball’s limited expansion movement of these years.
Baseball’s initial expansion took place over the years 1961-1962 and was primarily an attempt to undercut the threat of the rival Continental League. Under this expansion, each major league added two teams and upped its seasonal playing schedule to 162. A significant departure, the addition of eight more games to playing schedules would drastically affect statistical comparisons of seasonal performances. Moreover, each new franchise owner paid $2 million, which was divided among the eight established clubs of each major league, and also participated in an expansion draft, which was used to enable the owners to stock their teams with players. But since established teams were permitted to withhold their best twenty-five players from the pool of eligibles, the new owners were forced to purchase unprotected cullings.
Under these procedures, the AL took the first expansion plunge in 1961. That year the AL added the Los Angeles Angels and a new edition of the Washington Senators. At the request of owner Cal Griffith, the original Senators relocated to Bloomington, Minnesota, where they became the Minnesota Twins. The furor evoked by that breakaway move forced AL owners to admit the new Washington Senators. It was an unwise move, as the franchise languished under weak ownership and poor attendance. In 1972 the Senators moved to Arlington, Texas, where they fared better as the Texas Rangers. Nor did the AL Angels fare well in Los Angeles, where they were upstaged by O’Malley’s Dodgers. However, this well-financed team found prosperity when it was moved to nearby Anaheim in 1965.
For its part the NL did better under its 1962 expansion. That year the NL occupied Houston, where the Colt .45s occupied temporary quarters while awaiting the construction of their new all-weather indoor Astrodome Stadium. When the Astrodome opened in 1965, this expansion team took on a new identity as the Houston Astros. Meanwhile, as part of a deal which allowed the AL to occupy the Los Angeles territory, the NL reoccupied the New York area by admitting the New York Mets. Although the Mets lost 120 games in their first season of play, the team was generously supported by suffering fans, who rejoiced in the return of NL baseball to the Gotham area. After playing its first two seasons in the old Polo Grounds, the Mets moved into newly built Shea Stadium, located in Queens.
Thus did the major leagues move into their first phase of expansion. But each passing season underscored the inadequacy of the ten-club format. Like the twelve-club NL of the 1890s, the ten-club array of the 1960s produced too many losers each season. Annual attendance was disappointing. By 1968, overall major league attendance topped that of 1960 by only 3 million admissions. And added to the problems of this phase of expansion were two controversial franchise shifts. In 1966 the NL’s Milwaukee Braves abandoned that city for Atlanta, and in 1968 the AL’s Athletics departed Kansas City for Oakland, California, where they poached upon the territory of the NL Giants. Each of these breakaway moves aroused protests from fans of the abandoned sites, and each prompted lawsuits which affected future expansion moves.
Meanwhile major league teams continued to face a growing shortage of playing talent. At most schools and colleges, where baseball now ranked as a minor sport, scouts complained that major sports like football and basketball were getting the best athletes. With the minor leagues shrinking alarmingly, major league owners in 1962 adopted a remedial Player Development Plan. Under this scheme, the minor leagues were reclassified, and each major league team agreed to subsidize at least five minor league teams. And to equitably distribute the limited supply of young prospects, the majors in 1965 adopted the radical plan of an annual free agent (rookie) draft. Under its provisions, each major league club in turn picked from a nationwide pool of high school and college prospects. Thus except for prospecting in foreign countries, the annual rookie draft ended the long and colorful era of free-enterprise scouting in America.
Along with the prevailing national mood of liberation for oppressed groups, the chronic player shortage helped to kindle reformist sentiments among this generation of major league players. More pampered and better trained, doctored, and defended than past generations of players, players of this decade demanded improved salaries, pensions, and working conditions. In these years player disdain for traditional authority was rife, and this was candidly spelled out in revelatory books, including bestsellers authored by pitchers Jim Brosnan and Jim Bouton. And in a precedent-shattering move in 1966, Dodger pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, acting on the advice of a lawyer, staged a successful joint holdout for hefty salary increases. That same year, player representatives strengthened the moribund Major League Players Association (MLPA) by successfully engineering the election of Marvin Miller, an experienced labor negotiator, to serve as the Association’s executive director. Landing Miller proved to be a master stroke for the players’ cause. By rallying the players and by invoking federal labor relations laws, Miller forced the clubowners to recognize and to bargain collectively with the MLPA. During his seventeen years as executive director, Miller negotiated five Basic Agreements, or labor contracts, which wrung from owners unprecedented concessions and benefits.
The Basic Agreements of 1966 and 1969 increased pension benefits and raised minimum salaries along with other gains. Thus by 1970 average player salaries, which totaled $17,000 in 1965, rose to $25,000. At the same time some twenty players were being paid annual salaries of at least $100,000 a year. But Miller’s greatest coup of this decade was to win the solid support of major league players behind the MLPA. And by the end of this decade, major league umpires also won recognition and bargaining rights under their newly formed Major League Umpires Association.
Among the deserving recipients of increasing salaries were the growing numbers of black players in major league uniforms. By the end of the sixties, well over a hundred black Americans and scores of Latin Americans were playing in the majors. What’s more, their offensive production made a reality of the prevailing Afro-American protest slogan that “black is beautiful.” In these years black hitters dominated major league offenses. In the NL, black stars won seven homer titles, as many MVP awards, and six batting titles. And in the AL, blacks won three batting titles and three MVP awards. Among the reigning black superstars, Willie Mays of the Giants was voted Player of the Decade by The Sporting News; indeed, Mays posted a remote threat to overtake Ruth’s lifetime homer mark. At the end of his career, Mays had powered 660 homers. But by the end of the decade more observers were touting Braves’ outfielder Hank Aaron’s chances of bettering Ruth. Meanwhile at this time, Frank Robinson became the first player to win an MVP Award in each major league, and outfielder Roberto Clemente of the Pirates won three NL batting titles.
Sparkling alongside such stars were white prodigies like Roger Maris, who blasted 61 homers in 162 games in 1961, to set a new seasonal mark for homer production; or Carl Yastrzemski, who won an AL Triple Crown; or Pete Rose, who broke in as a rookie in 1963 with the Cincinnati Reds and would later break Cobb’s lifetime total of 4,191 hits.
Indeed, such offensive performances occurred despite the hitting famine caused by the dominant pitchers of this era. Abetting the hitting famine was the rule that expanded the strike zone for the 1963 season. But improved coaching techniques, improved gloves and defensive strategies, and, above all, the astute deployment of specialized relief pitchers tolled on hitters of the era. As a result, pitching ERAs averaged 3.30 in this era, and in 1968, the notorious “year of the pitcher,” hurlers combined to produce an overall ERA of 2.98, which was the lowest earned run mark in nearly forty years. Not surprisingly, the impact of such virtuosity on hitting was traumatic. In 1967 major league hitters averaged .242, and in 1968 batting bottomed to a nadir of .237. It was that puny mark which prompted remedial action by the rules committee, whose members voted to narrow strike zones and lower pitching mounds for the 1969 season. Such medicine broke the hitting famine, but while it lasted star pitchers made the most of their skills. In 1968 Cardinal ace Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA and fanned a record 35 batters in three appearances in the World Series that fall. That same year, Denny McLain of the Tigers became the first hurler in over thirty years to break the 30-game victory barrier with a 31-6 performance; and Don Drysdale of the Dodgers posted a record 58 consecutive shutout innings. Moreover, in this decade fifteen pitchers would go on to join the ranks of the twenty all-time strikeout leaders.
However, many observers blamed the dominant pitching for lowering seasonal attendance marks in these years. From a record of 15 million in 1966, NL attendance slipped to 11.7 million in 1968, “the year of the pitcher.” Nevertheless, annual NL attendance consistently bettered that of the AL; overall NL attendance of this era topped that of the AL by 16 million admissions. But a major factor accounting for NL attendance strength was the greater number of new ballparks in the senior circuit. In this decade, seven of the ten newly constructed parks were occupied by NL teams. Of these, nine were publicly financed, but the privately financed Dodger Stadium now attracted the lion’s share of NL attendance.
But rising television revenues dispelled some of the anxieties over falling attendance. By 1967, revenues from local and national television contracts rose to $25 million, with no sign of abating. On the other hand, by urging more night games, by raising the value of major league franchises, by making celebrities of players, and by the presence of television entrepreneurs in the ranks of club owners, television was reshaping the game. To some alarmists, television’s influence was menacing. In 1964 the sale of the Yankees to the powerful CBS Network fed fears of excessive television influence. However, such fears were allayed by the declining fortunes of the Yankees under CBS management and by the 1973 resale of the team to private interests.
Part 9 tomorrow.