by Bill Gutman
Welcome to THE OLD SPORTS BLOG. I chose the name because it can have a double meaning for readers. The blog will be mainly about old sports or, more accurately, the older days of sports. Old Sports can also stand for fans who have been following the games for years, maybe decades, and often find themselves comparing what they saw over the years with the games of today. I guess it’s going to be a little of both and, hopefully, something that can be enjoyed by younger sports fans as well.
Besides being a lifelong sports fan beginning in the early 1950s, I’ll be drawing from personal recollections as a sports writer, which began when I was promoted from reporter to Sports Editor of the Greenwich Time, a daily newspaper in Connecticut, in 1968. From there I went over to the freelance side. My first book was a biography of Pistol Pete Maravich in 1970, which took him right through his rookie year in the NBA. My most recent is a young adult bio of Aaron Judge, due out the first week in April. In between there are more than 200 books for children and adults, the majority of them involving sports.
Over the years I have spoken with many former athletes and coaches, including basketball players such as Nat Holman, who played in the early days of the game back in the 1920s, football, basketball and baseball players dating from the 1940s, and have worked with several of them on books.They include former baseball manager Kevin Kennedy and the man who hit The Shot Heard Round the World home run, Bobby Thomson. I’ve had a casual talk with John Madden about Vince Lombardi and Lawrence Taylor when he was putting his name to a football book for kids I was writing, and have penned a biography of football coaching legend Bill Parcells. So I certainly have a strong sense of how sports has evolved over the years and what it has become today. Like many of us who have witnessed this evolution I’m not happy about many of the changes in today’s sports world, and this blog will also discuss some of today’s more controversial issues of recent vintage.
Hopefully, those reading the coming blogs will feel free to engage with me, share their feelings even they are opposed to mine. Even though emotions often run high when it comes to sports debates and differing opinions, I’m looking to make this fun, as well as a place sports fans can engage. So take the journey with me and let’s see where it leads. Okay, let’s get started with the blogs.
BFA – BEFORE FREE AGENCY
No one really complains about the advent of free agency in sports. That’s because BFA (Before Free Agency) the owners held the upper hand and the players were nothing more than employees with few rights, many with low wages, and all bound to their teams for life unless the team decided to trade or release them. If traded, they had to go or they wouldn’t play. In baseball, it was outfielder Curt Flood who ultimately challenged the “reserve clause” when he refused to accept a trade from the Cardinals to the Phillies. Flood’s challenge went all the way to the United States Supreme Court where it was turned down in 1972. But three years later an arbitrator was able to reverse the Court’s decision opening the door to free agency. Before long, all the major sports followed and players were allowed, after a certain period of time, to offer their services to the highest bidder. It paved the way for the multi-millionaire athletes performing in all sports venues today.
There is no real dispute any longer that the players deserve what the market offers since all the major team sports are rife with money. Sports fans today who don’t remember what it was like BFA may think the players simply weren’t paid enough. What many don’t realize is that free agency also changed sports in other ways, some of which older fans, like myself, still miss. Let’s take a look at what it used to be like when player movement was pretty much restricted.
The magic word here is continuity. Maybe it wasn’t fair to keep the players tied down while the owners made the lion’s share of the profits, but fans were sure happy to see the great players pretty much stay in same place their entire careers. They also knew which opposing players would be coming to town year after year. When star players did get traded, it was usually late in their careers when their best days were behind them.
Let’s look at baseball in the 1950s and 1960s. Can you imagine Ted Williams, Stan Musial or Joe DiMaggio on another team besides the Red Sox, Cardinals and Yankees? Imagine the bidding war if players of that magnitude could have been free agents. Good chance one of more would have gone elsewhere at some point. Same with pitching greats like Bob Feller and Warren Spahn. Spahn was traded at the tail end of his career because he wanted to keep pitching well into his 40s. Same with Willie Mays, who didn’t change teams until the end, but his team also changed cities. Can you picture a free agent bidding war for Mays, Mickey Mantle or Henry Aaron in their primes. Hard to see any of them leaving the Giants, Yankees or Braves, but you never know.
Would the players on the great Brooklyn Dodgers teams of the 1950s still have been called “the boys of summer” if there had been free agency? You know there would have been serious bidding for the likes of Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Don Newcombe and Carl Eskine. Yet they stayed together to forge a legacy never forgotten. That couldn’t happen today.
Free agency would have broken them up.
Fans even identified visiting teams by the players they always knew would be coming to town. In the National League it wasn’t that the Cubs were arriving next week. More often is was that Williams, Banks and Santo were coming. That’s because the middle of the Chicago lineup featured future Hall of Famers Billy Williams, Ernie Banks and Ron Santo. They were there and ready to rake year after year. It was the same all over. It wasn’t just the Boston Red Sox coming to town. It was Ted Williams and the Boston Red Sox or Mickey Mantle and the New York Yankees. The star players were marquee level, even then.
It was that way mostly throughout baseball. Occasionally stars were traded for each other, as with the Rocky Colavito for Harvey Kuenn trade between Cleveland the Detroit. And the player had to go. There weren’t any no trade clauses in the contracts back then, at least until Curt Flood came along. But for the most part the best players stayed with their original teams for most or all of their careers. All BFA.
Some of my NFL memories also reflect the BFA period. Again it’s mainly continuity, the good players staying put and allowing for some aspects of the game you don’t have today. For example, would the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s been as great if players were coming and going. The famed Packer sweep couldn’t have succeeded year and and year out without Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor running the football behind guards Fuzzy Thurston and Jerry Kramer. They all knew their roles and each other perfectly, and perfection was something Coach Vince Lombardi practiced and preached.
Then there were the wonderful nicknames of defensive lines in the 1960s and 1970s. The great Pittsburgh Steelers teams had the Steel Curtain, with ends L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White, along with tackles Ernie Holmes and Mean Joe Greene. Greene was the highest-profiled player and perhaps the best. Had he left via free agency the Steel Curtain wouldn’t have been the same.
There were others, as well. The Rams had the Fearsome Foursome of Deacon Jones and Lamar Lundy at end with Merlin Olson and Rosey Grier at tackles. The New York Jets defensive line was known as the New York Sack Exchange with Mark Gastineau and Abdul Salaam at ends, Marty Lyons and Joe Klecko at tackle. Another great one was the Minnesota Vikings Purple People Eaters with Carl Eller and Jim Marshall at the ends, Alan Page and Gary Larsen at tackle. The fine New York Giants teams of the early 1960s had a strange one. Their defensive line was Ko-Mo-Lo-Ro, standing for Jim Katcavage, Dick Modzelewski, John LoVetere and Andy Robustelli. It might sound silly now, but that one as well as the others meant something to the fans and struck fear into opponents. None of those players were two years and then on to another team. Ironically, the Giants and Rams swapped tackles with Rosey Grier going to the Rams and John LoVetere coming to New York. Both became part of famous defensive lines.
I have similar memories of the earlier days of hockey. Forward lines that stayed together had often catchy nicknames. The old Detroit Red Wings had the Production line of the great Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel; the Chicago Black Hawks featured the Scooter Line with Stan Mikita, Kenny Wharram and Doug Mohns, while the Buffalo Sabers had The French Connection line of Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert and Rick Martin. Even the New York Rangers got into the act with the GAG line. It stood for goal-a-game and featured Jean Ratelle, Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield. They were able to coin the names because the players were together on that line, year after year.
Did I have to look up any of these names? No, I remember them from my earlier days as a fan. Maybe I had to check some spellings, but the players and the nicknames are etched in my sports memory bank. BFA you associated a star player with a team and he was usually there for a long time. Think about some of the biggest stars you knew or read about if you don’t remember them. Most of the greats stayed in one place for the bulk of their careers. There was continuity and identity. And it was great for the home town fans. I’ve heard it said numerous times that before free agency fans rooted for the players. Now they still have favorites, but they’re more conditioned to root for the uniform because you never can be sure how long a player will be wearing it.
As I said at the beginning, nobody is complaining about free agency or faulting the players who look for and take the best deal. A home town discount might get some cheers from the home town crowd, but no one is going to leave millions of dollars on the table, even the most loyal of players, because he doesn’t know if he’ll have that opportunity to cash in again. After all, it’s business, not personal.
But for those of us old sports who remember the BFA days, there was something special about them, especially in terms of memories. And memories are something to be treasured.
Bill Gutman — March 22, 2018
I’D LOVE TO HEAR YOUR COMMENTS
NIGHTS AT THE GARDEN
If you grew up a sports fan in the greater New York area back in the 1950s you soon learned about a place called Madison Square Garden. Known to some as the World’s Most Famous Arena and also the Mecca of Basketball, the Garden was a place to which sports fans flocked. There have been several incarnations of the Garden, the first opening way back in 1879, the second in 1890. But the one that made the name famous was the third Garden, which opened in 1925 at Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets, and could hold 18,000 for basketball and a maximum of 18,496 patrons for boxing. It wasn’t replaced until 1968 when the new and present Madison Square Garden opened on 33rd Street above Penn Station. It is the old Garden – the one between 49th and 50th Streets – that I grew up with.
My first trip to the Garden wasn’t to see a sporting event. It must have been either in the very late 1940s or very early 1950s when my mother took me there to see the circus. Barnum & Bailey was a regular visitor to the Garden for years. But once I reached my teens I began making the trip from Stamford, Connecticut, to the Garden with friends regularly and, over the years, saw a variety of basketball and hockey games, as well as a number of boxing matches. Let’s go over some of my most memorable nights at the Garden and see how many of them you remember, as well.
BILL RUSSELL’S FIRST GARDEN GAME
The great Bill Russell was drafted by the Boston Celtics prior to the 1956-57 season after leading the University of San Francisco to a pair of NCAA championships. But his debut was delayed by his participation in the 1956 Olympics. When he finally joined the team he was everything as advertised, a ferocious competitor, defender, shotblocker and rebounder, a center you could build a team around. Though just 14 years old at the time, I made the trip to the Garden with some friends to see the Knicks and Celtics, a game that marked Bill Russell’s first game at the Garden as a pro.
As soon as the game began you could tell Russell was going to be great and bring a new dimension to the role of the center. My most vivid memory of that night, however, came during warmups. When the Celtics came out and started their warmup drills, Russell began dunking the ball in spectacular fashion. Mind you, this was well before the era of slam dunk contests. In fact, not that many players even dunked during games back then. The Knicks, at the time, had a 6’11” center named Ray Felix, and watching Russell flying through the air the crowd began yelling for Felix to dunk as the Knicks warmed up at the other end. Up till then, the big guy was just taking lazy, conventional layups. Hearing the crowd Felix took the ball, barely left the floor, and dunked rather timidly. The applause that followed wasn’t exactly in admiration. Ray Felix was no Bill Russell. Few, if any, were. It was a great night to be at the Garden.
BILL BRADLEY PUTS ON A SHOW FOR THE AGES
The annual Holiday Festival basketball tournament was a big deal at the Garden in the 1960s, a special Christmas present for basketball fans. On December 30, 1964, we again made the trek to the Garden to watch Princeton, led by Bill Bradley, play number-one ranked Michigan, a team led by All-American Cazzie Russell. No one gave Princeton much of a chance against mighty Michigan, but they didn’t count on Bradley putting on one of the greatest shows in collegiate basketball history.
He was all over the court from the opening tap, scoring on long jumpers and driving to the hoop. When he wasn’t scoring he was throwing brilliant passes to teammates, playing defense and even rebounding.
He had his team in the lead all night and his one-man show had the sellout crowd in the frenzy. With 4:37 left in the game Princeton was up by 12 and on the brink of a huge upset. Then the unthinkable happened. Bradley committed his fifth personal foul. He was out of the game, and so were his 41 points and counting. He walked off the court to a thunderous ovation, but the game wasn’t over. Without Bradley, Princeton wasn’t close to the same team. Russell and Michigan began to rally. With seconds left, Cazzie hit the winning shot in an 80-78 victory. The Wolverines had won the game, but no one there that night would ever forget the incredible show put on by Bill Bradley. It was something to see.
HOCKEY AT THE OLD GARDEN
I saw my first hockey game at the Garden during the 1966-67 season. Call me a belated fan. The ice game always sat behind baseball, basketball and football, but my interest was piqued by learning about some of the sports legends and how the game was played in earlier days. That year, a veteran star named Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion joined the Rangers. He was old school, with a craggy face that showed the years and the injuries in the days before helmets and masks. And he had a great slap shot, hence the nickname Boom Boom.
Of course I cheered for him when he came on the ice but, to be honest, I don’t even remember who won the game. There’s something else from that night that will always stay with me. We were sitting in the mezzanine on the side of the rink. As soon as the game began everyone sitting in front of us stood up. Okay, maybe something exciting happened. Only they didn’t sit down. Then I realized that because of the way the Garden was constructed you couldn’t see the action at the near boards below us. Unless you stood. So we stood the entire game, leaning forward with our legs against a railing. It was a good game, but the next day both my hamstring muscles were totally shot from standing against that railing for well over an hour. That was one of the charms of the old Garden.
ONE LOOK AND YOU SAW GREATNESS
I went to another hockey game that same year and this time for a very special reason. The Boston Bruins were coming to town and bringing with them one of the most heralded rookies ever to take to the ice. He was 18-year-old Bobby Orr. As soon as he came on the ice and began to move around you could see he was a great player. Already. There aren’t many players that you can’t take your eyes off, but Orr was definitely one of them. He seemed to just glide over the ice, was always in the thick of the action and simply dominated the game.
That was the only time I watched him in person, but over the years saw him on television many times and on many highlight shows. To this day I feel that Bobby Orr, not Wayne Gretzky, is the greatest player in NHL history. He was a defenseman who scored like a forward and revolutionized the game. Had his knees not betrayed him he would have been even greater over a longer period of time. At least I got to see him in person that one time. Thank you Madison Square Garden.
FIGHT NIGHT AND A RIOT
And then there’s boxing. In those years the Garden was always the home to big fights and, of course, large and passionate crowds. I had a good friend who was working at Sport Magazine then and he would get tickets for many of the fights. I was more than happy to accompany him since both of us were huge boxing fans at the time. Two nights stand out. The first was in March of 1967, a lightweight bout between Ismael Laguna of Panama and Frankie Narvez from Puerto Rico. There were fans from both countries in attendance, the Panamanians occupying many of the ringside seats. We were sitting in the press box, located on the mezzanine level. The flashy Laguna won the fight easily, totally outclassing the plodding banger that was Narvez. When the expected unanimous decision was announced someone threw a cup into the ring. Seconds later a bottle came flying in, then a chair. Before you knew it, a full scale riot had broken out.
Some fans began scurrying for cover as more missiles flew toward the ring. Others covered their heads with the wooden ringside chairs. I saw one guy with blood running down the side of his head. Fights began breaking out near the ring as the two factions clashed and, within minutes, the ring was littered with debris and the fighters ushered out. Fortunately we had the safety of the press box to protect us from any objects being thrown from behind us. We finally made our way down the stairs and out of the Garden. Very carefully, I may add. To this day I don’t know which was better, the actual fight in the ring or the fights that broke out afterward. What I also remember is an elderly man at ringside, obviously some kind of reporter, typing away on an old-style machine that may have been a teletype. He just kept banging out his story despite the chaos and danger behind him. Old school, to him the story always came first. That sure was one time it really was fight night at the Garden.
THE CORONATION OF SMOKIN’ JOE
I’m going to step over the time line for this last one. It took place on March 4, 1968, less than a month after the new Madison Square Garden opened. The building was spanking new, clean and neat, but to me lacked the great atmosphere of the old Garden. We were there to watch the Joe Frazier/Buster Mathis fight. And it was a significant bout. Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his title by then and the winner of this one would be declared the new champion. Both fighters were unbeaten, but the 240-pound Mathis had defeated Smokin’ Joe twice in the amateurs. Despite his size and undefined build, Mathis was not a fierce puncher. He relied on speed, movement and quick hands. Frazier, as always, was the ultimate banger, a guy who kept coming at you looking to connect with his devastating left hook.
It became apparent to us early that Mathis simply couldn’t hurt or slow down Frazier’s non-stop pursuit and punching power. The fight became not a matter of if, but when. Smokin’ Joe was slowly wearing Mathis down. To his credit, the big guy lasted into the 11th round when Frazier put the last left hook right on the bottom. Mathis fell like a giant redwood and the fight was over. Smokin’ Joe Frazier was the new heavyweight champion of the world. It wasn’t a bad fight but what I remember most was when we finally left the Garden and then milled around for a bit outside that the new champ suddenly appeared. He was wearing an all-red suit and began mingling around with all the fans who were congratulating him, obviously enjoying his coronation, which would culminate several years later when he’d defeat the comebacking Muhammad Ali in the “Fight of the Century,” held – where else? – at Madison Square Garden. While the old Garden was gone, the march of time continued and boxing had a new champion.
Those are just a few memories of a great venue. It was old and a bit dirty, smoked-filled and often with the smell of stale beer in the air. But for sports fans back then you couldn’t beat the atmosphere, the kind of ambiance that would also soon become history, as the old Madison Square Garden eventually did. But it was a legendary place where many great sporting events took place and I’m glad I was able to be there for a small part of it.
Bill Gutman — March 19, 2018
I’D LOVE TO HEAR YOUR COMMENTS
WHAT IF. . . .
Let’s have some fun today. The words WHAT IF, when applied to sports, always make for an interesting debate. Sure, it’s speculation and we’ll never know the real answers. In fact, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to what ifs. But for true sports fans darn if it isn’t downright enjoyable to start with those two words and go from there.
Some years ago I was asked to write a book of alternate sports histories. In effect, a book of What Ifs. The title of the book came from the opening chapter. What If the Babe Had Kept His Red Sox? To me, that was one of the most intriguing what ifs ever. What if the Babe, George Herman Ruth, had not been traded to the Yankees from the Boston Red Sox on December 26, 1919? Suppose he had spent his entire career in Beantown? What would the Babe’s legacy be and, maybe more importantly, how would it have affected the whole history of the game itself?
Let’s first take a quick look at the facts and then we’ll tackle the what if part. Babe came up to the Red Sox as a 19-year-old lefthanded pitcher at the tail end of the 1914 season. (Wow, that’s sure a long time ago.) A year later he was in the Sox rotation and quickly become an ace. Over the next three seasons his record was 18-8, 23-12 and 24-13. In both 1916 and 1917 he threw more than 300 innings and had earned run averages of 1.75 and 2.01. With Babe leading the way, the Red Sox won the World Series in both 1916 and 1918. Babe had a 3-0 record with a combined 0.87 ERA in the two fall classics and set a World Series mark of 29 consecutive scoreless innings, a record that stood until broken by the Yankees Whitey Ford more than 40 years later.
But something else was happening as well. Red Sox brass also saw how well Babe could hit and began playing him in the outfield with increasing frequency. In 1918 he was just 13-7 and the following year 9-5, as he was already their best hitter and not pitching as much. In 1918 he hit 11 home runs with 61 RBIs while hitting .300 in 317 at bats. A year later he really blossomed with 29 homers, 113 runs batted in and a .322 average in 432 at bats. He led the league in both homers and RBIs and remember, this was still the dead ball era when not many four-baggers were hit. Better yet, his 29 round trippers were a new major league record with the closest player to him hitting only 12. He had become a truly electrifying player. When the trade came, it had to be a huge surprise to everyone, especially the fans in Boston.
Harry Frazee had bought the Red Sox in November of 1916. Frazee may have been a baseball fan, but his real love was show business, which in those days meant Broadway. He also owned a couple of theaters in Chicago and New York, and subsequently produced a string of hits. He used the profits from his shows to purchase the Red Sox for $675,000. It was later learned that he didn’t pay in full and still owed money. In addition to that, his string of hits had suddenly turned into a string of flops. His debts mounted. After the 1918 season he sent two of his best pitchers – Ernie Shore and Dutch Leonard – along with outfielder Duffy Lewis to the Yanks for four lesser players and cash. He obviously needed the money.
The conventional story always has been that he sold the Babe to get the money to finance a Broadway show called No, No, Nanette, but there was obviously more to it than that. The Sox were now losing and Babe was getting harder to control. He liked to go out and have a good time. The young slugger was never one for rules and Frazee not only didn’t like his ways, but also knew that after his big season he’d be asking to be paid a lot of money. So he made the deal, selling the Babe for the unheard of sum of $125,000. And the word was that Yankee owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast Houston also loaned him $300,000 to $350,000 more.
The Babe came to New York and went on to blast 54 home runs in 1920 and another 59 the following year, becoming the most electrifying performer in all of sports while setting a home run record that seemed all but unbeatable. And shortly afterward, with the addition of Lou Gehrig, the first Yankees dynasty was born. But . . .
. . . What If The Deal Was Never Made?
Had Babe Ruth spent his entire career with the Red Sox, here’s what could have happened. For openers, he would have played his entire career at Fenway Park. Like many of the old ballparks, Fenway had some unusual dimensions in the outfield. It was just 314 feet down the rightfield line, but then the wall jutted out sharply and it would take nearly a 400 foot blast to clear the wall in rightcenter. Dead center was an unbelievable 488 feet away, a ballpark clearly built for the dead ball era.
Once Babe joined the Yankees he would play three seasons at the old Polo Grounds, which the Yankees then shared with the Giants. While centerfield in the Polo Grounds was also deep, it was just 256 feet down the right field line. Once the team moved into the brand new Yankee Stadium, Babe was swinging at a right field line just 295 feet away. The huge dimensions at the Stadium were in center and leftcenter field. After all, it was The House That Ruth Built.
So let’s be generous. How about if Babe lost an average of five homers a year by playing his entire career in Boston. Could have been more due to not having Lou Gehrig batting behind him. But sticking to five Babe would not have reached his iconic totals of 60 in a season and 714 for his career. Suppose the most he hit in a season was in the 55 range. Then Jimmie Foxx would have become the single season record-holder with his 58 in 1932, a mark tied by Detroit’s Hank Greenburg in 1938. With that scenario the Babe would have been in third place before the end of the Great Depression.Some of his mystique would already be gone.
As for his career, without the friendly right field fences in the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium he could well have ended his career around the 639 mark. He would have retired the all-time leader, but Henry Aaron would have passed him first (he finished with 755) followed by Willie Mays, who hit 660. And that’s not getting into modern-day sluggers like Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, who apparently had some chemical help to reach their totals. The Babe would still be known as an all-time great slugger, but with the diminished numbers, some more of the mystique that carries on to this day would have disappeared..
That’s not all. One reason the Giants wanted the Yankees out of the Polo Grounds was that with Babe hitting all those homers, the Yankees were outdrawing the host Giants. Thus Yankee Stadium was built and opened in the 1923 season. Had Babe not been there, the Yanks would obviously have not drawn so many fans and the Giants might have allowed them to stay longer. Yankee Stadium would have been build eventually, but with no Babe perhaps would not have had that infamous “short porch” in right. It could have had a slightly different look.
There’s still more. Without the Babe, the Yankees would probably not have won their first American League pennant in 1921, the year he blasted 59 homers. Nor would they won the following two years and not have taken their first World Series title in 1923. No Babe and just not enough firepower. And in 1927, when the Yankees won 110 games and acquired the nickname Murderer’s Row, well, that wouldn’t have happened the same way without the Babe. He hit his magical 60 that year, with Gehrig right behind with 47. They won the World Series that season and again the next, helped by several pitchers that had also come from the Red Sox, pitchers that might have stayed put if Frazee kept the Babe. Their six pennants in the decade of the 1920s is considered the Yankees first dynasty. It simply wouldn’t have happened if Mr. Ruth was still the Beantown Babe.
The quiet Gehrig would have become the leader of the Yanks and without the Babe there’s a good chance that the first great Yankee teams would not have emerged until 1936, when rookie Joe DiMaggio joined the still potent Gehrig to head the lineup. From there, Yankees history would be as it is today, but definitely would not have been what it was in the 1920s had the Babe stayed in Boston. By the same token, the Red Sox would have been a markedly better team with a chance to win several more pennants had they kept the Babe and the pitchers Frazee jettisoned for more cash.
A FEW FINAL THINGS TO CONSIDER
Without the background of New York during the Roaring Twenties Babe Ruth probably would not have become the larger than life character he was. And that would have also led to a trickle-down effect.
Would the Babe still had acquired the nicknames The Bambino and The Sultan of Swat?
Would Japanese soldiers in World War II still have shouted “The hell with Babe Ruth” to American soldiers?
Would the Babe have made as much money in Boston, so much that he earned more than the President of the United States, then proudly proclaimed, “I had a better year than he did.”
And Boston certainly would not have had the Curse of the Babe, which lasted from 1920 to 2004, when the Sox finally won another World Series.
Let’s face it, had Babe Ruth remained in Boston the length of his career, the entire face of baseball would have changed in a variety of ways, some subtle, some overt. And it sure wouldn’t have been as entertaining. In Boston the Babe would have been a star, a Hall of Famer. In New York he was a larger-than-life legend who remains huge to this day. For baseball, it was better that way.
As for the What If, you have to admit it was fun.
Bill Gutman — March 16, 2018
I’D LOVE TO HEAR YOUR COMMENTS
THE PACE OF GAME OBSESSION
Okay, we all know that sports evolve. None of us old sports dudes turn on a baseball, football, basketball or even a hockey game and expect to see the same game we saw growing up, whether it be in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and so on. Like it or not, there have been changes to all the sports in many different ways, some of which will be discussed in future blogs. But with the baseball season just around the corner, I can’t help but read and hear about the constant obsession with pace of play – making the game shorter. Commissioner Rob Manfred seems convinced that taking off seconds here and minutes there from games running just over three hours will somehow save the game and make it more attractive to young fans.
Sure, games were shorter years back, some even taking less than two hours. But remember the bywords – sports evolve. Much was different back then, both between the lines and outside of them. For one thing, pitchers started what they finished much more frequently. In fact, it’s not even close. Many of them worked quickly and faced batters who just wanted to get on base. There were far fewer home runs and far fewer strikeouts. And that often translated to fewer deep counts. With the third out, teams came off the field quickly while the opposition took the field and the game resumed. There’s was no music, no entertainment, no nonsense, no wait for a commercial to end. Fans came to see a baseball game and that’s what they saw.
What has happened that’s added maybe an hour to games today and has the Commissioner and others in such an uproar? There are a number of factors. The game itself has been affected by the increased rituals of both pitchers and hitters. It takes hitters longer to get ready. Many are busy adjusting their batting gloves, elbow pads, shin guards. Pitchers take a walk off the mound, go to the rosin bag, tug on their shirtsleeves. But that’s just small potatoes. In fact, hitters today are not supposed to step out of the batter’s box between pitches and pretty soon there may be a pitch clock, giving pitchers just 20 seconds or so between pitches.
As far as the game is concerned there are two factors that, to me, has certainly contributed to lengthening the time of play. The first is the pitching philosophy that has starters yanked after five or six innings. That usually begins a parade of relievers, many considered situational specialists, that often results in four, five, or even six pitchers in a game. Each change means the managers must walk to the mound, have a brief discussion, then signal for a reliever. The new hurler usually jogs in from the bullpen, goes over the signs with the catcher, then takes his eight warmup pitches. With each team doing this many times a game just watch the clock tick away.
Then there’s instant replay, the challenge. They’ve already shortened the time managers have to make their challenge, but they haven’t changed the way the challenge is handled. Two umpires walk over to the dugout area. Someone brings out two sets of headphones and connects the umps with replay “experts” in New York. On really close plays it can take four of five minutes to get an answer while most fans looking at the replay on the scoreboard already know what the answer will be. A friend of mine suggests putting an extra umpire in the press box at each game with a TV in front of him. He could rule on the challenge much more quickly. It’s a good idea.
Then there are the kinds of suggestions that will change the game. One has already been implemented. For years with an intentional walk, the pitcher had to throw four balls wide of the plate before the hitter went to first. Now, once a manager signals for an intentional walk, the batter just trots to first without a pitch thrown. Having watched baseball for more than 60 years I’ve seen cases where the pitcher has thrown wild while delivering the four intentional walk tosses, allowing runners to advance or even a run to score, and maybe causing the manager to change his mind about walking the hitter. I’ve also seen pitches drift too close to the plate and the batter getting a base hit. So that rule change, designed to save what, 30 seconds, could also affect the outcome of the game.
Other things have been suggested, such as if an extra inning game goes into the 11th or 12th inning each team can start the inning with a runner on second. This rule was tried in the last World Baseball Classic. The intent is to eliminate the occasional 16, 17 or 18-inning game. The byword here is “occasional.” Why change the basic shape of how the game is played because of an extra inning game that could go four hours or more? Doesn’t happen that often. Recently, there was a rumor that MLB was considering another crazy change, that of letting the losing team forget the batting order in their final at bat and put up any hitters they want. The concept being that in other sports the best players are either on the field, the court or the ice at crunch time. MLB has denied considering this, but we’ve all learned never to say never. Heck, the batting order is what makes baseball unique. Why make the game a circus?
There’s yet another way to look at this. What is the rush to get people in and out of the ballpark quickly? Sure, in the old days you went there to watch the game, maybe eat a hot dog, drink a beer or a soda, and crunch some peanuts. Nothing was expensive, from the ticket prices to the 20 cent hot dog. It didn’t matter to the real fan whether the game was over in two hours or went longer. It was baseball and that’s why they were there. To watch the game and the players.
Today, everything is overpriced and a day at the ballpark is quite expensive. In fact, today’s ballparks are now akin to amusement parks. There is all kinds of food, music playing, restaurants where people can eat while ostensibly watching the game, play areas for kids, stores in which to browse and buy merchandise. People bring their smartphones to the game so they can keep in touch with friends, families, business associates, or do the myriad of others things the modern phone is capable of doing. With all that available at a hefty price, why strive to push people out of the park as quickly as possible? There is plenty to keep people occupied and I don’t think many will complain if the game takes three hours. A day at the modern ballpark is as much an event for people now as it is a baseball game.
Other changes, such as limiting the number of mound visits by the catcher, manager or pitching coach – which will go into effect this coming season – will save a little time and not really change the game. But is there yet another reason why the powers that be seem so obsessed with speeding up the game? I read an article recently that suggested that they’re looking more to the television audience than the fans at the ballparks. There could be something to that. As said earlier, why rush to push people out of the ballpark when they paid so much to enter in the first place? But if MLB thinks long games will bore the television audience, which now has more access to games than ever before, it certainly may be a reason for wanting to shorten games. Television contracts are lining MLB’s pockets with millions of dollars. It’s a lot easier to turn off the television or switch channels than to walk out of a ballpark.
How about the numbers and length of commercials the TV audience must endure? Commercials, obviously, provide MLB with huge revenues. There has been some talk about shortening the commercial time between innings. Good idea. But MBL is not going to do anything to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Commercials will continue to proliferate and some are actually intrusive. How often have to seen a commercial run into the action where you miss a pitch or two?
MLB is also worried about the lack of young fans, thinking that today’s youngsters prefer the (sometimes) non-stop action of basketball and, to be frank, the violence of football to what they feel is the slow-motion pace of baseball. Both those sports often have more look-at-me showboating from the athletes that many kids today seem to admire. Speeding up baseball games by ten or fifteen minutes is not going to change that. The game is the game. And while it has evolved and some of the strategies have changed it’s still baseball, a game where die hard fans not only continue watch, but also enjoy reading about the exploits of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, Stan Musial and Ted Williams, Willie, Mickey and the Duke and so many others. There is a much longer lineage in baseball than any other sport.
That said, it seems to me that the key with young fans is education. Teach them to appreciate the game, have today’s players interact with them as often as possible, use some of those non-stop revenues to build baseball facilities, hire coaches, and give equipment to kids in the inner cities. Parents have to forget about potential million dollar contracts and just let their talented kids play and have fun without the pressure to make it to the majors. If you can get the younger generation off their cellphones and video games, teach them what a great game baseball is, always has been, and will continue to be.
Shortening the game, especially with gimmicks, just won’t do the trick.
Bill Gutman — March 14, 2018
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THE ANNUAL RITE OF SPRING
THREE LITTLE WORDS. No, I’m not referring to the classic song of the same name. Rather I’m talking about the three little words that real baseball fans find themselves pining for during the long winter, even moreso when February rolls around. PITCHERS AND CATCHERS. To any devotee of the diamond game this trio of words means just one thing. It’s almost time for spring training, which begins when the pitchers and catchers report to camp, now just a few days before the position players. It also means that baseball is just around the corner and the annual rite of spring is upon us.
It still seems strange sitting here in New York and watching snow fall from an early March Nor’easter while at the same time viewing a preseason baseball game in Florida, with fans at the game in shorts and T-shirts. At the same time, it’s comforting to know that the real season begins in just a few weeks, which means warmer weather up north isn’t that far away.
But spring training is more than just a north-south thing. I remember as a kid in the 1950s – long before cable television and regional sports networks, and mid-winter repeats of “Yankees Classics” – that I always wanted to watch the last game of the year knowing I wouldn’t be seeing that baseball diamond for roughly six months. And then I’d want to be sure to watch the first game I could the following season to see that diamond on the small screen again. It was spring training and my favorite sport was back.
That’s still not all. Later, when I became a sportswriter and began doing books that necessitated speaking to former ballplayers, I learned first hand what spring training meant to them. To a man, it was their favorite time of year. Not that they didn’t look forward to the regular season, but they all looked upon spring training as special. Many of them brought their families with them making it somewhat of a vacation. It was also a chance to renew acquaintances with teammates at a time when players didn’t move around so much. So many were already old friends.
Back then, players didn’t have a luxury of working out all year round. Many had to get offseason jobs to augment their baseball salaries, which for a good number were equivalent to that of blue collar workers. So five or six months without a paycheck just didn’t work. That also made spring training a time to get back into baseball shape, lose those extra pounds, and loosen up the hitting, throwing and pitching muscles. The players enjoyed the camaraderie, sometimes went out with each other for a few beers, and played practical jokes you don’t see today.
Hall of Famer Johnny Mize was a guy who liked his beer. One day, after an evening of indulging in his favorite brew, he was sweating heavily during a workout and removed his sweatshirt, tossing it on the ground. One of his buddies sneaked up and put an inflammable liquid on the shirt, then dropped a match on it. “Look, John,” he hollered. “You’ve sweated out so much alcohol that your shirt caught fire.” You don’t see those kinds of shenanigans today when everything is more intense and more regimented.
Spring training is also a fun time for the fans in Florida and Arizona. They can relax at the ballparks without paying an arm and a leg for the privilege, interact with some of the players, allow their kids to frolic an play, and enjoy a game. And for seniors, either living in the area or those who decide to vacation in the sun in March, it’s a chance to relive old memories, watch some baseball, and relax during that special time of year.
There were times when spring training wasn’t confined to Florida and Arizona, and maybe a bit in California. Years back teams trained in such diverse places as Havana,Cuba, Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Catalina Island off the coast of California. During the years of World War II teams trained all over, in places like Bear Mountain, New York, various sites in Indiana, Tufts College in Massachusetts and the Choate School in Connecticut. You didn’t see it then because most of it was before the days of television, but baseball fans still knew it was time. That’s because they saw the magic words in their local newspaper and maybe even heard them on the radio.
Pitchers and catchers. And it meant that the forever rite of spring was upon them once again.
Bill Gutman – March 12, 2018
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