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.
LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE- THE MIRACLE METS
The story of the 1969 New York Mets remains one for the ages. They were a team that rose from the depths of expansion that kept them at or near the bottom of the league for seven years to suddenly win a world championship, an improbable feat that left the baseball world in total shock. What made it even more improbable was that, for the first time in baseball history, a team had to win two playoff rounds. Expansion that season put twelve teams in each league, with the leagues broken up into two, six-team divisions. Thus the division winners had to play a best of three series before advancing to the traditional best-of-seven World Series.
I still feel very close to that epic season because I lived through it. In 1969 I was the sports editor of Greenwich Time, a daily paper in Greenwich, Connecticut, just an hour or so ride from New York City. In addition, some years later I had the chance to relive it when I wrote a book called MIRACLE YEAR 1969, Amazing Mets and Super Jets, speaking to players from both those winning New York teams in the same year. But Joe Namath notwithstanding, we’re talking Mets here.
When the Mets were formed in 1962, the idea was to give New Yorkers a National League team to compensate for the loss of both the Dodgers and Giants to the west coast after the 1957 season. The new team began play in the antiquated Polo Grounds, the longtime home of the Giants. What fans of the new team soon learned was that this was by far the weakest expansion team to date. Made up of castoffs, marginal players, and a few over-the-hill Dodgers and Giants, the team finished it’s inaugural season with a 40-120 record, the worst in baseball history.
The star of those early Mets teams was their venerable old manger, Casey Stengel, who had piloted the crosstown Yankees to seven World Championships from 1949 to 1960. Ol’ Case regaled the fans and the press with his many baseball tales, told with color and humor in his own style, his language dubbed “Stengelese.” But he knew what he had with that first Mets team and finally lamented, “Can’t anyone here play this game?”
They couldn’t. For four years the team finished dead last in a ten-team league, losing more than 100 games each season. Stengel left toward the end of the 1965 season, replaced by former Giants catcher Wes Westrum. After a ninth-place finish in ’66, the team fell back to 101 losses and the basement the following year. But that season brought the team Tom Seaver, a 22-year old rookie righthander, the embarking point for the team’s change of fortune.
“When you saw Tom Seaver, right out of the box you saw a very good, complete major league pitcher,” outfielder Ron Swoboda told me. “He didn’t need any time to assimilate; he arrived the complete package, a great pitcher the day he showed up from the minors. You knew whenever Seaver was out there you could score three runs and have a chance to win.”
Seaver finished with a 16-13 record in his Rookie of the Year season, throwing 18 complete games for a last-place team, an amazing feat. Then in 1968, Gil Hodges, a former Dodgers star, became the team’s new manager. Joining him and the team that year was young lefty named Jerry Koosman who, like Seaver the year before, quickly showed he was ready to win. That gave the team a pair of young pitchers who not only looked like the real deal, but always pitched to win.
Though the ballclub would finish ninth again, they compiled a best-ever record of 73-89, due largely to the efforts of Seaver and Koosman. Tom Terrific, as he would come to be called, was 16-12 on the year with a 2.20 earned run average. He had 14 complete games and threw five shutouts. Koosman did even better. In his first full season the hard-throwing southpaw went 19-12 with a 2.08 ERA, 17 complete games and seven shutouts. Suddenly, the Mets found themselves with two of the best pitchers in the league. It still didn’t prepare anyone for what would happen the following season.
As a reminder, the 1969 season opened with pitching as the team’s strength. Seaver and Koosman were at the top, but rookie righty Gary Gentry was a big contributor, as were relievers Tug McGraw, Ron Taylor, Cal Koonce and a 22-year-old flamethrower named Nolan Ryan. Behind the plate was one of the best defensive catchers in the league, Jerry Grote. Firepower at the bat was the big question. Outfielders Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee were adequate in left and center. In right there was a combination of Ron Swoboda and lefty-swinging Art Shamsky. Ed Kranepool manned first, a combo of Ken Boswell and Al Weis were at second. Shortstop Bud Harrelson was a fine fielder, but weak hitter. At third veteran Ed Charles would platoon with young Wayne Garrett, another righty-lefty duo. It was up to manager Hodges to play chess with these pieces and he would prove to be a grandmaster.
All this played at a time the country was in a state of turbulence. The Vietnam War was raging halfway across the world and protests about the United States involvement were growing larger and often more violent. A year earlier the country witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, as well as racial riots in several cities after Reverend King’s death. So baseball would serve as a major distraction to the unrest in the country and that made the focus on what the Mets began to do all the more consuming. Yet at the beginning of the season the odds against them winning the pennant were said to be 100-1.
Without going into all the details it was an amazing run. The team began modestly, with just an 18-18 record after 36 games. It was surprising in that it was the latest they had ever been at .500 in their history. An early-season arm injury to Koosman didn’t help, but Seaver was already showing he was arguably the best pitcher in the league. And manager Hodges was a tough, but fair leader. A midseason trade for Pirates slugger Donn Clendenon completed the team and soon the always-woeful New York Mets began their march to catch the front-running Cubs, who were managed by ex-Giants skipper Leo Durocher. Hodges had the right formula, platooning at first, second, third and in right field, going lefty-righty and it was paying off. Once Koosman got healthy he and Seaver proved to be as good as any pitching duo in baseball, and the supporting cast all stepped up.
It was in the second half of the season that the excitement in New York really began building. The crosstown Yankees were in one of their infrequent down periods making it even easier for the entire city to focus on the Mets. And they were rolling. It seemed as if Manager Hodges couldn’t make a wrong move. While the team wasn’t the hardest-hitting in the league, they were seemingly coming up with big hits at just the right time. Seaver was en route to a 20-win season and Koosman was back at full strength. Suddenly, the Mets were hard to beat. When some of the Mets players complained that opposing pitchers were throwing at them too often without retaliation it was Koosman who stepped up and showed the way.
“He would throw the ball right through you if he had to,” Ron Swoboda said. The other pitchers followed suit and the Mets were clicking on all cylinders.
The night of September 10, was one Mets fans have never forgotten. While the Cubs were losing to the Phils the Mets swept a doubleheader from the Montreal Expos to move into first place for the first time in their history. From there, the team rolled to the division title.
“I think Tom and I won something like 18 of our last 19 starts that year,” Jerry Koosman recalled when I spoke with him. “By that time everyone on the club knew his place . . . knew just what Gil would do, how he platooned and used his players. All he asked of everyone [was] that we be ready to help the team. There was no screwing around. We all knew Gil’s rules and how seriously he took the game, and how much winning meant to him.”
And win they did. The team went 32-10 in its final 42 games and finished the regular season with a mind-boggling record of 100-62. The Mets. The lovable losers. A team that had finished last five times and second-to-last twice in his first seven seasons had rising from the ashes to win 100 games. They finished eight games ahead of the runner-up Cubs. Mets fever swept New York and the team was talk of baseball. Even before the playoffs began it was considered a historic season.
Seaver had a Cy Young Award year with a 25-7 record, a 2.21 earned run average and tossed five shutouts. Koosman rebounded from his early-season injury to finish 17-9 with a 2.28 ERA and six shutouts. The supporting cast also helped, especially relievers Tug McGraw (9-3 with 12 saves) and Ron Taylor (9-4 with 13 saves). The hitting was just good enough. Cleon Jones was third in the NL in hitting with a .340 average. He had 12 homers and 73 RBIs. Tommie Agee hit .271 with 26 homers and 76 RBIs from the leadoff spot. Donn Clendenon had 12 homers and 37 RBIs in just 202 at bats as a Met. Shamsky, Kranepool, Swoboda and the others all contributed with key hits at just the right time.
The playoffs were just an affirmation of the magic the Mets had in 1969. In the division series they swept the great Henry Aaron and the Braves in three straight by scores of 9-5, 11-6, and 7-4. I was at that final game when the New Yorkers clinched the pennant. There was absolute bedlam at Shea Stadium. It was the first time the fans tore up an infield after a game and some were trying to sell pieces of the turf in the parking lot. But it wasn’t finished yet. The team still had to play the World Series and waiting for them was a 109-win Baltimore Orioles team managed by the feisty Earl Weaver. The O’s were loaded, led by Frank and Brooks Robinson and a pitching staff that could easily match the Mets’ hurlers. They were prohibitive favorites. When the O’s beat Tom Seaver, 4-1, to win the first game it looked as if there might not be a miracle after all. Then it all changed.
Koosman won the second game, 2-1, with ninth-inning help from Ron Taylor. Then rookie Gary Gentry with bullpen help and two great Tommie Agee catches shut out the Orioles, 5-0, in game three. The Mets had the lead with Seaver and Koosman on deck. Game four turned into a 10-inning nail-biter with Seaver going the distance for a 2-1 victory, saved by a great diving catch by Ron Swoboda in right. Now the Mets were a game away from one of the greatest baseball stories in history. Jerry Koosman wasn’t about to let it get away. The Orioles got to him early for three runs, but once the Mets began coming back the young lefty toughened up. Baltimore couldn’t touch him late and the Mets rallied for a 5-3 victory, Koosman going the route. They had won the World Series in five games.
In a sense, it was a case where the best team lost. For the Mets, it was truly a miracle. Sure, Seaver and Koosman could beat anyone, but this Orioles team won 109 games and should have been more than a match for the Mets in every way. Yet the Miracle Mets got all the key hits, made every big catch, and the supporting arms backed the two aces. It was truly a season for the ages, coming just at the right time. And one that won’t be forgotten.
The next two years the Mets seemingly played to their talent level, finishing at 83-79 and in third place both times. Then, prior to the 1972 season, the team suffered a real tragedy when Gil Hodges died suddenly of a massive heart attack. In a sense, his death closed the book on that marvelous 1969 season. But for Mets fans, as well as fans of baseball who were there to see it, the 1969 season will never be forgotten.
When the New York Giants rallied from 13 ½ games behind in mid-August of 1951 to catch the Brooklyn Dodgers, setting up Bobby Thomson’s Shot-Heard-Round-the-World home run to win the pennant in the last inning of the final playoff game, Dodgers’ great Jackie Robinson summed it up in one sentence.
“The Giants,” he said, “caught lightning in a bottle.”
The same could be said for the 1969 New York Mets. They, too, caught lightning in a bottle and played it for everything it was worth, right down to the final out.
Bill Gutman — June 8, 2018
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BLUE COLLAR BASEBALL
It might be difficult to fathom today, but there was a time when baseball salaries weren’t measured in the millions. In fact, even six figures seemed like a pipe dream for most players. While the elite players began climbing the salary ladder, the majority of players for years considered themselves blue collar workers, guys making a living playing the game they loved but wishing they could earn more. In those days, before free agency, the owners had the hammer and the players had to kowtow to them, pretty much accepting the salary they were offered every year.
In the earlier days of the game very few players attended college. The great Giants pitcher and Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson was an early exception, having played both football and baseball at Bucknell University. Other players kidded him about being a college boy, but that college boy threw three shutouts in the 1905 World Series to lead his team to victory. Many of the other players in those days were rough characters from blue collar backgrounds. A good number were farmboys who learned the game in the fields and sandlots. When their careers ended they often returned to the farm or the life from which they came and just went to work.
Honus Wagner was another great player from the early days of the 20th century. He was so good that he quickly ascended to a salary of $10,000 a year, very good money for those days. Every year after that when he would meet the team owner to discuss a contract for the upcoming season the same conversation ensued. “How much do you think you deserve next year, Honus?” the owner would ask. Wagner’s answer never changed. “Same as last year,” he’d say. “That’s more than enough for me.”
Can you see one of today’s players earning, say, 10 million dollars, having his agent say he didn’t want a raise because that was more than enough? Never in ten million years. Today, any baseball player who can stay in the majors for five years or more is going to retire a multi-millionaire, as long as he doesn’t do something foolish with his money. The top stars make as much or more than most of the big stars in other entertainment fields. But it sure wasn’t always like that.
From the beginning of baseball and probably through the 1960s baseball players, for the most part, were considered blue collar workers. Sure, there were exceptions. There always are for the biggest names, the superstars. Babe Ruth topped out at $80,000, a huge sum for those days, which prompted him to say when told he made more than the President of the United States, “Why not, I had a better year than he did.” Players like Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams were at the top of the scale in the 1940s and 1950s, soon joined by the likes of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. But the average player, even the above-average player, continued to earn at a blue collar level. Those players weren’t looking for a world series ring and the prestige that came with it. No, they desperately wanted the winner’s share of maybe $2,500. To them, that was a bonus to die for.
Today’s players, with no financial worries, can spend the off-season training, traveling with family, playing golf or doing whatever they please. Most make sure they’re in top shape by the time they reach spring training in preparation for another good year and an even bigger contract. The blue collar players didn’t have those luxuries. Many had to look for jobs in the off-season to supplement their baseball incomes to better support their families. Spring training, for them, was a time to get back into shape, lose some weight perhaps, and get the baseball muscles working again.
A perfect example of how important extra money was to players back then came in 1951, when the Giants’ Bobby Thomson hit one of the most famous home runs in baseball history, the Shot-Heard-Round-the-World that won the National League pennant in what today would be called a walk-off. After the game, Bobby was anxious to get home to his family on Staten Island to celebrate the victory. In the locker room after the game, a representative of The Perry Como Show approached him. Como, a likable singer, had a 15 minute television show then. The rep offered Bobby $500 to appear on the program. He thought about it, then said no, getting home to family was more important.
The Como rep must have been authorized to go higher because he immediately upped the ante to $1000. How could Bobby turn that kind of money down for a brief appearance? He finally agreed. In those day an extra $1000 was a sizable stipend. If that happened today, the player hitting a magical home run would be looking for a million dollar endorsement deal. Those didn’t exist in the days of the blue collar ballplayer.
Then there was retirement. The majority of today’s players are wealthy men when they call it quits, and it has been that way for a good number of years now. If they’re smart with their money they can do pretty much what they want. Many, of course, are still competitive and go into a variety of businesses, which they run. Derek Jeter is part owner of a baseball team, maybe the ultimate dream for an ex player. Some go into broadcasting; others return to the field as coaches or managers. But whatever they do, it’s usually not because they need the money. It’s to keep busy and do something they enjoy.
In older days it wasn’t that easy. The majority of players had to work, had to find a second career to support themselves and their families. I can recall as a kid reading box scores in The Sporting News, then a real baseball bible. The magazine even ran minor league box scores and I was surprised at the number of former major leaguers still playing in the minors for very little money. Baseball was all they knew. Others just went to work, mostly in blue collar jobs. Some managed to buy a small business, like a liquor store, others became salesmen, some went from job to job while others just struggled, wishing they were young again so they could play baseball.
The aforementioned Bobby Thomson actually took an aptitude test to try to find out what he was best suited for once his baseball career ended. The answer came back sales and he went to work for a paper goods company. He didn’t want to trade on his baseball fame and always applied for jobs and introduced himself as Robert Thomson. It wasn’t until the memorabilia craze began years later that he found it profitable to become Bobby Thomson once again. You can’t criticize a guy for being pragmatic.
Some years ago I wrote a book called When the Cheering Stops, for which I interviewed players from the 1940s through the 1960s with the theme being how they adjusted to life after baseball and what they ended up doing. The stories varied widely. There were some successful ones and some not so successful. All couldn’t happen today due to the baseball money, but the guys I spoke with were all blue collar players. Here are a few examples. Let’s start with Davey Williams, a second basemen who played with the Giants briefly in 1949 and then from 1951 to 1955. He had to retire at the age of 27 because of a bad back. Williams had several jobs after baseball but one of them really stood out. As he told me:
“While I was classified a criminal investigator, my partner and I actually worked lunacy warrants. When somebody locked themselves in the house and was going to kill their entire family or anybody who walked up on the front porch, they called the two dumbbells to get him out. And believe me, you’ve got to be a dummy to do that. I once had a guy stick a .22 rifle in my stomach as I opened the door. I managed to get the rifle away from him, but as he turned he pulled a pistol from his pocket and I had to wrestle him for that. It was ridiculous work.”
That was a lot more difficult than turning a double-play, for sure. Others simply had a tough time finding themselves again after leaving baseball. Chuck Stobbs, a lefty who pitched for five teams between 1947 and 1961, finished his career with a 107-130 mark. But he had his moments. After baseball, it was tough for awhile.
“I went to work right away as a manufacturer’s rep in Virginia,” Stobbs said, “but that lasted for only about six months. Then for a whole year I didn’t do anything. I knew I wasn’t a salesman, but I tried insurance for awhile. You know, you make a living, but you really aren’t some super success. I did some broadcasting for a time when the new Senators came into the league in 1961. Finally, I went back into coaching, first as an assistant at George Washington University, then with the Kansas City Royals baseball academy in Florida. It became full time and my family and I moved to Florida.”
So it was back to baseball for Stobbs, as it was for many of the blue collar players. Other things just didn’t work out. Then there was Dale Long, who played briefly in 1951, then from 1955 to 1963. He, too, played for multiple teams and had his moments, such as setting a record by hitting a home run in eight straight games (later tied by Don Mattingly). Long had some power but was probably just a tick above a journeyman player. Yet today he would be making in the millions. Not so in blue collar days and that didn’t make retirement easy.
“For six years after I quit I was completely out of baseball,” he said. “I had a bar for a time, then went into sales. After that I was an ironworker for a time. I did a lot of different things to try to put bread on the table, and I was bitter because I felt I had something to show someone, but never had the opportunity to do it. I wrote a lot of letters trying to get back into baseball and got a lot of Dear Johns in return. A lot of them were from people who knew me. I think there are many former players (from his era) who would like to get back in and just don’t get the chance.”
Eventually Long got his shot, doing public relations work for the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, which back then was the governing body for all the minor leagues. So he, too, eventually came back to baseball, as so many did or tried to do. They found it difficult to transition to something else.
There are so many stories like this from blue collar days. The players had a pension, but it was nothing like it is today. Perhaps the plight of the blue collar player can best be summed up by Roy Sievers, one of the top sluggers of the mid-1950s and early 1960s. Sievers played from 1949 to 1965 and finished his career with 318 home runs. Sievers top salary was $36,000 in 1959 and he had five seasons around that figure, which wasn’t bad for that time, but not great either, especially if you had a family. Sievers tried to stay in the game hoping to coach for three or four years to reach the 20-year mark, which would help his pension. He got a number of jobs, but was let go when a new manager wanted to bring in his own people. Said Sievers:
“I don’t think any ballplayer in my day prepared for retirement until it was time. I never made the big money. I finally went to work for the Yellow Freight Company in St. Louis and stayed with them until 1986. Now I’m home and living on my pension. It’s not what I’d like it to be, but . . .”
He stopped in mid sentence, letting the “but . . .” say the rest. So many of the blue collar ballplayers had similar feelings and similar struggles as those mentioned here. They didn’t complain a lot, but if they lived long enough to see the salaries begin to go through the roof it had to have been hard to take. Many must have thought, if only we could have played 30 or 40 years later. But that’s the way it was and all of them loved the game. Some of the older players I’ve spoken with over the years even said they would have put on the uniform for nothing. That’s how much they loved it. But once reality set in and it was time to quit they had to deal with a whole new ballgame, one that was a lot harder for them than baseball.
Bill Gutman — May 10, 2018
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OLD TIMERS DAYS
When you became a baseball fan at an early age back in the 1950s and lived in the New York area, some special things often happened. Not only were there three teams in the city then, but I often had an unforgettable experience by going to the original Old Timers Days at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees officially began this tradition in 1947, but there was a precursor when they invited members of the 1927 Murderer’s Row Yankees back for Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day on July 4, 1939. That, of course, was more of a sad occasions than a celebration since Gehrig was forced into retirement by the fatal illness that now bears his name.
I was already becoming a huge baseball fan by 1951, though I wouldn’t turn nine years old until that October. But because both my father and grandfather were lifelong baseball fans, I had a great jump start. I learned much from my grandfather the old-fashioned way. Oral history. He was born the day after Ty Cobb, December 19, 1886, and was a ballplayer. From what he told me he was offered a contract to play in the minors, but it meant going to Alabama. He opted to stay in New York so he could marry my grandmother. In his case, romance trumped baseball.
But he told me much about baseball’s early days and the great players he saw, as well as how the game was played back then. What a way to begin a baseball education. Then there were magazines and some books on the game. I devoured them all and by the early 1950s my father began taking me to Yankee Stadium. We had about an hour’s trip from Connecticut and we’d talk baseball the entire time on the ride in and then again on the ride home, if I could stay awake. And one game that he always wanted to take me to see was when the Yankees held Old Timers Day.
Since it was the early 1950s many of the greats from baseball’s early days were still alive and showed up at the Stadium. Imagine the thrill as a rabid young baseball fan seeing Ty Cobb, Cy Young and Carl Hubbell walk out onto the field. Those were just three iconic “old timers” that I saw in person at Old Timers Day. Young and Cobb, especially, were old men by then, and all three came out in street clothes, not uniforms. But now, looking back at it some 60-plus years later, I was lucky enough to connect to the very early days of the game through Old Timers Days. Kind of a cool and amazing thing.
There were also Yankees old timers galore, players I hadn’t seen during their playing days but had heard about from my father. I can remember seeing Joe DiMaggio on television in 1950 and then in his final year of 1951, and he soon become the biggest name at Old Timers Days. With all the games my father an I attended in the early and mid-1950s, it was Old Timers Day that was always the highlight. You not only saw a ballgame, but baseball’s past as well.
Over the years I have watched many Yankees Old Timers Days on television. One thing I always remembered was how, as young baseball fans, my friends and I were totally honed in on the players – their body language, whether it be hitting, fielding, running, or just jogging on and off the field. With no distractions at the ballparks then we watched everything. When you saw the same players come out and play a few innings at old timers days you couldn’t help but notice that even in their forties, fifties or sixties their baseball body language was the same. You could still identify the player by how he moved on the field. Those baseball memories, it seemed, were forever embedded in the brain.
As with so many things in sports and baseball, even old timers days have changed somewhat. More teams have followed the Yankees lead and now have their own old timers celebrations. To me now, the Yankees old timers days are no longer “must watch” television. They still bring back some of the longest living Yanks and it was always good to see the likes of Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, to name just two. But more than ever today, the old timers have become young-old timers, players who may have only retired within the past five years and guys that the young fans will remember. Maybe there just aren’t enough younger fans today to relish in the history of the game as we did when we were young. Maybe the feeling is that the more recent guys will help with marketing and merchandising. That’s always part of the equation today.
When I first went to Old Timers Days the returning players were mostly a combination of huge stars and fine players who made their name in the game. Today you see many marginal and short time players that, in all honesty, really didn’t make much of a mark. I’m sure they enjoy returning and seeing old friends and teammates, but it doesn’t make for the kind of old timers days I saw in my youth. And I wonder if today’s young fans get as much of a thrill in seeing players from the past as so many of us did back then.
Put it this way. I still can say I once went to an Old Timers day and saw Ty Cobb and Cy Young. In the flesh. For a young baseball fan can it really get much better than that?
Bill Gutman — April 24, 2018
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WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING TO PITCHING
How many of you remember the time a starting pitcher, especially an ace, strode out to the mound and stayed out there for all nine innings, finishing the game with a flourish and throwing maybe 120 or 130 pitches, perhaps even more? And then four or five days later he’d be out there again. The great ones did it year after year, racking up the innings and the wins, and never blowing out their elbows, the recurring ligament tear today that necessitates Tommy John surgery.
It’s more likely that fans today remember opening day of the 2018 season when new Phillies manager Gabe Kapler went out to the mound to relieve his starter, Aaron Nola, after 6.1 innings of dominant shutout ball in which he threw just 68 pitches and saw his team take a 5-0 lead. Sure, it was opening day and maybe Kapler was worried that his starter wasn’t stretched out enough to go further. But that kind of managerial move is becoming pretty much the norm these days because of the new analytics of baseball that indicate a starting pitcher will get in trouble if he tries to navigate his way through a lineup a third time. P.S. In the Nola game, the Phils bullpen gave up eight unanswered runs and the team lost, 8-5.
When I hear repeatedly that a starting pitcher can’t go through the lineup a third time, or shouldn’t throw more than 100 pitches in a game, and God forbid if he throws more than 200 innings in a season, it really makes me wonder. Then when I see so many games in which three, four, or five relievers are paraded in, I wonder some more. And that wonder was exacerbated even more when I saw this recent quote from new Mets manager, Mickey Callaway.
“If you look at the numbers,” said Callaway, “it always is in your favor to bring in a new pitcher every inning, really — unless it’s just your best, best guy and you want to keep him out there. But it always makes sense, numbers-wise, to bring in a different guy so the hitters are facing different pitchers every at-bat. There’s an advantage to that.”
Wow. Now I can tell you exactly what I’m wondering. WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING TO PITCHING? Why can’t more starting pitchers go deep into games and be allowed to finish what they started? Why is throwing more than 100 pitches in a game considered a precursor to injury, and why is throwing more than 200 innings in a season going to ruin the pitcher for the following season? And why are so many young pitchers blowing out their elbows, some in the minor leagues, some even in high school or college? None of it makes sense if you take a look at baseball’s long history. So let’s look at these issues one at a time, though some are definitely connected.
Though most can’t relate to the very early days of the game, I’ll go quickly back to Walter Johnson, the famed Big Train who pitched from 1907 to 1927. Johnson was considered one of the hardest, if not the hardest thrower of his time. Yet he threw more than 300 innings nine years in a row and more than 250 innings another eight seasons. When he was done he not only had won 417 games, but pitched 531 complete games and a record 110 shutouts. Needless to say, Johnson didn’t need relief too often. YET HE NEVER BLEW OUT HIS ELBOW.
That said, let’s take a look at the great pitchers of more recent vintage, starting with Hall of Famer Bob Feller. Feller came to the majors in 1936 at the age of 17. That’s right, 17. Two years later, at 19, he threw 277.2 innings. The next three years he fired his famed fastball – once timed by the rudimentary devices of the day at more than 98 miles per hour – for 296.2, 320.1 and 343 innings. Then he lost almost four years to service in World War II. He returned in 1946 and promptly threw 371.1 innings, followed by 299 and 280 innings. He would pitch until 1956, win 266 games (in spite of losing almost four peak seasons) and guess what? NEVER BLEW OUT HIS ELBOW. And he was the hardest thrower of his time.
There’s still more. From the late 1950s right into a new century, there was a bevy of great pitchers, including six, 300-game winners. Do the names Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver, Ferguson Jenkins, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine sound familiar? They should. All are in the Hall of Fame except Clemens, and we know why he isn’t there, yet. Only Koufax didn’t have a long career. He retired at age 30 after winning 27 games with a 1.73 earned run average while throwing 323 innings. It was an arthritic elbow that caused him to quit, and only because it became too painful to pitch. The original injury came on a slide. None of the aforementioned pitchers suffered a torn ulner collateral ligament, the injury needing Tommy John surgery. All threw more than 250 innings a year multiple times, and combined they went past 300 innings on 18 occasions. In addition, the majority of them were hard throwers.
Are you beginning to get the picture? No one seems to be able to pinpoint why so many young pitchers are rupturing that ligament today. Some say the emphasis on the radar gun is the culprit, that young kids are urged to throw as hard as they can for as long as they can. Some say it’s because young pitchers in some warm weather areas pitch all year round, and maybe for several teams at once, not giving their arms, elbows and shoulders a chance to recuperate. Other think it’s young kids throwing breaking balls at too young an age, putting added pressure on the elbow. Or too many kids getting too much advice from too many “coaches” and maybe even parents, hoping their sons get to the big leagues and the big money. Kids just don’t go out and play on the sandlots for fun much anymore.
But whatever the cause, the results have helped give us what we have today. That is strict pitch counts, restricted numbers of innings, care not to let a pitcher exceed the previous season’s innings by more than a certain number. Many call it babying, and now we have pitchers who can’t throw much more than 100 pitches in a game, don’t really know how to go deep into games, and now aren’t allowed to try. But the babying hasn’t stopped the epidemic of Tommy John surgeries. Are these young pitchers coming to the majors with weakened or frayed ligaments, already close to tearing? As mentioned, some have it happen long before they reach the majors, if they reach it at all. As a result, the number of complete games has dwindled steadily down through the years.
Bob Gibson, who pitched from 1959 to 1975, threw 255 complete games. Ferguson Jenkins, who retired in 1979, had 267 route-going performances, while Steve Carlton, who pitched until 1984, went the distance 254 times. Yet Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, all of whom won more than 300 games and pitched until 2007 and 2008, threw just 100, 109 and 56 complete games respectively. See the trend, even for great pitchers.
And then along came analytics, the new math of baseball, which in the hands of computer literate young General Managers and their statisticians, has started to turn the game upside down. And part of that is their belief, via the stats, that starting pitchers should not be allowed to navigate a lineup a third time because their effectiveness diminishes substantially. Maybe it diminishes because they’ve never been taught or trained to go deeper into games. Thus we have today’s analytical-inclined managers yanking starters in the fifth or sixth innings despite the hurler having pitched effectively to that point. In comes a parade of hard-throwing relievers to attempt to finish the game. Where’s the guarantee that the relievers will all be effective, witnessed by the Phillies bullpen flushing a 5-0 lead opening day when a dominant starter was yanked after just 68 pitches? The mathematicians can’t answer that one.
What is the answer?
In my mind, chances are that things won’t change much. Young pitchers will continue to blow out their elbows and yet won’t pitch more than five-plus or six-plus innings most starts. Even relievers who throw just an inning or two are susceptible to the injury. Are they not training correctly, maybe putting too much emphasis on weight lifting and strength training rather than just running and throwing, as pitchers used to do? Are they not pacing themselves correctly, throwing high heat from the opening inning instead of saving some of those extra-fast bullets for later in the game when they need them?
Maybe Major League Baseball should put together a panel made up of the great pitchers of the past, the ones mentioned here, and ask them how they did it, how they trained, their throwing schedules, how they paced themselves, what they did between starts. There certainly has to be a wealth of knowledge there. Let’s see the analytics boys argue with a group of pitchers who threw over 200 or 300 innings every year, completed games, some working in four-man rotations and explain why NONE OF THEM BLEW OUT THEIR ELBOWS.
Instead, today’s geniuses talk about going to six-man rotations, limiting the number of pitches and innings, and telling everyone that wins aren’t that important for starting pitchers. So the beat goes on. Can you imagine one of today’s managers, going back in time, and trying to take the ball from Bob Gibson with one out in the sixth inning because he didn’t feel he could navigate the lineup a third time. I guarantee you the man walking off the mound wouldn’t be Gibson, one of the most ferocious competitors the game has ever known.
Gibby was one of a handful of great starters who lived up to the old adage, if you don’t get him early, you won’t get him at all. That’s because the great ones knew how to pitch and pace, and would get stronger as the game went on. To see Koufax, Gibson, Seaver, Carlton et al dominant a game for nine innings was a thing to behold, part of the beauty of baseball that is now being lost. Perhaps the only pitcher today who reminds me of the old school guys is Houston’s Justin Verlander.
A Story to remember
One more quick story. On the night of July 2, 1963, the San Francisco Giants hosted the Milwaukee Braves at Candlestick Park. Starting that night was the Giants’ 25-year-old ace, Juan Marichal, who had a record of 12-3 coming in, against the ageless wonder, the great lefty Warren Spahn, who was already 11-3 at the age of 42. It turned into an epic matchup as both pitchers hung up goose egg after goose egg. The game was still scoreless after nine and the two hurlers continued to match serves into extra innings. Somewhere around the 13th or 14th inning Marichal was asked if he wanted to continue. He supposedly said something to the effect of, “If that old man (meaning Spahn) keeps going out there, how can I not.”
So they both continued to pitch. The game went into the 16th inning when the one and only Willie Mays hit a solo home run off Spahn to finally win it, 1-0. Think about that game for a minute. Each pitcher had gone the distance. Spahn threw 201 pitches that night, while Marichal threw 227. Today’s starters would need almost three full games to throw that many. Did all those pitches injure either pitcher? Nope. Marichal finished the year with a 25-8 mark, while Warren Spahn, at age 42, had a 23-7 season en route to becoming the winningest lefthander in baseball history with 363 career victories.
Let’s see what today’s pitching geniuses have to say about that one.
Bill Gutman — April 9, 2018
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THERE USED TO BE A BALLPARK
Here’s another one where I can’t take credit for the title. There Used to Be a Ballpark is a song written by Joe Raposo and recorded by Frank Sinatra for his 1973 album, Old Blue Eyes is Back. But what a song for older baseball fans who can no longer go to the ballparks of their youth. And for a simple reason. Most of the old parks are gone. Not only do teams not play there anymore, but those places full of great baseball memories for so many are really GONE, falling victim to the wrecking ball in the name of progress.
I’ve said for a long time that one of the saddest sights for baseball fans is to see that swinging metal ball slowly demolishing their favorite park. It’s a lot more heart rendering then the new method of imploding a stadium in a matter of seconds. With the wrecking ball you can see the those things you cherished being slowly and painfully crumbled and shattered, whether it simply be groups of seats, a favorite section where you liked to sit, the familiar scoreboard, old advertising signs on the outfield wall, the upper deck, litter strewn over the infield and overgrown grass in the outfield.
Being raised in Connecticut, just an hour from New York City, the ballparks of my youth were the old Yankee Stadium, the nearby Polo Grounds and that wonderful little stadium in Brooklyn, Ebbets Field. I was at all three as a kid and later on, as well. They’re gone now, housing developments where Ebbets and the Polo Grounds stood, and a ballfield for kids alongside the new Yankee Stadium, which is more amusement park than ballpark.
I remember the demise of all three. Once the Dodgers and Giants moved west in 1958, the handwriting was on the wall. Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley was ready to abandon old Ebbets anyway, wanting to build a new, domed stadium in Brooklyn. When he learned he wouldn’t be allowed to do it, he opted for the potential riches of southern California. Giants owner Horace Stoneham had no such notions of a new park. With attendance sagging at the antiquated Polo Grounds, he decided to follow O’Malley to the west coast. The Polo Grounds hung on for a few years as the expansionist Mets played there in 1962 and ’63, waiting for Shea Stadium to be completed. After that, there was no use for either ballpark. Ultimately, down they went.
I can remember seeing photos of each. The Ebbets Field scoreboard with it’s long-standing Schaefer Beer sign was still standing amidst the rubble. With the Polo Grounds it was the iconic center field clubhouse and Rheingold Beer, so far from home plate, that you still see in the photo as the rest of the stadium crumbled. Souvenir hunters managed to walk away with some keepsakes and some of the ballplayers even returned for a last look at the ballparks that they called home in their youth.
With Yankee Stadium it was the bit different. The original stadium, almost considered one of the wonders of the world when it opened in 1923 was remodeled 50 years later, with structural changes and about a 20,000 fan drop in capacity. But not even that could save it from the ultimate fate of most older ballparks. The powers that be decided they couldn’t add all the modern amenities to the ballpark and in 2009 opened the newly-built new Yankee Stadium alongside the old one. Some people tried to save the old ballpark but, alas, it was ultimately demolished. And in the new era of merchandising there was no scavenger hunt for souvenirs. Anything that could be salvaged from the old ballpark was sold for profit. So in a sense some of the feelings of melancholy that went with the loss of older stadiums like Ebbets and the Polo Grounds, went the way of the new order. Make a profit from everything you can.
But for the true baseball fans who sat and rooted for the home team so many times in these relics of the past, the new stadiums just didn’t have the same meaning, not with the variety of crazy foods, people spending as much time with their smartphones as watching the ballgames, and the outrageous prices being charged for everything. Only Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago remain as reminders of baseball’s past. Both have been renovated as much as possible and also have added expensive amenities, but at least the basic structures are still standing.
But besides the three ballparks in New York, there are other cherished baseball cathedrals that older fans still mourn and miss. Shibe Park (Connie Mack Stadium) in Philadelphia, Tiger Stadium in Detroit, the mammoth Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Braves Field in Boston, Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, Comiskey Park in Chicago, Crosley Field in Cincinnati, Griffith Stadium in Washington and the beloved Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. There are others, too, of course. Fans in New York already miss Shea Stadium, which opened in 1964 and is now gone. Other even newer parks have come and gone, replaced by ballparks that are supposedly geared toward the enjoyment of the fans but, in reality, were built to generate more revenue for the owners. Candlestick Park in San Francisco is gone, as well as Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, and Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, the all-purpose “cookie-cutter” stadiums. Those three lasted only about 30 years and thus did not elicit the same kind of sentiment as the older parks when they died.
But for those of us lucky enough to have watched games in these relics of the past, the memories remain clear. For me, it’s Mickey, Willie and the Duke patrolling center field; the boys of summer forever young in Brooklyn, and that great decade from 1947 to 1957 when New York was the center of the baseball world. Seeing those ballparks go still tugs at the heartstrings of older fans. I’m sure when they pass by or visit the hallowed ground where they stood, they all stop and think.
There used to be a ballpark here.
To complete our journey, here’s Sinatra singing, There Used to Be a Ballpark
Bill Gutman — March 30, 2018
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I SAW IT ON THE RADIO
I can’t take credit for the title of this blog, but I certainly know what it means to me. It takes me back to my formative years when baseball – and a few other sports – could be totally enjoyed on the radio. The main reason was the broadcasters. Most of them were adept at painting word pictures of the game in front of them and were able to convey it to the listener. Not only the game action, but the ambiance in the ballpark, the reactions of the fans, and all the nuances of the individual ballplayers. They also worked alone without an analyst to go over every single play – sometimes every single pitch – ad nauseam. And there weren’t endless commercials within each inning. A trip to the mound didn’t have a sponsor. A call to the bullpen didn’t have a sponsor. Giving an out-of-town score didn’t have a sponsor.
No, it was pure baseball with maybe just a beer, cigarette or cigar sponsor in those days. I’m talking about the 1950s when baseball on the radio became a big part of my life. Living in Stamford, Connecticut, I grew into a baseball fan listening to the likes of Mel Allen, Red Barber, Jim Woods, Russ Hodges, Ernie Harwell, Connie Desmond and a very young Vin Scully. They weren’t the only ones. Out of town broadcasters such as Jack Buck and Harry Caray in St. Louis and Bob Prince in Pittsburgh, along with some others, also fit the bill. Some of them may have been “homers,” favoring or rooting for the home teams, but they all knew how to call a game on the radio, giving listeners a real taste of the game and an absolutely enjoyable experience.
Television was still somewhat in it’s infancy then, often with one camera behind home plate, so you didn’t get all the views you get today as well as replays and slow motion shots of every close play. In that respect, you could enjoy the game as much on the radio as the TV. The broadcasters then did both, often switching between the TV and radio side every three innings or after half a game. They were adept at both, knowing that some things they described in detail on the radio didn’t have to be described on television because the viewer had already seen it. That’s something else today’s announcers should learn, but with the prevalence of the three-person booth today, often manned by former players, it’s endless yakking from start to finish.
From a personal standpoint, here are some of my poignant memories of listening to baseball on the radio. One was constant, laying in bed with school the next day and listening to night games when I should have been sleeping. That’s how much I loved it and listening often helped me get to sleep.
I remember once being home from school when I was sick. Nothing major, but enough for my parents to call the doctor. They made house calls back then. I was probably about 11 years old then and was in bed listening to the Yankees with Mel Allen at the mic. The doctor arrived and after a quick examination decided I needed a penicillin shot. That’s when they turned the radio off and that’s when I started crying. It wasn’t so much the fear of getting the needle in my derriere, but that they turned off the game. To me, that just wasn’t fair.
When I was 14 years old in the summer of 1957 I went to a local day camp with some of my friends. We had one overnight trip, to another camp in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where we played a baseball game against their campers. That night they put us up in a barn with canvas cots about five inches off the floor where we’d sleep. I brought along an old portable radio, long before the small transistor radios came to the fore. Naturally, I couldn’t sleep so I started playing with the dial on the radio. Since AM radio “drifts” at night, you could often get far away stations. Bingo! I suddenly heard a station out of St. Louis with a Cardinals game on. I remember that Larry Jackson was pitching for the Cards and the great Jack Buck was broadcasting. Naturally, the game relaxed me. I also recall one thing that Buck said. The Cards had a rookie catcher named Gene Green, and when he came up to hit Buck said, “Here comes Green, the green catcher.” I thought that was pretty clever then and still is clever now. Buck was a classic and baseball on the radio was tops.
That same year was the final season for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants before they moved to Los Angeles and San Francisco respectively. For the next four years the Yankees were the only game in town. But wait! There were people thinking about the void so many baseball fans in New York would have. The next year a fine announcer named Les Keiter would broadcast re-creations of the Dodgers and Giants games from the west coast. They were on late at night because of the time difference, but I had that radio on as often as I could because of the masterful job Keiter would do.
He was obviously in a studio in New York getting the play-by-play over a teletype machine. He would hit some kind of wooden mallet against a block of wood to simulate the bat hitting the ball and he had canned fan noise – cheers and and even some booing. But because he knew the players so well and took a few liberties with what he couldn’t see, he made the game exciting and real.
I can remember one Giants game when the great Willie Mays tripled. Keiter immediately raised his voice with the same excitement as if he was at the game. I can still hear him as he shouted, “You should see Willie run. There goes his cap.” Because I had seen Mays play so often I immediately visualized him racing around second and his cap flying off as it did so often. Re-creation or not, Les Keiter made it real. Something that could only happen on the radio.
Two more quick things. Football on the radio wasn’t quite the same as baseball. Maybe it was because I didn’t listen all that much though I was also a football fan in those days. I do recall listening to a New York Giants/Cleveland Browns game when they were heated rivals in the late 1950s. The announcer was Marty Glickman, a former Olympic sprinter who became an outstanding broadcaster of football and basketball. The game was close, the Giants trailing but with the ball late. Glickman suddenly turned homer and implored his audience, “The Giants need your help. I want everyone out there to start yelling, Go Giants Go! Go Giants Go! It was unconventional, but I remember it psyching me up, giving the listener/fan a special feeling. He made you feel as if you were part of the game. Listening on the radio.
And if you were a boxing fan no one did it better than Don Dunphy. He could broadcast a fight on the radio and also make you feel as if you were there. He would describe every movement, every punch, jab, hook, whether it hit or missed, how hard it missed, the effect on the opponent. He was an absolute master and all on the radio.
All the great sports broadcasters are pretty much gone now. When Vin Scully retired last year he was the last of the dying breed, working alone, refusing to have an “analyst” with him. His artistry wouldn’t have been the same with someone constantly interrupting with often repetitive and innocuous information. That’s why baseball on the radio will never been the same. Today’s broadcasters, even if they have the ability, don’t have the chance to do it the right way. There are too many voices, too many commercials, too much nonsensical banter. For me, there only one way to describe the way baseball used to be on the radio.
It was beautiful.
Bill Gutman — March 28, 2018
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BUT THEY STILL CALLED IT BASKETBALL
By the middle of the Roaring Twenties, also often called The Golden Age of Sports, baseball was already the national pastime. Babe Ruth was hitting home runs like no man before him and the Major Leagues were firmly established as an American institution. Both the National Football League and National Hockey League were still in their infancy, evolving and changing. But each already had annual champions and players such as Red Grange on the gridiron and Howie Morenz on the ice who were attracting large followings. As for basketball, well, that was another story, a very strange one in some respects, and one that younger and even middle-aged fans of the court game might not know. And if they knew what the game was like in the mid-1920s, they’d surely be surprised, maybe even shocked.
For openers, there was no established professional league, no NBA, and really no standards for a basketball court and rules of the game. It all could change on any given night. Some of the best professional teams didn’t even play in a league. They barnstormed, going from game to game against other independent teams. Or if they were in a league they also barnstormed on days when they didn’t have a league game. Most players were paid on a per-game basis, many getting just ten or fifteen dollars a game. The star might get twenty-five. All the players had to get to the game on their own, whether by car, taxi, trolley or even by ferry. Some just walked. It all depended on where the game was played and how far they had to travel. Locker rooms might be just hooks on a wall and there often weren’t showers for the players. Some came and left the game wearing their uniforms.
If you think that was bad, the playing conditions could be worse. Here are the variety of conditions players, even the best players, faced on any given night. Sometimes they would play on a “real” court, lined for basketball. Maybe it was in a large gymnasium or in a high school The college game was more standardized then and most colleges had real basketball courts. But the early pros weren’t always welcome. As a result, they played what they called basketball in some strange places.
Sometimes the “court” would be in the basement of a building. I’ve spoken with some pioneer players from those days and they described courts with posts or stanchions – building supports – right on the court. They could use them to pick off a defensive man. Ouch! They also played in dance halls where the baskets were set up right on the dance floor. Sometimes the fans were allowed to dance at halftime, getting dirt and dust on the floor and making it quite slippery. Players sometimes had to put Vaseline on their shoes to get better traction.
There were other times when owners of the hall didn’t want the players to scuff up their floor, so they would cover it with a tarpaulin which would shift and move when the players cut and stopped short. Needless to say, that wreaked havoc with the legs and calves.
Then there was the net and cage games. Some of the early pro games were played on courts surrounded either by a loose net or a stiff wire cage, preventing the ball from going out of bounds. That’s where the nickname cagers came from. It was a completely different game that way. Players had to wear protective padding in case they ran into or were slammed into the wire caging. The net was loose but one of the strange rules allowed a defender who trapped the offensive man in the corner to reach out and pull the netting around him. The result was a jump ball. Substitutes had to enter the game via a door in the cage or by lifting the net and going under it. With the ball unable to go out of bounds it was a fast game.
Then there was the backboards, if there were any. Some courts just had a basket over the end of the court held in place by a horizontal pipe. So a shot had to be on target. A player couldn’t take the conventional layup off the backboard. If there was a backboard it could be made, sometimes crudely, of wood. Occasionally they find “glass” backboards, but not that often. And some backboards were made of loose wire. I remember one of the players I spoke with from that era telling me some players had the knack of throwing the ball at the wire backboard right above the hoop. Because the wire would give, the ball would hit and and just die there, falling straight down through the hoop. Don’t know what they called that kind of shot.
There was a very strong player in the early days named Jack Inglis. Inglis played for the old Troy (NY) Trojans before the start of World War I. I was told he would often jump up and grab the wire backboard, pull himself up with one arm, then take a pass from a teammate with his other hand and dunk it through the hoop. Yep, it was legal to do that then. Players could also double-dribble, dribbling then stopping, then dribbling again. It was called the two-hand dribble and was legal.
But it was a fast game. Besides the layup, the shot of choice was the two-hand set shot. Many players of that era were crack shots and worked to get in the clear to launch it. As one of the players told me, “You moved the ball and you moved yourself.” Of course, moving the ball wasn’t always easy. The early basketballs were made of leather and had a rubber bladder that was inflated inside the leather covering. The opening was then laced up and because the laces protruded from the surface of the ball you didn’t always get a true bounce. Whew!
Many years ago I had the privilege of interviewing Nat Holman, one of the greatest of the professional pioneer players. Holman played with of the great barnstorming teams of the day, the Original Celtics. They were New York based and not related to the present day Boston Celtics. Holman also coached at City College of New York (CCNY) then, continuing to coach into the 1950s. His 1949-50 CCNY team won both the NCAA championship and NIT (National Invitational Tournament) in the same year, the only team ever to accomplish that feat. The two tourneys were not played concurrently then, as they would be in later years.
When I spoke to Nat Holman, who would be live to the ripe old age of 98, he was already in his 80s and still running basketball camp in the Catskill Mountains of New York. He described what the game of the 1920s was like, talking about the cage and net games, as well as many of the strange places described above. I knew from reading about him that Holman was one of the great competitors in those early days, a guy who hated to lose. And as he talked about how rough the game was then, especially in the cage, his eyes had a fire in them as if he was reliving the moments he was describing. It was apparent he loved the old game despite how different it was from the game of today. Born in 1896, Nat Holman lived until 1995, so he certainly saw all the changes in the professional game and the great players who began coming into the NBA at the end of the 1950s. I’m not so sure he’d approve of the game as it’s played today, but would probably admire the athleticism of today’s stars.
But think about it. Can you imagine the likes of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan or LeBron James playing the 1920s style of basketball, with the strange and changing conditions. It would be a game very foreign to them and the thought of it might make them cringe. Sure, it was a different game then . . .
. . .But they still called it basketball.
Bill Gutman — March 26, 2018
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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
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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
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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
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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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