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Baseball the Way It Was

Updated on August 1, 2018
Babe Ruth, the ultimate World Series hero
Babe Ruth, the ultimate World Series hero

Appreciate Baseball In Time for the World Series

Something called the All Star Game just took place, and your friends are starting to talk excitedly about the baseball post–season. You’re still bemused that these otherwise intelligent people are enthralled by a game with such a high standing around-to-action ratio. Nevertheless, you know that very soon their major focus, and that of millions of Americans like them, will be on something pretentiously called the World Series. So maybe it’s worth taking another look at the sport and seeing whether you might enjoy going along for the ride this year.

The first step in appreciating baseball is to learn that all that standing around is deceptive. Every play calls for some mental evaluation of the circumstances and possibilities, whether by the manager or the players themselves. Pitching strategy was always based on the opponents’ known strengths and weaknesses, but is now informed by computer-stored data on performance against specific pitchers, right-handed or left-handed, with or without men on base, and in particular ball parks.

Pitch by pitch, you’ll see a catcher signal the type of throw he recommends and the pitcher indicate his agreement or disagreement. Sometimes they conduct a quick conference to align their thinking. If things go really wrong, or if the pitcher merely seems to be tiring, the manager must consider a relief pitcher or pitchers, and these selections are often based on the above-mentioned data, most commonly on confronting a right-handed batter with a right-handed pitcher and vice versa. Empirical studies seem to dictate those match-ups when possible.

The positions of fielders must be adjusted to the power and speed of each batter, and when opposition runners are on base, mutual understandings must be established as to their coverage when in motion. Correspondingly, the manager of the team at bat must determine when one of his men is overmatched and substitute another hitter. Once his men are on base, he must decide how to try to move them along, with bunts, stolen bases (not felonies in any state), and hit-and-run (actually run and hit) plays among his options.

Even beyond the mental calculations underlying the seeming inaction, baseball provides a great deal of drama for the initiated. As with many human traits, batters and pitchers are distributed along a wide spectrum of skills. Unlike the sports in which the ball can be given repeatedly to the best runner or shooter, baseball is a nine-person team game, and each person in the lineup gets a chance to hit (except the pitchers in the American League, to add to the variations). So with a game hanging in the balance, one might see one team’s star hitter facing the other team’s ace pitcher in a clash of Titans. However, one is just as likely to see instead a lightly regarded hitter, valued for his fielding, facing the ace pitcher in more of a David-and-Goliath contest. Or a substitute pitcher pressed into service may come up against the opponent’s hardest hitters. The occasions in which David bested Goliath have been frequent enough to form a good part of World Series lore (see below).

Both the expected and the unexpected have provided some of the magic moments that make the World Series, if not all of baseball, a magnet for sports lovers. Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle hitting record numbers of home runs, Christy Mathewson pitching three consecutive shutouts, and Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson setting strikeout records, were predictable. But a disabled Kirk Gibson coming off the bench to hit a game-winning home run off the game’s then greatest relief pitcher, Dennis Eckersley, was not. Nor was Series history’s only perfect game by an otherwise undistinguished pitcher, Don Larsen.

For sheer drama, how about the saga of Walter Johnson? Considered by many the greatest pitcher of all time, he labored consistently and brilliantly for 17 years before his Washington Senators made it to the World Series. Astoundingly, he lost both of his starting assignments and only got a last-ditch opportunity when his team rallied to tie the last game. With three excellent innings of relief pitching and a fluke winning run for the Senators, he finally got that long yearned-for Series victory. In almost a mirror image the following year, he won his first two starts and was beaten badly in the last game, which was also his final World Series appearance.

So a bit of reading on baseball history and discussion with those otherwise intelligent fans you know could open up a whole new area of fascination and reward.

Way Over .400

Most baseball fans with any feel for stats can tell you that Ted Williams was the last man to bat .400, and they can even tell you he hit .406 in 1941. But how many know who has the highest single season batting average and what it was?

Actually, the answer is a little cloudy. Since rules and playing conditions were frequently changed before 1900, most official records begin with the next year, which, coincidentally, was the first year of the American League. For many years, Rogers Hornsby, the great second baseman of the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League, was credited with the highest average, .424 in 1924. Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers and George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns were thought to have compiled the highest average in the AL, .420, in 1911 and 1922, respectively.

However, more recent research, aided by computers, has determined that Napoleon Lajoie of the Philadelphia Athletics batted .426 in 1901, the AL's very first season. That gave him both the AL and major league records. While Cobb and Hornsby are still recognizable names, very few have heard of Lajoie. For the record, he played for 21 seasons, even managing for four of them, won five batting titles, and averaged .338 lifetime. Although we have to take the word of the long departed in the more subjective area of fielding, he was considered by some as the greatest second baseman of all time. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in the second year of balloting, 1937.

The memory of Cobb, holder of the highest lifetime batting average of .366, has been kept alive by several biographies and a movie. His snarling competitiveness, combined with 12 batting championships and base stealing records that endured until recent decades, made good copy and assured him a place alongside the sport's paramount icon, Babe Ruth. Hornsby is more dimly remembered, but was portrayed in a 50's Hollywood movie about one of his pitchers, Grover Cleveland Alexander, who was played by Ronald Reagan.

By the way, Ruth once hit .393 on the way to batting .342 lifetime. Williams was great, but there were others with awesome stats.

Bob Feller, famed fireballer, returned from war for part of the season
Bob Feller, famed fireballer, returned from war for part of the season | Source

70 years Ago: We Made It Through the War

August 14, 1945: The Japanese surrender and World War II is over. Major league baseball is in the midst of its last season with rosters containing the very young, the very old, and those with disabilities significant enough to bar them from military service. A one-armed outfielder, several teen-aged boys still in high school, and a number of retirees have helped to keep the national pastime going. A women's league, immortalized in the movie, "A League of Their Own," has operated for three years to maintain fan interest.

But there are already glimmers of the return to the glorious playing level of 1941, which enthralled the nation with Ted Williams' .406 batting average and Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. A handful of baseball's earliest enlistees, including fireballer Bob Feller and slugger Hank Greenberg have been discharged and have joined their teams in mid-season. In fact, Greenberg, who once menaced Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs with 58 of his own, will hit a grand slam home run on the last day of the season and two more in the World Series to help the Detroit Tigers to the World Championship.

That taste of the future will have to be fully satisfied in 1946 when the great majority of the regulars return. Superstars Williams, DiMaggio, Feller, and Stan Musial will take up right where they left off and baseball will break all its attendance records. The 1945 season will end with a mediocre World Series (the Chicago Cubs will lose) and everyone connected to baseball will just be glad that they made it through.

The All Star Game: Lots of History Now

The 2015 version of Major League Baseball's All Star Game saw the Americans win their third straight, 6-3, and narrow the National League's overall edge to 43-41 with two ties. Those numbers contrast with an uncertain, modest start to what happily became the game's Midsummer Classic.

The City of Chicago was sponsoring a World's Fair in 1933, and the globe's deeply depressed economy promised financial disaster for the event. Civic-minded local sports writers imagined that a baseball game played by the best of both leagues would attract at least a respectable number of baseball fans, including out-of-town visitors, and that the publicity would gain even more national attention.

Sports and Fair promoters quickly organized an All Star Game to be contested in the Windy City by the finest of the two leagues. As an added touch, the teams would be managed by the men who had won the most pennants, the recently retired John McGraw of the New York Giants, with 10, and the still active Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics, with 9.

The AL won, with the margin appropriately provided by a home run off the bat of the all-time home run king, Babe Ruth. And that should have been the history of the All Star Game as originally conceived to boost the 1933 Fair. But apparently everyone had such a good time that plans were made to hold a second game in New York in July, 1934.

The Giants' ace lefty, Carl Hubbell, a future Hall of Famer, opened on the mound in his home Polo Grounds. After letting the first two batters get on base, he proceeded to strike out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin in a row. The five, all of whom were elected to the Hall of Fame, included three of the top sluggers of all time, and a recent .390 hitter.

Hubbell's pitching feat was so awesome that it was spoken of with wonder for decades. More than a half-century later, in the 1986 inter-league contest, Fernando Valenzuela of the Los Angeles Dodgers would equal King Carl's number, but not the quality of the 1934 victims.

It also clinched the idea of making the All Star Game an annual event. It has taken place very year since 1933 (even twice a couple of times) except for 1945, when wartime travel priorities discouraged the assemblage. As indicated by the stats above, the leagues have fought on even terms, although each dominated for periods of time. The superstars have often shone but have often been eclipsed by long forgotten less greats.

All in all, a glorious history of over eight decades for what was designed as a one-year wonder.

Jackie Robinson, the chosen trailblazer
Jackie Robinson, the chosen trailblazer

Jackie Robinson: The Silent (for a while) Crusader

The story is well known: baseball's color line was broken by a proud and fiery athlete who subordinated his passions and sense of right to irrevocably open that door. Magazine articles, books, TV programs, and two Hollywood movies have chronicled this inspiring tale.

But how many have paused to reflect on the human toll that playing this role took from perhaps the most honored individual in baseball history. Raised in California and thus never subjected to the full impact of mid-20th century Southern Jim Crow, Jackie Robinson was an acclaimed four-sport athlete at UCLA before World War II made him an officer in a segregated unit at a Southern base. An altercation over seating in a bus, a decade before Rosa Parks' defiance, resulted in a court martial, an acquittal, and an early discharge.

Robinson, new to the Negro Leagues, almost immediately caught the attention of Brooklyn Dodgers scouts seeking a player suitable to become big league baseball's first officially recognized black player. Dodgers' general manager Branch Rickey invited Robinson to be that man if he could commit himself to total restraint in the face of the insults and threats inevitably to be expected from fans and players opposed to the bold, if long overdue, breakthrough.

The rest is history, though it can hardly be understood in its emotional terms. Jackie made the bargain, played a brilliant year at the Montreal farm team, became rookie of the year for Brooklyn in 1947, and settled in as the Dodgers' regular second baseman the following year. But those three seasons contained the unrelenting tension of on-field racial invective, off-field insults and physical threats, barring from Deep South Spring training hotels and restaurants and even some in the North, rumors of strikes against his presence, and the constant knowledge that he had to keep his temper in the face of all the provocation.

While the events of the first two Brooklyn years are quite well known, not as much attention has been focused on 1946 in Montreal. Robinson's .349 MVP performance for a Canadian team obscured the need for separate housing and eating arrangements during the Florida Spring training, the hostility from many players from the States and their fans, and the loneliness of Jackie and recent bride Rachel so far from home. Robert Weintraub's, "The Victory Season" sheds light on this interlude.

In any event, the restraints came off in 1949. The "social experiment" had worked; Jackie had proved both his athletic value and the fact that an African American could be a better guy than most of his peers. He batted .342, won the National League's MVP Award and continued a Hall of Fame career that concluded with a .311 lifetime batting average and six World Series appearances. He expressed himself vocally about field activities and spoke out forcefully on civil rights for the rest of his life.

Post-retirement life was tragically short. With a severe case of diabetes, Jackie Robinson was gone at 53. The voice was again silenced, but the impact of the sacrifice he made in the 1940's imperishable. Every major league team retired his number 42 in tribute.

The Dynasties

It was easier in the old days. You merely had to finish first in an eight-team league over a 154-game schedule and you were automatically in the World Series. If you repeated the next year, with or without a Series win, there would be talk of a dynasty.

The first, fantastic as it may seem, was the Chicago Cubs. With the best season won-loss record of all time,116-36 for a percentage of .763,, they waltzed into the first of three consecutive World Series in 1906. While they lost that one to their crosstown rivals, the "Hitless Wonders" White Sox, the Tinker to Evers to Chance Cubs won the next two over the Detroit Tigers led by Ty Cobb. Cobb's team lost a third World Series in a row to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1909, but just making it there again gave them a claim to dynasty status.

Connie Mack's first of two dynasties dominated the first half of the next decade. They were world champions in 1910, 1911, and 1913, and were upset by the Boston Braves in 1914. The other Boston team, the Red Sox, with a great left-handed pitcher named Babe Ruth, won in 1915, 1916, and 1918. Ruth's conversion to the outfield and his sale to the New York Yankees made the latter the team of the late 1920's (1926 pennant, 1927 and 1928 World Series sweeps), but not before John McGraw's New York Giants went to the World Series four times in a row, 1921-24, including two victories over the Yanks.

Mack's second dynasty began with a 1929 beating of the Cubs and continued with a 1930 triumph over the St. Louis Cardinals, but the Redbirds reversed the result in 1931. Their colorful Gashouse Gang also won it all in 1934. The Yankees became the first to win four consecutive world titles, 1936-39, with Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Bill Dickey in starring roles. Briefly out in 1940, the Yanks ran off three more World Series appearances, beating the Brooklyn Dodgers and splitting two with the Cardinals. The St. Louis dynasty, now led by Stan Musial, rolled on with wins in 1944 and 1946.

Topping their mark of the 1930's, the Yanks ran off five straight world championships, 1949-53. Although their frequent opponents, the Brooklyn Dodgers, won it all only in 1955, the "Boys of Summer" (Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, et al) earned at least league dynasty status with pennants in 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, and 1956. The Dodgers fared better in the World Series after moving to Los Angeles, taking the crown in 1959, 1963, and 1965 before being swept by the Baltimore Orioles in 1966. The Orioles were back in 1969, 1970, and 1971, but were world champs only in 1970.

Beginning in 1969, the leagues had divisions and their winners had to face off in a playoff before vying for the world title. So the dynasties of the 70's, the Oakland Athletics of Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, and the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati (Pete Rose and Joe Morgan) had to overcome an additional obstacle, as did the Yankees latest edition of 1976-78, aided by a Jackson transfer.

The 80's and 90's added more divisions, rounds, and total games, making dynasty-building even harder, but the Oakland A's managed to put together three straight World Series appearances, 1989-91, although winning only one of them.

So does dynasty need a new definition? The Red Sox were world champions in 2004, 2007, and 2013. The San Francisco Giants did it in 2010, 2012, and 2014. In the era of free agency, does it matter how much of the team stayed together?

Rating the Old Timers

Television coverage of baseball more or less coincided with my becoming a fan in the 1940's. I saw the World Series beginning in 1947, the All Star Game starting in 1949, and day-to-day telecasts of three New York teams from that time on. So future Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and many others were active figures who appeared on the TV screen, albeit in black and white and maybe 12 inches in diameter, and far more often than I got to the ballpark.

Older contemporaries told me of "seeing" fabled figures of an earlier era, but it was usually in newsreels and in their minds as they listened to a game on the radio. But their confidence in the impressions they formed from those occasional sightings as well as from the sports pages were as strong as mine. They could argue forcefully for the superiority of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Walter Johnson and back up their views with the records that those worthies had established and still held. The "all-time" teams put together by sports authorities were typically dominated by what were historic figures to me.

Writers, broadcasters, and the ever-growing number of baseball pundits are still picking all-time teams. In fact, in connection with the most recent All Star Game (2015), the four top players of each franchise were chosen. But who can genuinely rate the players of 1912 against those of today or any intervening period? The game, the equipment, even some of the rules have changed substantially over the years. Ty Cobb stood out in a "dead ball" era, when he compiled the highest lifetime batting average ever and stole bases prolifically. But in his time, a dozen home runs could lead the league, top pitchers could win 30 or more multiple times, and base stealing was a crucial talent.

The rules and the ball itself were altered beginning in 1920 to favor the hitters and to make the home run the dramatic centerpiece of the game ever since. Almost doubling the number of teams, transcontinental travel, night games, and playoffs have changed the sport even more over the decades. The athletes themselves are on average bigger, better fed, and stronger. Many use performance enhancers of varying legitimacy. Is it reasonable to compare their achievements to those of previous generations?

In the 1940's, long after they had retired, Cobb's record of 4,191 hits, Ruth's 714 home runs, and Lou Gehrig's 2,130 consecutive games, among a few others, were regarded as unassailable, logical markers of a special breed of ball players. Those and many other records are gone, as are the memories of those who actually saw them made. No one alive can really judge those greats against those who followed them. But one of baseball's endearing peculiarities is that some will continue to try--and have a lot of fun doing it.


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