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The End of Baseball’s Golden Years
During baseball’s golden years, the season ran from mid-April to the end of September and each team played a symmetrical series of twenty-two games against all seven other teams in their league, eleven at home, eleven away. After one hundred and fifty-four games, the team with the highest winning percentage won the championship pennant and faced the winner of the minor league pennant in the seven-game World Series, the highlight of the baseball season and the sports year.
After the World Series, the sports world went into hibernation. College graduates, who were fewer then, attended alma mater football and basketball games, but neither of these sports awakened the devotion of today. There were ten National Football League teams including the Giants, Bears, Packers, Steelers, Eagles, Redskins and Lions. They played on Sundays, but most games attracted less than 20,000 spectators. This was before television, but games were broadcast on the radio, and in fact I was listening to the Giant-Dodger football game on December 7, 1941, when, over the objection of a sportswriter, the game was stopped to announce the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor . There was no National Basketball Association and although people watched four American teams in the six-team National Hockey League, ninety-nine percent of the players came from Canada, and games at the old Madison Square Garden were a way to pass the time while waiting. that baseball teams go to Florida for spring training.
The half century that passed in this way is called by old-timers the “Golden Age of Baseball”. Sportswriters who remember it call it the “stability era.” The first change occurred in 1953, when the National League’s last-place Braves moved from Boston, where attendance had fallen below 300,000 a year, to Milwaukee. There, under manager Charlie Grimm, with Hank Aaron and Eddie Matthews each hitting forty homers a year and Warren Spahn and Lou Burdette each winning twenty games a year, attendance jumped to two million and the Braves began finishing first and second . It upset the old symmetry and tradition, but even the purists had to admit that the first break with the Golden Years improved baseball.
In 1954, the last-place Browns in the American League moved from St. Louis, where they drew fewer than 300,000 fans, to Baltimore, the hometown of the old Orioles, founded in 1882. There John McGraw, Wilbert Robinson and “Hit-’em-where -they didn’t” Vee Willie Keeler invented the “Small Ball”-bunting, base-stealing, hit-and-run game–years before its new inventors, the Gashouse Gang and Eddie Stankey, were even born. After the move, the Browns took over the old Oriole name and began to draw over a million fans a year and to produce a team that had Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Boog Powell and four pitchers with twenty games each in one season. Again, if any change in the old institution so wrapped in tradition can be called positive, the resurrection of the Baltimore Orioles was another positive change. But how often the first small breaks in an ancient levee lead to a series of worse breaks!
The following year, the Athletics, a team of Connie Mack, Lefty Grove, Jimmy Fox, Mickey Cochrane, Rube Waddell, Eddie Collins, Chief Bender and Eddie Plank moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City – a far more significant break with the old tradition. Before World War I, the Athletics were the Athens of Major League Baseball to the Sparta of the New York Giants. During their 1927-1932 renaissance, they finished first three times, second only to the Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig Yankees, three times and won the World Series twice. However, after 1933, as the Great Depression deepened, the Athletics had a string of seasons in which they lost two-thirds of their games. Attendance dropped to less than four thousand per game and Connie Mack had to sell Mickey Cochrane, Lefty Grove, Jimmy Fox, Max Bishop and others to keep the franchise afloat.
With the migration of the Athletics, Kansas City became the westernmost major league city. Although the team went on to lose two games out of three, it drew over a million fans, but soon fell into the hands of an owner who found baseball slow and boring. To make it more interesting, he installed a zoo behind the field, moved the fences to favor the hitters on his team, had fresh baseballs delivered to the umpire via an electronic rabbit, and dressed his ground crew in space suits. In addition, he pioneered the use of designated hitters for at-bats for pitchers, tried to introduce designated base runners, and moved from four balls and three strikes to shortening the game and the less boring three balls and two strikes.
For baseball purists, the biggest and least forgivable shakeup of tradition came in 1958, the year the Giants left New York and followed the Brooklyn Dodgers west to California. True, Dodger attendance jumped to two and then three million in Los Angeles, two and three times the 35,000-capacity Ebbets Fields. Angelenos came to see Sandy Koufax, Don Drydale, Willie Davis and Tommy Davis (no relation) and Maury Wills. But it wasn’t the same; the attention was not so long; the intensity was not that high. In Brooklyn, the fans came early for batting practice, stayed the full nine innings, knew the players without cards. The Angelenos took off in the top of the third and buckled down after the bottom of the seventh to get a jump on the highway.
The Giants’ new home at Candlestick Park, outside San Francisco, was as strange in the cold and windy weather as the Polo Grounds was in its tub-shaped dimensions, but a steady stream of great players appeared on the field. In addition to Willie Mays, among them were Hall of Famers Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marihal and Gaylord Perry, as well as the three Allouses, Felix, Matty and Jesus, Harvey Kuenn, Johnny Antonelli, Jack Sanford and Mike McCormick. Hall of Famers Duke Snider and Warren Spahn and two-hundred-game winner Billy Pierce finished their careers there, and the Giants’ attendance doubled from what it had been at the Polo Grounds.
The move to California strengthened the finances of both the Giants and the Dodgers, but in terms of baseball tradition, moving the Dodgers from Ebbets Fields and the Giants from the Polo Grounds to California for financial reasons was the equivalent of moving the Houses of Parliament from London to Liverpool as part of a real estate strategy. Certainly, then, for baseball purists and old-time Giants and Dodgers fans alike, 1957 was the final year of baseball’s golden age, and 1958 the first of baseball’s decline years.
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