Baseball -- the game that was

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Town Crier Sports Staff

Baseball has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. At one time, baseball was without question the number one sport in America. From the turn of the 20th century until the end of the 1960s, baseball was America's past time. Free agency and high salaries changed everything.

I feel sorry for kids growing up today. The innocence I knew as a child has been replaced by a more fast paced media where television and the internet rule what kids think about their heroes of today. As much as I would like to turn back the clock, I would not trade growing up in the 1960s for anything. Baseball was played on city street corners and in almost every backyard in rural America. It was a time when baseball fans depended on radio rather than Sportscenter to describe every play.

There was no cable television or ESPN, just one game per week on national television. Everyone looked forward to Saturday afternoons, hoping that their favorite team would be featured, as broadcasters Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek called the games.

When the World Series rolled around, all games were played in the daytime. Teams didn't worry about television ratings and sponsorships. Baseball fans would take off work and kids would skip school to watch the American and National League Champions play for the most cherished prize in sports.

In those days, you could count on your favorite team having the same players year after year. Fans could truly have heroes to worship and cheer for season after season. As the All-Star game approaches, I think back to how it used to be when the game really meant something to the players.

The All-Star teams in the 1960s consisted of a Who's Who of Hall of Fame players. The American League boasted such stars as Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson, Al Kaline and Carl Yastrzemski, while the National League offered up Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Pete Rose and Bob Gibson, just to name a few.

The game was so important that Rose once ran over a promising young catcher named Ray Fosse to score the winning run for the National Leaguers. Fosse was never the same player after the violent collision at home plate. It may sound like dirty baseball, but it was the way the game was played then, and the fans loved it.

Both leagues had 10 teams. There was no East, West or Central Divisions. Playoffs did not exist. Teams played 162 games, and after a long, grueling season, the two teams left standing advanced to the World Series.

The Fourth of July was always my favorite day of the year because almost every team in baseball played a doubleheader that day. Doubleheaders are rare today. The owners can't afford to give the fans a free game because of the astronomical salaries the players demand.

Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, had a saying, "Let's play two." It was a thrill to get to see your favorite players running down long fly balls on a hot summer day or drilling home runs over the fences as the crowds roared their approval. The best thing about a doubleheader was the pitching match-ups and the fact that almost every player on each roster would get into at least one of the two games.

Normally, the Dodgers would play the Giants on Independence Day. When you opened up the morning paper, the pitching match-ups would read: Game one-- Los Angeles, Sandy Koufax (10-1) vs. San Francisco, Juan Marichal (9-1); Game two-- Los Angeles, Don Drysdale (8-2) vs. San Francisco, Gaylord Perry (7-3). Four Hall of Fame pitchers facing each other in one day is something you would never see in present dall baseball. And that was just two of the teams. The Cubs and the Cardinals would throw their aces against each other as would the Pirates and the Reds. I couldn't wait to get the newspaper the next day to read the box scores and see who had hit home runs, how many hits each player had and the pitching line of the hurlers.

Most every team had at least two or more Hall of Fame players in their lineup. For instance, in the National League, the Reds featured Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, and for the first part of the decade, Frank Robinson. The Giants boasted Mays, Marichal, Perry and Willie McCovey. The Cubs had Banks, Ferguson Jenkins, and sweet swinging Billy Williams. Pittsburgh had Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski in their lineup. Cardinals fans couldn't wait to ride the Redbird Express to watch hometown heroes Bob Gibson, Orlando Cepeda and Lou Brock. Dodger faithful came by the thousands to watch Koufax, Drysdale, and Maury Wills, while the Braves ran out Aaron, Spahn, Phil Niekro and Eddie Mathews. Philadelphia could throw two of the best pitchers in baseball history when they sent out Jim Bunning and Steve Carlton.

On July 2, 1963, Milwaukee Braves pitcher Warren Spahn hooked up with San Francisco Giant hurler Juan Marichal in one of the greatest pitching duels in baseball history. Spahn, then age 42, and Marichal, just beginning his career, each fired 15 shutout innings on a blustery night in Candlestick Park. Marichal got through the top half of the sixteenth unscathed, before Willie Mays homered off Spahn in the bottom half of the inning to end the marathon, 1-0. Mays' homer snapped Spahn's streak of 27 consecutive scoreless innings. Ironically, Marichal's 16 inning gem came 30 years to the day after Giant pitcher Carl Hubbell threw a 1-0, 18 inning shutout against the Cardinals. In this day where relief pitching dominates the game, fans will never see anything close to either of those feats again.

When Cardinal righthander Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA in 1968, major league baseball decided pitchers had an unfair advantage and lowered the pitching mound five inches to help the batters. A few years later, the designated hitter was introduced in the American League, increasing offensive production even more, and with the addition of more teams throughout the next few decades, the pitching in the major leagues has become very diluted.

Five hundred home runs used to be the most anticipated milestone in baseball, but with the smaller stadiums, livelier balls and the use of steroids, in addition to the lack of good pitching, the number 500 is no longer sacred. As Barry Bonds approaches Hank Aaron's all-time home run record of 755, the Commissioner of Baseball, Bud Selig, has not decided if he will even attend the monumental occasion. Accusations of steroid use have caused the baseball hierarchy to question the accomplishments of Bonds, Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and others who have passed the once coveted 500 plateau.

Yes, there are great players in today's game, but the cloud of steroid use hangs over the newly built stadiums like a heavy fog. While today's players are pampered and receive millions of dollars, it seems as though many don't appreciate the game that most of us would give anything to play for a living.

Kids in the 1960s pretended they were Mantle, Mays, Koufax or Gibson. They wrote the numbers of their heroes on white t-shirts and emulated their batting and pitching styles. Today's youth play fantasy baseball over the internet and baseball games on their Playstations. The 1960's may seem boring to today's youngsters, but in the hearts of those who lived through the decade cheering for their heroes, baseball was in those days truly a field of dreams.

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