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The End of Baseball’s Golden Years

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 symmetrical twenty-two game series against all seven other teams in its league, eleven at the home field, eleven at the other teams’ home fields. After one hundred fifty-four games, the team with the highest won-lost percentage won the championship pennant, and faced the other league’s pennant-winner in a seven game World Series that was the climax of the baseball season and the sports year.

After the World Series, the sports world went into hibernation. College alumni, of whom there were fewer back then, attended alma mater football and basketball games, but neither of those sports aroused 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 drew fewer than 20,000 spectators. That was before television, but games were broadcast by radio, and in fact, I was listening to the Giant-Dodger football game on December 7, 1941, when over the objections of one sportswriter, the game was interrupted to announce the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. There was no National Basketball Association and although people watched the 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 of passing the time while waiting for the baseball teams to go to Florida for spring training.

Old-time fans call the half-century that passed in that way “The Golden Age of Baseball.” Sports writers who remember it, call it “the era of stability.” The first change came in 1953, when the last-place National League Braves moved from Boston, where attendance had fallen below 300,000 per year, to Milwaukee. There, under Manager Charlie Grimm, with Hank Aaron and Eddie Matthews each hitting forty homers a year and Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette each winning twenty games a year, attendance jumped to two million and the Braves began finishing first and second. That disrupted the old symmetry and tradition but even purists had to admit that that first break with the Golden Years improved baseball.

In 1954, the last place American League Browns moved from St. Louis where they’d drawn fewer than 300,000 fans, to Baltimore, home city of the old Orioles, founded in 1882. It was there that John McGraw, Wilbert Robinson and “Hit-’em-where-they-ain’t” Wee Willie Keeler invented “Small Ball”-bunting, stealing bases, the hit-and-run play–years before its reinventors, the Gashouse Gang and Eddie Stanky were even born. After the move, the Browns took the old Oriole name, and began drawing over a million fans a year and building the team that had Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Boog Powell and four twenty-game-winning pitchers in a single season. Again, if any change in an old institution so wrapped in tradition can be called positive, the resurrection of the Baltimore Orioles was a second positive change. But how often the first small breaks in an antique dike precipitate a string of worser breaks!

The following year, the Athletics, team of Connie Mack, Lefty Grove, Jimmy Foxx, Mickey Cochrane, Rube Waddell, Eddie Collins, Chief Bender and Eddie Plank moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City–a far more significant break with old tradition. Before World War I, the Athletics had been the Athens of Big League Baseball to the New York Giants’ s Sparta. During their 1927-1932 renaissance they finished first three times, second 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 fewer than four thousand per game and Connie Mack had to sell Mickey Cochrane, Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, Max Bishop and others to keep the franchise solvent.

With the migration of the Athletics, Kansas City became the westernmost of the big league towns. Although the team continued losing 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 put a zoo behind the outfield, moved the fences to favor hitters on his team, had fresh baseballs delivered to the umpire via electronic rabbit and dressed his ground crew in space suits. In addition, he pioneered the use of designated hitters to hit for pitchers, attempted to introduce designated base runners, and to switch from four balls and three strikes, to a game shortening and less boring three balls and two strikes.

For baseball purists, the biggest and least forgivable jolt to 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, twice and three times what it had been at 35,000-capacity-Ebbets Fields. Angelenos poured in to see Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Willie Davis and Tommy Davis (no relation) and Maury Wills. But it wasn’t the same; attention spans weren’t as long; the intensity wasn’t as high. In Brooklyn, fans came early for batting practice, stayed the full nine innings, knew the players without a scorecard. Angelenos breezed in during the top of the third and ducked out after the last of the seventh to get a jump in getting onto the freeway.

The Giants’ new home in Candlestick Park, outside San Francisco, was as quirky in its cold and windy weather as the Polo Grounds had been in its bathtub-shaped dimensions, but a steady stream of great ballplayers appeared on the field. In addition to Willie Mays, they included Hall-of-Famers, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry, as well as the three Alous, 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 out their careers there, and Giant 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, removing the Dodgers from Ebbets Fields and the Giants from the Polo Grounds to California for financial reasons was tantamount to removing the Houses of Parliament from London to Liverpool as part of a real estate strategy. Surely, then, for baseball purists, and for old time Giant and Dodger fans, 1957 was the closing year of Baseball’s Golden Age and 1958 the first of the years that saw the decline of Baseball