It is commonly heard that what distinguishes baseball from the other sports (NFL, NBA) are the statistical records. I always believed this. The numbers 714, 60, and then 61 and 511 were as imbedded as my phone number. It was held that Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs and the 61 of Roger Maris were cut from the same cloth and the subsequent numbers posted by McGwire and Bonds were also relevant.
I have been a fan of the game for more than 50 years, actually closer to 60 years now. It is just now that I realize the reason that baseball, encompassing the modern era 1901-2010, cannot be tied to its numbers. It is a phrase that you and I have all used ‘level playing field’. Granted, it is still 90 feet from home to first and the pitchers mound is still 60 feet 6 inches away, yet despite the dimensions, the field has been level for only a portion of the ‘modern era’.
One playing field was from 1901-1946, a field which excluded a segment of our country from playing in the Major Leagues. During this period future Hall of Fame players were not permitted to compete at the Major League level, players whose abilities and skill was beyond question. Names like Josh Gibson, Ray Dandridge and Cool Papa Bell. Satchel Paige played in the Majors, but as a 42 year old rookie. The courage of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson removed the invisible but legible “Negros need not apply” sign above the door to the Dodger locker room on opening day 1947. By the close of the decade the St. Louis Browns, Indians, and NY Giants had taken down their signs. More than 12 years after Robinson set foot on the major league diamond, the Red Sox promoted a part time infielder Pumpsie Green from triple A and the task undertaken 12 years earlier was complete.
1947 ushered in the second playing field, a field that was open to all those with the skills to exceed. It was a time when many of today’s fans got their first taste of the game that would last a lifetime. It was a period blessed with great players whose names bring back memories. Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Stan Musial, Ted Williams who had a foot set on both field 1 and 2, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, Willie Stargell and Sandy Koufax. It was also a time that brought a number of changes to the game. Each fan has to judge for themselves if the changes were positive or not.
Greener Pastures and Expansion;
Pay attention this part starts to get confusing. Prior to expansion the Major Leagues embarked on a period of musical chairs. The Braves moved to Milwaukee with the Browns heading east to Baltimore and renaming themselves. The Brooklyn Dodgers and NY Giants headed for Hollywood and Fisherman’s Wharf and finally the Washington Senators moved to Minneapolis as the Twins. Just as the Senators left town the new Senators arrived along with a team in Los Angeles, the Angels. The Angels are still in California, but they are not sure if it is LA or Anaheim. Meanwhile the Senators departed for Texas and a new name, Rangers.
In the year following Washington and Los Angeles giving birth to two new teams, Houston welcomed the Colt .45s and New York started a love affair with the Mets. Perhaps Colt .45s was too violent a name, because 3 years later they became the Astros. A few years passed and then the growth continued The NL added the Padres in San Diego and stepped across the board to Montreal to create the Expos. The AL settled a team in Seattle, the Pilots, who would barely unpack before moving to Milwaukee to replace the Braves who had since moved to Atlanta. The newly arrived team was now the Brewers. This round of expansion brought with it another change to baseball, the eight team AL and NL were now 12 teams strong. The Commissioner created two six teams divisions and a layer to the post season, the Championship Series. The final expansion of the field two era was the addition of teams in Seattle and the Blue Jays in Toronto.
Two additional changes took place shortly after the creation of the Championship Series, one was the introduction of World Series baseball under the lights which occurred in 1971 and the second was the separation of the rules as they applied to the AL and the NL. This was the designated hitter rule.
Baseball began play on this second field with 16 teams in 1947, during the 16 year expanse from 1961 to 1977 ten teams were added, baseball as it was played in the 50s’ went from 154 games to 162. A second layer of postseason play was created as well as playing the postseason under the lights. Finally half of baseball played with a DH and half didn’t. Despite all the changes this was my Golden Era of baseball. It ended at an undetermined time in the 1980’s when an undetermined player injected himself with a performance enhancing drug.
The closing of playing field two initiated the opening of field three, The Steroid Era. The prominent names involved were among those on the baseball ‘heroes’ list of that time until the question which first was asked at the Congressional hearings surrounding the Watergate break-in was answered in the aftermath of the Congressional Baseball Hearings and the Mitchell Report
“what did you know and when did you know it”. Prior to the Commissioner requesting George Mitchell to investigate PED use in baseball the Congressional Hearings into use of performance enhancing drugs convened in March of 2005. Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmiero and Sammy Sosa were all questioned regarding their use of PEDs. Canseco readily admitted using steroids, as he done on “60 Minutes” and in his book “Juiced”, Palmiero denied the use of PEDs although he knew at that time he had already failed a test which would become public knowledge within months. McGwire and Sosa stonewalled the committee.
Evidence collected from the Bay Area Laboratory Co-op (BALCO) added the names of Gary Sheffield and Barry Bonds to the growing list. Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte have since admitted to use of PEDs, Roger Clemens who denies any involvement has been indicted and will go to trial next spring. The number of players who used, and possibly still continue to use performance enhancing drugs will never be known. There are 25 players who have hit 500 home runs including Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt in 1984 and 1987. I personally using Schmidt as a threshold (he was number 14 on the list) of those whose 500 home runs are clean. The remaining 11 played a significant portion of their career in the ‘steroid era’ and as the result of those who did cheat the game there will always be a shadow on Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome, and Hall of Famer Eddie Murray. There has never been a single reference or rumor linking any of these players to PEDs. They just played at a time when their peers did violate the trust. It is probably naive to call the PED era over, but we now have another change in baseball.
I don’t know when playing field four began, I know it is still with us and may be the field of the future for a long time. The role of the African-American player has fallen in baseball. This year the NY Mets did not have a single African-American player on its 40 man roster. When the Mets won the World Series in 1969 Donn Clendenon, Ed Charles, Cleon Jones, and Tommy Agee all played significant roles. In 1986 the arm of ‘Doc’ Gooden, the bat of Darryl Strawberry and the legs of Mookie Wilson took the Mets to the Commissioners Trophy. A look around the majors reveals a trend of fewer black players in the game today. The Phillies have Ryan Howard and Jimmie Rollins. Prince Fielder is with the Brewers, also count potential Rookies’ of the Year Austin Jackson and Jason Heyward. The Pirates have Andrew McCutchen, and the Yankees have Curtis Granderson and possibly will add Carl Crawford. I’m sure there are more African-American players, but these are the few that come to mind.
There is no question that there are fewer black players electing to play baseball today, the options that were not as available 30-40 and 50 years ago are today. Besides the obvious expansion of the NFL and the NBA, Educational experiences have introduced black student athletes to opportunities in careers that have drawn them away from playing ball of any nature. The expansion of scouting in the Caribbean, Central America and the Far East has increased competition for roster spots and fewer draft selections. Most will look at the opportunities afforded to black athletes today and see progress and social change and they are right, but some part of me wants to return to the past when Mays and Aaron played, when Maury Wills and Rickey Henderson terrorized pitchers, when Bob Gibson put the fear of God in any batter foolish enough to dig in on him.
All of these changes and periods that the game has gone through is why I came to accept that the home run hit by Babe Ruth has nothing in common with one off the bat of Roger Maris or Aaron. And is certainly unrelated to Barry Bonds residing on field three…..contaminated field three.
My perspective is a product of my life experience, my age, and my circumstance when growing up. Your opinion on my view on baseball may differ a little or a lot. That’s OK, tell me why and thank you.