When I was a boy, several long decades ago, baseball was a different game. For one thing, the players were nowhere near as skilled as they are now, and candor compels me to admit that most of my childhood heroes would look like rump-sprung clucks next to the 1962 ballplayer. The trouble is that all the fun has been diluted out of baseball. Once an asylum for amiable eccentrics, it has become a lifeless charade by actors who look as impersonal as motorcycle cops.
What a waste of talent! The players unquestionably are faster, more mobile and more adept technically than the players of the so-called Golden Age. The fielding nowadays is a sight to behold. Errors have been cut almost in half since 1900, there are about half again as many double plays. Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance is immortalized in song and story as the most famous double-play combination in history. Yet their top figure was 17 DPs in one season. Nowadays a combination that cannot put together at least 75 a year is shipped back to the minors on the first bounce. Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance went through three consecutive World Series (1906-08) without making a double play. In the 1955 Series, Peewee Reese took part in seven.
Take hitting. Cobb, Speaker, Wagner and other hallowed heroes who compiled imposing lifetime batting averages got, at a conservative estimate, a dozen scratch hits a season that would be handled easily today. How would that affect their averages? It would knock off 20 points a year.
Take pitching. Years ago the overwhelming majority of big leaguers had two deliveries: a fast ball and a curve. Today rookies fresh off the bus from Dubuque throw a slider and another breaking ball such as a knuckler or a screwball. Bucky Harris, the onetime boy-wonder manager of the Senators, says the slider alone would have slashed another 20 points from the swollen batting averages of his own heyday.
There is no question that the last 20 years have produced the highest proportion of men who would have been outstanding in any era—Williams, Feller, Musial, DiMaggio, Spahn, Ford, Mantle, Mays and Banks, to name only the most obvious.
Some of the nominations on the contemporary list may be disputed. Whitey Ford, for one. Fragile or not, he merely happens to own the best winning percentage since Candy Cummings transformed pitching into a science by throwing the first curve ball in 1864.
It smacks of subversion to suggest that a better shortstop than Honus Wagner ever lived. But one lives right now: Ernie Banks. Wagner was charged with 32 to 60 errors a season. Banks, before a trick knee forced his shift to first base, averaged fewer than 23 boots a year and in 1959 established the alltime record with only 12 misplays in 155 games. To clinch the matter, Banks consistently hit 40 homers a season, an unprecedented feat for a shortstop.
One would suppose that, with all this talent around, the fans would be beating down the gates to get into major league parks. Alas, not so. Attendance figures this season are respectable compared to 1948, the peak year, only because 388 games have been added to the expanded National and American league schedules. The average crowd has dropped more than 25%, and the collapse of interest in the minor leagues further underscores the sorry state of the great American game of baseball. During this period 20 million boys have reached the 10-to-14 age group which traditionally was crazy about the game, but the majority no longer is smitten.
The slump at the gate dates from the late 1940s, when the game was struck by two blights: 1) the establishment of the pension fund, an admirable idea in principle; 2) TV, in practice a crashing bore that reduces vibrant personalities to dreary statistics.
The pension fund, combined with an average salary of $17,000 a year, is the greatest incentive to clean living and dull baseball since the invention of house dicks. Pension payments range from $700 a month at age 65, for a man with 20 years of major league experience as a player and/ or coach, down to $112.50 a month at 50 for five years of service. There also are fringe benefits, such as insurance and free hospitalization for participants and members of their families. The cost is only $334 a year per player; more than 90% of the program is financed by fees for broadcasting the World Series and receipts from the All-Star games, which add up to more than $2.5 million annually.