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Baseball in 1950 stood at the end of the era built by Babe Ruth. It was still something people saw on news-reels in flickering black and white—though there were precious few black faces on the field. Jackie Robinson was in his fourth season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and there were only eight other blacks and nine Latins in the majors, compared with 159 blacks and 107 Latins last season. Such black superstars as Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Ernie Banks had yet to arrive at the recently unlocked gates of the big leagues.
Some old-timers, among them Cub manager Don Zimmer, who was a hot minor league prospect in 1950, insist that the differences between then and now are not important. "The game is the same," says Zimmer. "Ninety feet. Four balls, three strikes, three outs, 60 feet, six inches. Society changes. The game's the same."
But many former players who mastered baseball in that era will tell you that the game is not the same, that quality has been watered down by expansion. Gordon Goldsberry, a first baseman for the Chicago White Sox in 1950 and currently a special assistant for the Baltimore Orioles, says, "My contemporaries believe that with nearly 40 percent more major league teams today, nearly 40 percent of the players active now couldn't have made the majors in 1950. Where there were 12 or 13 quality players on each team then, now there are eight or 10. You don't see the depth in the starting rotations you saw then. If Cleveland came in, you got Bob Lemon, Bob Feller, Early Wynn and Mike Garcia. Detroit? Hal Newhouser, Virgil Trucks, Fred Hutchinson, Dizzy Trout, Art Houtteman. New York? Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds, Eddie Lopat, Whitey Ford."
Los Angeles Dodger manager Tom Lasorda was coming up through the Brooklyn farm system in 1950, and to him, the game was measurably superior back then. "The caliber of ball isn't as strong now," he says. "There were only 16 teams then. You could hit.380 in the minors and get sent back. The Dodgers had 24 farm clubs. Players were standing in line, waiting."
Indeed, in 1950, there were about 27 minor league jobs for every major league job; today, the ratio is 6 to 1. "Players often didn't make the majors until they were 25 or 26," says Goldsberry. "Some players rushed to the big leagues today might have gotten lost along the wayside, trying to make it up the ladder then. Players today get promoted after hitting .238."
True enough. On this year's 40-man rosters, there were 53 players who hit under .250 in the minors last season. Boston promoted a 29-year-old pitcher, Steve Ellsworth, who was 1-8 with a 5.02 ERA in Triple A; Texas brought Bobby Witt to the majors in '86 with an 0-6 minor league record. In 1949 shortstop Bobby Morgan batted .337 with 112 RBIs and scored 109 runs for the Dodgers' Triple A club in Montreal, but he couldn't crack Brooklyn's starting lineup the next season and had to settle for a role as a backup third baseman. Like Zimmer and Rocky Bridges. Morgan was stuck behind a future Hall of Famer: Pee Wee Reese.
In those days, most teams subscribed to the Darwinian model of player development. Now they hire psychologists and motivational specialists to help prospects survive. Yet it doesn't seem to have made much difference on the field. In 1950. there were seven 20-game winners and nine hitters with 30 home runs in Triple A alone. Last year, there were no 20-game winners in all the minors, and only one minor leaguer has hit 30 homers in the last two seasons—Eric Anthony in the Houston Astro system.
"The best thing about going from a 25-to 24-man roster is that now we don't have to watch that 25th man play," says Cub outfield instructor Jimmy Piersall, then a Red Sox minor league prospect. "That's how watered-down the game is today."
You would think that population growth alone would have provided more big league-caliber players. The U.S. has grown 65% since 1950. Not only that, but California has nearly tripled in size and Florida has more than quadrupled, and those two states provided 36% of the players selected in the top five rounds of last June's draft. Likewise, two other hotbeds of talent—Venezuela and the Dominican Republic—have at least tripled in population. Don't these figures mean anything?
In a word, no. True, there are more kids playing organized baseball now, but that's not what really matters. Says Montreal scouting director Gary Hughes, ''In 1950. kids went to the park or to a field and played baseball all day. Today there are so many rules at the parks, who can play? Everything is so rigidly organized. Little League is played after six o'clock or on Saturdays, period. Urban congestion has spread so far, there aren't that many open spaces to play in anyway. The open space today is the driveway, where you put up a basketball hoop. One thing everyone agrees on is that there are fewer good outfield arms today, and one reason is that kids don't have the chance to throw enough. You probably have more kids playing today, but I don't think they are actually playing more baseball."