- THEY SAID ITEdited by Robert W. Creamer | December 20, 1982
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Worse, many of the young players with the best potential aren't choosing to play baseball. In the '50s, baseball consistently attracted the cream of America's jocks, no matter what their best sport was. Why? Simply because no other team sport came close to offering the cash and the prestige that baseball did. As White Sox general manager Larry Himes says, "Granted, all athletes in all of society are much better today, but back then anyone who wanted to make money in sports pretty much had to play baseball. Things have changed now. The great progress made by the NFL and NBA, plus the emphasis on football and basketball in high school and college, makes baseball recruiting very difficult." Case in point: Of the five top-rated high school position players in this June's baseball draft, four have signed letters of intent to play either football or basketball in college.
One argument for the superiority of the current game is that players today are on average bigger, faster and much better conditioned than those of 40 years ago. In 1950 there were scarcely a dozen every-day players who weighed 200 pounds. "I was 5 foot 10 and weighed 170 pounds," recalls Rosen, "and they referred to me as 'big' and 'burly.' " Last season, in contrast, the A's fielded a lineup that had half a dozen 200-pounders.
And consider the superb shape these contemporary behemoths are in. As Williams notes, "One of the biggest differences between now and then is off-season conditioning. I didn't touch a bat in the off-season. Looking back, I wish I had. But it just wasn't done."
Williams hunted and fished when he wasn't playing ball, but other ballplayers in those low-pay days didn't have the time to pursue a full-time schedule of conditioning. "Most of us had to work at off-season jobs to make ends meet," says Goldsberry. Even if there had been the time to spend in weight rooms, those old-timers wouldn't have done it. They didn't believe in such guff. "We were told that loose muscles were better, and that's what we believed," says Red Schoendienst, a coach with the Cardinals now and an All-Star second baseman in 1950.
Loose-muscle conditioning may have been the answer to day-to-day play, but it certainly didn't add years to a player's career. In 1950, a grand total of three players who appeared in more than 100 games were 35 or older. Today there are at least 25 who have done it, and some of them, like Dwight Evans, Carlton Fisk, Dave Winfield and Ozzie Smith, look even better today than they did 10 years ago. So chalk up a plus for longevity in 1990.
But what about strategy then and now? Which version of the game is superior? For one thing, catchers were indisputably better then. On the other hand, players are indisputably faster now. And how has the combination of weak arms behind the plate and fleet feet on the bases changed the game? "Base stealing has dramatically altered things," says Oriole general manager Roland Hemond. "Pee Wee Reese probably could have stolen 50 bases if he'd tried, but in 1950 you never ran when you were behind. Today, teams get back into games by stealing bases and forcing mistakes."
Many old-timers tend to discount speed as an important factor in the difference between the two eras. And to be sure, stolen bases do not an offense make. (It is worth noting that the Red Sox finished last in the American League in stolen bases in 1988 and 1989, yet in both seasons they led the league in runs scored.) However, speed puts a pressure on the defense—especially on the pitcher—that didn't exist 40 years ago. Speed has also changed outfield defense. Last year the Orioles showed how dominant a swift outfield can be. No 1950 outfield could have touched the Orioles' hard-charging glove men—or any of the three other outfields that rank as the best in the last 20 years: the 1980 A's (Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy, Tony Armas); the 1975 Red Sox (Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Evans); and the 1985 Cardinals (Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, Andy Van Slyke).
So raw speed is a big plus in 1990. And what about pitching? Here we are dealing not so much with the improved physical prowess of individual players, but with a major change in strategy: namely, the development of the multipurpose bullpen. In 1950, Jim Konstanty won the National League MVP award for pitching the Phillies to a pennant, with 22 saves. Last season, 21 pitchers had that many saves or more, and the San Diego Padres' Mark Davis led the majors, with 44. Similarly, in 1950, 41% of the starts turned into complete games; last season only 12% did. "What pitchers started in those days, they wanted to finish, and you had to fight them to get them out of the game," says Oriole scout Birdie Tebbetts, then a catcher for the Red Sox. "Now a $2 million starter is replaced by a $1 million middle man who is followed by another $1 million setup man to finally get to the $3 million guy who finishes the game."
Herzog says, "In 1950, there were Konstanty and Joe Page, but relievers were usually guys who couldn't start. Now we build entire staffs from the top starter to the 10th or 11th spot on your staff, and sometimes we build them from the back forward."
All of this has made the game of the '90s more exacting—both on the mound and at the plate. As Cub general manager Jim Frey says, "I don't think there's any question that today's great relievers have made hitting more difficult." Former Phillie star Mike Schmidt adds. "It usually takes a hitter two or three at bats to gauge a pitcher. Now you probably get no more than two looks at a starter. The next at bat, you get another guy, usually with one outstanding pitch. And for your final at bat, you get the closer with the one great pitch."