Nowadays, with expansion, teams play one another less frequently—from 12 to 18 games a season, depending on the league—so hitters see the same pitchers far fewer times than they did when teams played one another 22 times. This makes it much tougher to hit well in 1990. Still, Ray Boone, the Indians' .301-hitting shortstop in 1950 and now a Red Sox scout, says, "There were more hard throwers then and the quality of the starters was much higher."
Whether that is true or not, one statistic seems to belie the claims that hitting in 1950 was as tough as it is now: In the National League in 1950, there were 9.3 runs scored per game, while last year there were only 7.9. The gap is even greater in the American League, despite the addition of the designated hitter. Likewise, the ERA for both leagues went down from 4.36 in 1950 to 3.70 last year.
Of course, much of this is the result of overwhelming bullpen power. But not all of it. Pitchers have gotten trickier and more talented every decade. Goldsberry says, "It was more of a macho, power game in 1950 than it is now." Former Yankee and Phillie manager Dallas Green says, "It is harder to hit now because all those trick pitches came into play in the last 35 years. In the '40s and up until right around 1950, it was basically a fastball-curveball game."
Then the slider started to become popular. "That changed hitting entirely," says Williams. By 1950, most of the best pitchers had mastered the slider, but as Mets scout Buddy Kerr, then a shortstop with the Braves, recalls, "Preacher Roe and Eddie Lopat were special back then because they threw great changeups. Today, you've got split-fingers, sliders, curves...and they don't even settle for straight changes. Everyone has to have a changeup that moves."
Pitchers racked up more walks than strikeouts in 1950. Indeed, no fewer than six of the 15 ERA leaders in the American League gave up more walks than strikeouts that season. Last year none of the top 15 did. In 1950, the strikeout-to-walk ratio was 4 to 5 in that league; in '89, it was 8 to 5. Tebbetts says, "It was more of a power, sinkerball game then." Gene Mauch, an in-fielder for the Boston Braves, says, "If you struck out more than you walked in 1950, you were considered a terrible hitter. Guys like Williams, Musial and Joe DiMaggio didn't strike out. Hitters had a much better idea of the strike zone. Most used bigger bats. Today, you see those 33-inch, 31-ounce jobs that Jack Clark and Dwight Evans use to generate such bat speed."
In 1950, there were only two hitters in the majors who struck out 100 times: Roy Smalley (114) and Zernial (110). Last year 42 players had 100 or more whiffs. Says Mauch, "Compare the eras, and it makes you really appreciate Feller's 348 strikeouts in 1946. A power pitcher had to have control, too. Some of these wilder pitchers today—like Nolan Ryan—wouldn't get hitters to swing at as many bad pitches."
Not everyone agrees hitting was all that much easier then. "Fear is a big part of baseball, and not only did they not have helmets then, but pitchers pitched inside," says former pitcher and manager George Bamberger. "Today if you use the inside corner, hitters start out towards the mound. There are warnings and suspensions." Hitters who are gun-shy can survive easier today than they could when they faced such jaw-shaving vigilantes as Early Wynn and Sal (the Barber) Maglie.
Yet, as much as pitching has changed, perhaps the biggest factor in the evolution of hitting styles is the layout of the ballparks. Most of the stadiums in the '50s were tight little islands built to fit into the confines of an urban neighborhood. As a result, they had asymmetrical fences and short porches down the lines. "They were almost all parks for pull hitters then," says Mauch. Ebbets Field in Brooklyn was 297 feet to right. Braves Field in Boston had the Jury Box, 319 feet away in right. The Polo Grounds in New York was 483 to dead center, 279 feet to left and 257 to right, with overhanging decks. Forbes Field in Pittsburgh was 300 feet to right. Sportsman's Park in St. Louis was 310 down the rightfield line. Herzog. who grew up 35 miles from St. Louis, recalls, "I don't want to make it sound like it was an easy target, but when I was 15, I took batting practice there and hit that wall a dozen straight times."
Small as those parks were, Herzog doubts that they made hitting any easier. "I don't think batting averages have changed much between eras," he says. "Matter of fact, a lot of hitters in those days would hit higher today because of the artificial turf. But the power numbers of some of those guys definitely would have been different in these parks today."
One thing that was less taxing in the early '50s was playing the outfield. In places like Forbes or Wrigley, an outfielder had to cover no more than a few square yards. "Anyone can play centerfield in Wrigley," says Mauch. "It's 24 walking steps from the centerfield's normal position to the left-or rightfielder. I walked it off. In '54, they had an outfield of Ralph Kiner, Dale Talbot and Hank Sauer. None of those guys could go out there today."