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Last October, before the second game of the World Series, Oakland hitting coach Merv Rettenmund and I were watching the Athletics take batting practice and discussing one of Rettenmund's favorite topics, the science of hitting. Suddenly, Jose Canseco stepped into the batting cage and flicked a towering fly ball deep into the seats of Oakland Coliseum, at least 50 feet beyond the 375-foot mark. Then he hit another moon shot. And another.
"Imagine what Jose would have done if he'd played in those tiny ballparks of the '50s," said Rettenmund, watching Canseco twitch his shoulders and get set to hit again. The idea fascinated Rettenmund. "What if Ted Williams came up today, especially in the National League with its huge parks?" he said. "Do you think his philosophy of hitting would be any different?"
It was an intriguing question. My guess was that Williams would try to hit the other way more, to take advantage of the roomier outfields. Yet, a few months later, I asked Williams if he would hit differently now than he did in 1950, and he replied, "Never."
Maybe so. As San Francisco Giants general manager Al Rosen says, "Ted was a hybrid hitter. He wouldn't change if he came up in 1910 or 2010." But Rosen adds, "Almost everyone else would have to make adjustments going from one era to another."
What a difference a few decades can make. Though the rules are basically the same, today's game is a distant cousin of the one played in 1950, just as that version was far removed from its counterpart in 1910, the heart of the dead-ball era. In 1950, baseball was a slow, plodding affair, featuring sluggers like Gus Zernial and Walt Dropo, who could hit the long ball but not much else, and "speedsters" like Dom DiMaggio, who led the American League that year with 15 stolen bases. But, in some respects, particularly in catching and depth, the game in those days was far superior to the often slipshod Hollywood model played in 1990.
Perhaps that's why otherwise highly opinionated observers have a difficult time deciding which of the two versions is better baseball. "The best teams today are better than the best teams then," says St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, who was a player in the Yankee farm system in 1950. "But the worst teams now are worse than the worst teams then."
Rosen, who was a rookie third baseman for the Cleveland Indians that year, is noncommittal. "Players are bigger, faster, stronger and better conditioned," he says, "so it stands to reason the great players should be greater today, just as they are in other sports. But I would have to stop before I go any farther. I just can't say which game is better."
In most sports, such a comparison would be ridiculous. Almost no one would argue that 1950's football and basketball players were superior to those of today. But baseball is different. While other sports have been radically revamped over the last 40 years, the structure of baseball has remained essentially unchanged. In addition, baseball's past is so well documented, it's easy to make comparisons from one era to the next. Looking back at baseball in 1950 is like peering into a distant mirror. The more you look, the more you discover about today's game: its strengths, its weaknesses, its bond—however tenuous—to those glorious days gone by.
In many ways this decade of fast-paced, big-money baseball bears scant resemblance to the relaxed and baggy game of 40 years ago. Connie Mack was still managing the Philadelphia Athletics in 1950, as he had since 1901. The newest park was Cleveland's Municipal Stadium, which had opened in 1932; all the others, except Yankee Stadium, had been built before 1915. All 16 major league teams had been rooted in their respective cities since the turn of the century, and every team—except the Browns and Cardinals in St. Louis—was based east of the Mississippi. The center of the baseball universe was New York City, where the Yankees had won 16 pennants in 30 years and the Giants and Dodgers were in the midst of their 10-year reign in the National League, during which they would win all but two flags.
Baseball was, more than anything, a game then, far different from the big business it is today. The highest-paid player in 1950—Williams—earned a salary of $125,000, which, when adjusted for inflation, comes to $643,125, or $56,000 less than Phillie reserve outfielder Carmelo Martinez. In 1950, the Philadelphia Athletics were sold for $2.9 million ($14.9 million in 1990 dollars)—a steal compared with the $77 million the Seattle Mariners fetched last year. Television was still in its infancy 40 years ago, and as a result gate receipts represented 74% of all baseball revenues. Now TV and radio rights account for 47% of revenues, and ticket sales only 37%. And major league baseball's combined operating profits have climbed an astounding 3,500%, from $765,000 ($3.9 million in today's dollars) in 1950 to $140 million last year (chart, page 42).