The golden era of Baseball Part 2

This is the remark from an earlier thread that I mentioned in part 1 that I wanted to address in this part:

{1. No matter how good of a prospect you might consider Taveras to be, he is NOT Mays/Mantle/Kaline/Pujols. He just isn’t. 2. Baseball was, as you partially pointed out, SO different back then that promoting guys then and now are just completely different. The talent pool for MLB is so much deeper now than it was then that even incredible talents like Mays, Mantle, and Kaline would probably have had to spend more time in the minors. Back in 1950 they filled MLB rosters solely from guys that lived in the US, which had a population of 150 million back then. Now rosters are filled from the US, most of Latin America, and some Asian countries. For perspective, the US has a population of 300 million now. Plus, for monetary reasons, playing professional baseball is a much more attractive occupation today than it was in 1950.

I have no big issues with anybody expressing this view other than to add some things that should be considered before excepting it as fact. First, the statement that "the talent pool is so much deeper now than back then" is not true, At least not in the amount of players in the teams minor league systems. After the war in the late '40's when I really started to follow the Majors, all major league teams had much larger minor league team affiliates than the puny systems of today. For instance, the Cardinals, for example: They had two AAA teams; Rochester, NY Redwings in the International League and Columbus, Ohio Cardinals in the American Accociation. Two AA teams: Houston Buffs in the Texas league and the Atlanta Crackers in the Southern Accociation Two A teams, Columbus, (Ga.) in the Sally league and Springfield, Mo in the Midwest League. Also at the time you had leagues all over the country of lower classifications. Class B, C, and D and the Cardinals had at least one in each.

Next, the reference that "back in 1950 they filled their MLB rosters solely from guys that lived in the the U.S. which then had a population of only 150 million." This statement, though true, also could be somewhat exposed with some underlying facts being examined. I'll go a step further, the remark could have been that, "back in 1950, they filled MLB rosters solely with white guys that lived in the U.S." and that also could be questioned as being only a minor factor.

First there were only 16 major league teams in 1950, now there are 30. That fact alone could cut the debate close to half but for the sake of arguement, I'll settle for less. Second every MLB team then, had control of more than double the amount of players that major league teams have today. How could this be you might wonder when at this time there were no big TV revenues etc. and the teams operated mostly from monies obtained from attendance and concessions. The answer would require the exploration of many factors, more than time and space will allow, but I will to delve into a few.

Consider that at that time baseball had very little competition when it came to intertainment, (especially from April to October) mainly only radio and movies and which would you rather do, sit in a crowded dark stuffy movie theater with little or no air conditioning with fans blowing overhead to move the air or would you rather be in relaxed atmosphere of a lighted baseball park with a summer breeze, enjoying the crack of the bat and the flight of the ball. In America at that time there was really only one choice and that was baseball. Although the U.S. had only a hundred and fifty million people (even less by the 1940 census) you had a society that loved it lived , breathed it and there was no short supply of players that played it and played it well.

The lengthty tedious narrative that I wrote in part 1 was not to portray an unique little town that existed in America back in the '40's but to depict what was close to normal for all the country in those years. The mill towns of the South led the way for sure, but every little town in the U.S. all across the country had some kind of semi-pro team and a member of an organized league, from these came masses that dreamed of playing major league baseball.

Even in the vast rural sections of the country, communities sponsered and supported a competetive brand of semi-pro teams of some level and I played for one during my high school years and after. At that time, rural America was a church going society and communities were often identified by the largest church in the community.. For instance, My community and team was named Sardis, because of Sardis Baptist Church. Our biggest rival in the six team league was Emory, named from Emory Methodist Church.

Also, country stores were numerous and scattered all over the country side. There were no large chain food stores, Walmarts etc. People did not drive into town for their basic needs, they just visited the nearest country store. No matter where you lived at that time you were never more than four miles from a country store and behind the largest store in the community was where you would usually find the ballpark.

Often the owner of the store provided the land and built the field himself because that store benifited greatly from the Saturday afternoon crowds that gathered for the weekly game and had no qualms in contributing substantial amounts for uniforms, equipment and such. I can safely say without risk of falsehood, that in that day if you so happen to be traveling anywhere in rural America and came a crossroad on a paved highway that had two country stores at that intersection you could be fairly certain there would be a ballpark behind one. This is just the way it was

These old country stores coined the term: Hot Stove League, which is still widely used today. This from the fact that older men then, often gathered around big old potbellied stoves on cold and rainy winter days when they had to "run" to the store for a sack of flour or a couple cans of beans or corn and stayed for awhile and talked of politics and baseball. There was always an old copy of The Sporting News or a Street and Smith baseball magazine that somebody had left behind as a contribution and those provided topics for conversation. Often times the the simple task of just a run to the store to pick up a can of corn could turn into a half day affair. Which leads me to ask: Have you ever heard Vin Scully or some of the other older announcers refer to a high lazy fly ball as being a can o' corn, well this also comes from the hot stoves of the old country stores.

There were no convenient isle racks and push carts, only ten foot high walls with shelves, lined with cans of meats and vegtables and if you wanted something from an upper shelf, the storekeep just took up his long stick with a hook on the end and fetched it down, snagging it with his other hand before it hit the floor. Thus Sully and others started saying, "There goes a big can of corn out toward left center field."

Most small town governing bodies also furnished lighted and well maintained facilities through city tax revenues and small town businesses and citizens supported it, even demanded it. Basketball and football were popular enough in the high schools and colleges at the time but both were short season, late fall and and winter sports and served only as a welcomed option for the long baseball seasons. When these and other sports were not in season there wasn't that much conversation about them but the talk of baseball never ceased. College fotball was popular enough thorugh local radio broadcast networks but pro football and basketball had no following outside the area's in which they played.

I could go on but I'll just end by asking one thing for you to consider. Everyone that posts or comments on this blog seems to be just an avid a baseball fan as any generation, but have you ever considered that in the context of the total population of today, we would be considered much less than a majority (even less in numbers that play it).. Just take time to ponder this for a minute: If you can except my presentation as truths of just how popular baseball was in the days of Mays, Mantle and Musial, would there be enough talented players to support 30 major league teams with a superior product as the 16 of that day? If you have doubts, then to me you would have to agree that the player of that day would be equal to the player of today? To me, it is as simple as that.

With the wide variety of intertainment and activities available in today's society coupled with the multitudes that have become withdrawn and handicaped through poverty, crime, drugs and alchohol and other problems you would be hard pressed today to excede the player pool of that day by any signifacant amounts, even with the increased Latin and far East players..But this could argued, I'm not trying to set it in stone.

Now to address the mention that incredible talents like Mays, Mantle and Kaline would have to spend more time in the minors now than back then is not an exactly valid statement either. These three kind of stepped into exceptional situations where the teams involved had pressing needs and took gambles that payed off. It was Mantle that to me made the most incrediblele leap.

He had played only one year of minor league class D ball as an 18 year old, at either Joplin, Mo. or Odgen, Utah. (I am a ittle mixed on this.) He was a country boy that had starred in high school and semi-pro ball in the small town of Commerce, Okla. Mantle was a compact 5'11" 195 pounder build like a Greek god and the Yankees knew exactly what they had in this young teen. Mantle, Mays and Kaline were all three center fielders, a vital position and all three already posessed speed, style and polish.

Casey Stengel, the yankees' manager was a wise old wizzard and Di Maggio had already said that this would be his last year. He had spent considerable time on the DL in both '49 and '50 and at the age of 36 did not want to hang around any longer and tarnish his glorious career with the Yankees. Stengel knew he could not count on DiMaggio for a full 154 games and his only other option was to scour Majors league teams for some ageing retread to fill in for Di Maggio when needed .. or take a long look at that young phenom in the system that had burned up a class D league the previous season.

He was the one that lobbied the front office to bring him to spring training for a long look and the more he saw the more he liked. Di Maggio in his quiet kind of way, quickly took a liking to Mantle also as did most of the Yankees and before ST was over it was decided Mantle would stay.

Stengel was the one that introduced the platoon system to the majors on a full time basis. He was a big 'huntch' man too, kinda' like La Russa on steriods but was more of a master at it. He didn't use Di Maggio and Mantle as a platoon team expressly but worked Mantle in when Di Maggio was ailing or needed rest or often as a late inning replacement for Joe. Mantle responded well getting over 350 plate appearances with 13 HR .267 BA. He actually had a slightly better season than Di Maggio who had well over 400 plate with 12 HR' a .272 BA.

Mays came up the same year as Mantle and into pretty much the same situation. The Giants were in desperate need of a centerfielder. Willie differed slightly from Mantle in that he was a year older and in one season had shot up through the system to AAA, Kind'a like Pujols and without much question, deserved a long ST look.. Willie didn't exactly set the world on fire in ST but was impressive enough that Leo Durocher, the Giants manager fell in love with his potential and personally started a crusade with Horace Soneham the Giants owner to let him keep Mays.

Durocher was much like Stengel in that on field and to the public he was a harsh speaking, umpire agueing, dirt kicking, cap throwing SOB, but inside the clubhouse was reported to be a softspoken fatherlike figure that could pump a player up with so much praise and shit that he soon would be performing above his potential ...or if he needed to dress a player down for mistakes and attitude he could call him into his office and within minutes gently shame him into submission, usually with the player leaving the office near tears and with a firmness in his heart to do better for old Leo.

In short, both of these older managers knew how to handle younger men and Leo took Mays under his wing like a father but his psychology wasn't working with Willie as when the team headed North to New York to start the season, Mays was overwhelmed by the big city and the large crowds and fell into a deep slump going 0 for 47 in his debut. He was begining to hear boos despite playing a good centerfield and making some sparkling defensive plays.

One of my favorite stories is one I have heard a number of times over the years from a number of sourses. After Willie had gone 0 for 4 to run the streak to 47 and had listened to boos during every at bat, Durocher walked into the clubhouse after the game and spotted Willie sitting in front of his locker with his head down, crying. Leo walked over and sat down on the bench beside him, put his arm around him and gently asked. "son, what in the world are you crying about." Mays stammered something like, 'Mr. Durocher, I don't deserve to be here and you might as well send me back to Minneapolis right now." Durocher chuckled to ease the tension and said back. "Willie, you ain't going nowhere but out to play centerfield for the Giants every day, even if you never get a hit."

Mays did break his slump and in time went on one of his patented streaks, raising his average to an exceptable 274 average with 20 HR's and 68 ribis. It has also been said that during the conversation with Mays, Durocher said, "Willie, you just hush up this crying now, there's no crying in baseball," hense the origin of the often used phrase, "There ain't no crying in baseball," but I don't know if that is actually true. You know how stories can become embellished.

Now, finally to Kaline: Kaline was signed in the offseason of 1953 and at that time there was a major league rule that stated that if you signed a player with a signing bonus of over 25,000 dollars (that figure might not be correct but it is what sticks in my mind) you had to keep that player on the major league roster for one year as a penalty for the inordinate bonus. This rule had been in effect for sometime to keep the more richer teams like the Yankees from inticing the more select prospects to sign with them for larger bonuses. Remember there was no draft at the time and Who you could find you could sign, (sounds kind of strange in this day and time.)

However ever so often a prospect came along that bidding teams were willing to exceed this bonus limit to secure the player's services and incurr the pentalty. Kaline was one of those. They were called bonus babies and were often shunned by certain older players. I did not know this until fairly recently when I read an article about Kaline and how he was treated in his early years, especially the second year whe the Tigers decided to keep him on the parent roster, rather than send him out like most teams always did with the bonus babies.

Kaline had only managed about 30 at bats in his bonus year but became a full fledged regular the next and produced a modest line of .276 4 HR with 43 ribis. note the strikeout rate though, only 45 strikouts in 535 at bats. If you examine the records of these three closely you will see that none of them splashed into the majors in such a spectatular fashion as Albert Pujols did, so why would you contend that Mays, Mantle and Kaline's young productive careers were the result of a weaker talent pool at that time.

My contention is that it was only that in each case that the teams involved made the wiser decision to take the biggest chance and go with the young hot prospect. Nothing has bothered me more over the years than the tendency of major league teams to over recycle, aging, mediocre and on the downslide major leaguers, for the overated sake of having more a experienced roster. Especially when teams like the Cardinals, that have a good crop of prospects near ready for picking, foolishly sign the likes of Ty Wiggington and Ronny Cedeno. What do you think that does for the confidence of Jackson, Kosma, and Garcia among others you have a more invested interest in? You can have a good farm system go sour with this method of oporendo. But this is not new thing ; the Majors have always had a tendency to do it and I have never liked it. Even if Wiggington and Cedeno have good enough years, I don't care, the process still gripes my butt. I want to see the kids I have followed through the minors and what they can do, win or lose. With that out of the way......

As I contended earlier that the major league teams, then operated with much larger farm systems than the teams of today, and with much less revenues, you are probably left to wonder how. The reasons are many but I'll try to cover a few. First, major league franchises were not owned and operated at that time to turn a profit but more for prestige by wealthy men who needed a toy and could afford losses through tax write offs etc. Most teams were expected to incurr losses, the object was to just keep it in check. Many owners though, did find it more than they could handle once they got into the game and often got cash strapped and would sell off better players to continue operation.

There were a lot more cash tranactions or trades that involved players and cash in that day than now. Why do you think Johnny Mize didn't spend his whole career with the Cards? You think they had someone better to play first and hit behind Musial.

Also ownerships of clubs, changed more frequently then than now, for every seller there was a buyer. Google Fred Saigh, he was the owner of the Cards from '47 to '53 when he got caught for tax evasion by the Feds and had to sell the Cardinals for a mere 3.75 million, about the price of a utility infielder now. Say a AAron Miles or the likes.

The one thing that the Major leagues didn't have to spend as much money on as now was scouting. They had a good rapport with many sources throughout the country, ex players, high school and college coaches etc. that felt honored to communicate information on prospects. The majors really did little individual scouting of a prospects by their own paid staffs though unless it was someone widely reported as being a can't miss. They relied mostly on keeping a close record on outside reports from a bevy of reliable contacts around the country and by scheduleing try out camps periodically thru out the year.

Colleges and other organisations were often willing helped provide facilities and lodging for these camps. Most of the signing came by this method which worked well enough but.... The one national organisation that was utilized more that any other from keeping at a miminum, prize prospects from slipping through the cracks was the nationwide American Legion Baseball Program.

This program was somewhat like the short season minor leagues teams of today in the fact that it started later in the Summer and had a shorter duration than the semi-pro leagues. The American Legion kept track of the better younger players of the area and advertized and sent out invertations for their tryout camps. They were for players 17 thru 19 and you had be exceptional to make those teams. I played part of a season of Legion ball and I was only a sub. and sometimes a late inning replacement. If you had ambitions of being a professional baseball player though, it was a good route to take because the program was held in high regard by the Majors and was scouted well.

The biggest problem the major league teams had with their vast minor league systems then, was with keeping the working agreements with their minor league affiliates running smoothly.. This was due to the vast size and popularity of Semi-pro baseball in the country at that time. Oh, people knew of and followed MLB by studying boxscores daily in the papers, reading about the heroic feats of these super best of the best in magazines or catching a glimpse of a few sparkling plays every week in some local movie house between features when the theaters ran the extras, like Movie Tone News and the popular, Bill Stern's This Week in Baseball.

This was only a fantasy world though to most people of the country. There were interstate highways, jet air travel.. and major league cities at that time were concentrated mostly in the North and Northeastern section of the country. So it was only natural that they identified far more with their local teams and the players they could brag about to next town down the road and everybody always seemed to know a couple of players that they had seen that was now in the Majors and could describe in great detail just how good the were.

This is what created the problem with minor league franchise owners. They had to produce a product superior to the semi-pro competition in their area and that could be a problem, especially in the South. For instance the Greenville, (SC) Spinners of the class A Sally League had to compete with four mill teams from in the leagues that I described in the beginng of this post in order to make a profit and that was no easy task. On ocassion the Spinners, on off days, would play an exhibition game against one of the Mill teams and those drew big crowds as these were highly competitive affairs. It was widely known that the South Atlantic League (Sally) was given priorty over other Class A leagues in the choice of players because of the competion in their area.

Late in the Winter of every year The owners and GM's of the major league teams got together with owners of their minor league franchises for a big meeting and pow wow on what players would be assigned to what teams. These meetings usually were pretty fiery affairs and on occasion disputes would lead to fisticuffs between parties or contracts being torn up and thrown into a ML owner's face.(I actually read in an article once that two minor league owners once got in a fist fight over the assignment of Musial in his minor league days).

Things were different then in the fact that with the reserve clause, the the ML teams could sign and control a large amount of players with modest bonuses mostly in the hundreds of dollars rather than thousands and with salaries less than two hundred a month in the lower clasifacations.

The owners of the minor league franchises on the other hand paid subsidies back to the ML owners to help with the cost and expense of his assigned players, so they felt they had a right on what players they should get. The ML owners reserved the right to what level they thought a player should be placed and from a pool for each classifacation a corresponding minor league level owner chose from that pool. When the seasons started and certain players would. by their stats and play, show the need for promotion, this too could stat a stir as to who would get this player

. These conflicts caused a certain amount of changes each year between ML teams and their minor league affiliates, but on the whole, with give and take each party usually found out who they could work with. I know the Cards worked well with Rochester and Columbus of the AAA leagues for a number of years and also Houston AA of the texas league.

One other thing that might be of interest is; At that time there were three AAA leagues: the International, the American Assoiation and the Pacific Coast league. The Pacific Coast League differed from the other two leagues, by the fact that they scouted and signed prospects on their own and for that reason was often referred to as a AAAA league.

The eight teams of the league did use minor league players from the Majors upper echelons to fill their rosters but had no individual working agreements with particular Major League clubs. They also often used the Class A, California League as sort of a farm system of their own by signing prospects and assigning them to that league for training.

A number of these players came throuh the Pacific Coast League's system but the PCL demanded top dollar from the Majors when they had a player under contract. The San Francisco Seals held the origional contract on Joe Di Maggio and the Yankees paid goodly price to secure him but I can't remember the exact amount.

Although negotiations between the two parties sometimes could get pretty rough and the bidding rather high, the major league teams overall had good relations with the PCL teams because they provided a needed service. St. Louis was the most further western major league city and that left a vast area beyond the Mississippi to scout and cover and that was where the PCL aided. It was much easier and less expensive to haggle over the price of a player's contract with a PCL team that to scout the far reaches of the West coast..

Whereas it was the South that led the way through the greater part of the Golden Era of Baseball, it was the first to fade as in the middle '50's, The Mills began to decline and the villages began to erode and with this dynasty gone the powerfull influences of Semi- pro baseball faded into oblivion. With the advent of television and it's growth as a medium, the South turned rapidly to other interest like college and Pro football and the new and popular Nascar racing. Gone, are all the old ballfields that litterd the country side, leaving not a trace of a bygone era.

That about winds it up for Part 2 and hopefully I've been able to hold your interest and that you have learned something you might not have already known. Thanks for checking it out.

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