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Insights: Sports

Baseball may evolve, but some things never change. A pundit looks at the state of the game
Roger Kahn
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

In the den of his rambling house in Atherton, a quiet grove of affluence some 45 minutes down-peninsula from San Francisco, Willie Mays was talking about the way things used to be. Presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan, beamed down from pictures on the walls of his den. Mays has come a fair way from his beginnings in an Alabama town called Westfield that was so poor, none of the streets was paved.

"You remember 1955," he said, "the year I hit 51 home runs?" I do remember. I also recall that Willie stole 24 bases and -- memory here may exaggerate a tad -- all summer long he caught every fly ball hit in Greater New York. At 24, Mays was a wonder to behold -- the Colossus of the Polo Grounds.

He earned $27,000 for the season. My computer has done some math; counting practice time, that works out to $35 an hour. Wanting more, Willie made a case to the late Chub Feeney, who ran the New York Giants, except when Chub's uncle, club president Horace Stoneham, was sober. That happened once a year.

"I scored 123 runs," Mays told Feeney, "and I batted in another 127. I led the league in triples and I threw out 23 guys on the bases, more than any other outfielder and…"

"Our attendance was off," Feeney replied. "All I can offer you is what you got last year."

Mays fled the Giants offices on 42nd Street and briskly walked 15 blocks north. There, he entered a Cadillac dealership. Car salesmen swarmed and swooned. "I'll take the gray one," Willie said. "Send the bill to the New York Giants." He eased the new car into Manhattan traffic.

In Atherton, Willie poured me a Scotch. "And that," he said, "is how I got myself a $7,500 raise."

That is an amiable story, but now reality intrudes, all jagged edges. Al Simmons, born Aloys Syzmanski, was a Hall of Fame slugger who batted .334 across 20 big league seasons (1924-1944) in the days before the pension plan began. I met him in a dark bar in Milwaukee one night in 1952. He was 50, and looked 75. I shook his hand and told him that my father had loved the way he hit. "Then buy me a beer, kid," Simmons said, "or give me a quarter so I can buy one for myself." Despairing eyes fixed on me, the great Al Simmons said, "Please."

 

The state of baseball in 2001 proceeds, to be sure, from earlier times before the free-agent explosion broke around us in the 1970s. I'd suggest that baseball is in pretty good shape, with some problems, which is the way baseball has looked since I began covering the Major Leagues for the late and sainted New York Herald Tribune 50 years ago. Here are some issues that were troubling baseball 50 years ago:


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