Insights: Sports

Baseball may evolve, but some things never change. A pundit looks at the state of the game
| By Roger Kahn | From 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:

Big-market teams dominated. The New York Yankees won the '51 World Series, 4 games to 2, defeating the New York Giants. It was the Yankees' third consecutive championship. Under Casey Stengel, they would win five in a row before handing the title to another New York team, the Giants.

Smaller-market ball clubs struggled, both to win games and to attract fans. They could not support extensive scouting systems and farm teams. Flamboyant, gifted Bill Veeck ran the Browns, the No. 2 team in St. Louis, but that was Veeck's only baseball failure. Almost bankrupt by 1953, the Browns had to shift to Baltimore, where they were reborn as the Orioles. The Braves, the No. 2 team in Boston, drew so poorly that their ballpark sounded like a library. Farewell, Longfellow. Hello, Bratwurst. The Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953.

Television was creating havoc. "Our game doesn't televise as well as football," the guru, Branch Rickey, told me. "The shape of the television screen simply doesn't fit the shape of the diamond. We need engineers to develop a pyramidal screen so the beauty of baseball can be properly displayed." Still, even in the old black-and-white, 19-inch days, television nipped at attendance. Bobby Thomson hit the most famous home run in baseball history in winning the 1951 National League playoff between the Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds. Using the new butterfly ballot, my rough count today finds that 4.9 million people claim to have seen that game. Actually 15,000 tickets went unsold.

Although Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier in 1947, bigotry remained rampant in front offices. It was 1959 before Tom Yawkey, who owned the Boston Red Sox, signed his first black player, Elijah "Pumpsie" Green. Not only behind the times but dim. A pleasant enough chap, Green, like most of us, never could hit Major League pitching.

Allan H. "Bud" Selig, a former Wisconsin Ford dealer, who has become commissioner of baseball, held forth on the game's current problems last fall. Accompanied by two tiny bodyguards, George Will and Bob Costas, Selig bravely entered the Capitol building and addressed a Senate panel on antitrust, business rights and competition. As someone else remarked in another context, "If you have tears, prepare to shed them now."

Twenty of the 30 Major League teams will lose money in 2001, Selig said. The Yankees' payroll for 2000 was $114 million. Two or three teams, he said, had payrolls as low as $25 million. The result, according to Ford Fairlane Bud Selig: "At the start of spring training [2001], there no longer exists hope or faith for fans of more than half our 30 clubs."

Will and Costas later testified, but that is less important than two people who did not appear. These were Don Fehr and Gene Orza, the director and the lawyer for the Players Association, the white-collar title stamped on the ballplayers' union. Nor did the senators invite Orel Hershiser, the great pitcher, ill-treated by the Dodgers, or Yankees skipper Joe Torre, who gets smarter every season. What the Senate got, for your tax dollars and mine, was organized baseball's exasperating company line. In rough translation, Bud Selig really said to an Ohio Republican named Mike DeWine: Look, Senator, why do we get stuck paying these huge salaries? Forget antitrust. That's Commie stuff. Let's all be pro-business Republicans together. And by the way, can I get you a pair for opening day?

The rich Yankees rule. They have for much of the time since October 11, 1923, when Babe Ruth hit two home runs and a 485-foot flyout, burying the Giants and manager John McGraw's old "scientific" game -- squeeze plays, double steals and such. (Heywood Broun's lead the next day in The New York World: "The Ruth is mighty and shall prevail.")

But not all rich teams succeed. Rupert Murdoch paid $311 million for the Los Angeles Dodgers three years ago. Fat cats though they are, the Dodgers have not won a playoff game since 1988. Under the right leadership, small-market teams still flourish. The Chicago White Sox, the second team in the Second City, dominated regular-season play in the American League last year. Seattle, after dropping the monstrous salaries of Junior Griffey and Randy Johnson, reached the last round of the playoffs. The Seattle general manager, Pat Gillick, and the manager, Lou Piniella, are splendid at their jobs. In sum, money helps, as it always has, but competence is just as important.

Without going cosmic, I believe that is the nature of free enterprise.

Problems? As I found myself discussing on a radio show with Tommy John, today's super-rich players are less disciplined performers than the long ago Boys of Summer. Bernie Williams, the Yankees' fine center fielder, pauses to watch his clouts head toward the north Bronx. No, you hit, and then you run. The first base coach will clue you soon enough. Todd Zeile of the New York Mets, another gifted ballplayer, clouted a drive to left field in Game 1 of last year's World Series. As far as I know, Zeile is the only descendent of John Adams playing in the majors. Certain he had hit a homer, Zeile watched the ball in flight. So did the runner on first, Timo Perez. The drive hit the top of the fence and bounded into play. The Yankees threw out Perez trying to score. The Mets lost the game, 4-3, lost their edge and, eventually, the Series. Someone said the wind in left had shifted. John Adams wrote in 1776, "All great changes are irksome." Come on, Zeile. Come on, guys. Play hard. Run hard. All of the time.

No one ever created Branch Rickey's pyramidal screen, but televised baseball still is flawed. With huge screens and informed commentary by such as Tim McCarver, we see pitching and some other aspects as never before. But commercials clutter the game. Commercials between innings seem never to end. Commercials between pitching changes take up enough time for three other fellows to warm up. Pitching changes come late in a game, toward a climactic time, and these commercials give some viewers practice at hitting the mute button. Others switch to channel 69, and watch The Revenge of the Spanker.

Smart owners and managers win. Great performers, such as Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and the lamentably retired Will Clark, play like hell. Mediocre journalists pump out the Selig/Organized Baseball line. Fault lines stretch from coast to coast, but do you want to change this native art form? Do you really want to socialize baseball?

Not me, and I voted for Henry Wallace.


Roger Kahn is the author of The Boys of Summer. His latest work is The Head Game, published by Harcourt.