Ernie Banks, “Mr. Cub,” was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977. I love the fact that he starts this speech with his signature, “Let’s play two.”
The Eighth Inning of Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us into the 1960s. In this decade of the American Pastime, we find that it is being recognized less and less as such. Football has risen to prominence, and a lot of folks come to argue that football, not baseball, has now become the true national game. Additionally, the sixties were quite a stormy and unstable period in American history, filled with race riots, activism, anti-war protests, hippies, and Woodstock.
The game of baseball also finds itself experiencing some changes. In 1961, Babe Ruth’s single season home run record is threatened, then broken, by a man who is far from being a fan favorite. Roger Maris is described as moody and sullen, avoids talking to the press, and starts losing his hair as a result of the pressure he is under as he inadvertently finds himself chasing Ruth’s record.
Pitching sees a rise in dominance as the decade progresses, thanks to commissioner Ford Frick’s commandment that the strike zone be expanded to counter the explosion of home runs. Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson are among those who rise to preeminence from their positions on the mound. As pitching becomes the ruling force in the game, there comes a decline in home runs being hit. This, in turn, contributes to the decline in fan interest in the game.
This time period also sees changes as far as the growth of the league. The success and profitability of the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the west brings the league to consider other ways in which to spread the game throughout the country. Four new teams were added to Major League Baseball. We see the birth of the California Angels, the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins, then a newer Senators team moved to Arlington and became the Texas Rangers. The New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s (later the Astros) also joined the National League. The Braves would move from Milwaukee to Atlanta and the Athletics moved to Oakland. After just one season, the Seattle Pilots left for Milwaukee and became the Brewers, and towards the end of the decade the Royals were established in Kansas City and the Expos in Montreal. (I’m sure I must be missing one or more others here, and for that, I apologize.)
At the beginning of the decade, Ebbets Field met its fate with a wrecking ball painted to resemble a baseball. Jackie Robinson, who had once played at Ebbets, now worked and fought for civil rights, and Branch Rickey, who was the force behind integration in Major League Baseball, passed away in 1965. The Polo Grounds became the home of the New York Metropolitans, led by the one and only Casey Stengel, now getting along in years. Suffices to say, the Mets weren’t very good in those early years. Eventually, Stengel would retire from baseball. After that, the same wrecking ball that took out Ebbets Field would also bring down the Polo Grounds. The Mets moved into Shea Stadium, and by the end of the decade transformed into the “Miracle Mets,” winning the 1969 World Series.
In this inning, we meet Pete Rose and see bits about Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Whitey Ford, Roberto Clemente, and many, many others. Sandy Koufax seemingly retires almost as quickly as he broke into the league and became the youngest player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. In Baltimore, Earl Weaver became manager of the Orioles. One of the greatest managers of all time, the Orioles became the dynasty of the decade under Weaver.
In this decade, we also meet Marvin Miller. Miller became the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966. The players loved having Miller speaking on their behalf, but baseball owners, unsurprisingly, hated having Miller around. He was a man who Red Barber would call “one of the two or three most important men in baseball history.”
By the end of the disc, we learn about Curt Flood’s battle against the reserve clause, which at this point is only just beginning. Flood learned that he was to be traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia, and in the face of the racism he knew he would face in Philadelphia, he decided to oppose the trade. This flew in the face of the entire history of baseball business.
I think my favorite feature of this disc comes in all the arguments defending baseball. In spite of George Carlin’s comedy routine that makes baseball seem like a slow, sissy sport, baseball continues to be referred to as America’s National Pastime for good reason. Sure, football is faster and perhaps more suitable to the 30-second attention span that now dominates our culture (though, more recently, football also seems to be declining in popularity). But baseball’s place in the American psyche runs deep, and in a lot of ways, it is the very nature of its leisurely pace that makes it so appealing.
The Seventh Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns takes us into the 1950s in America. Subtitled “The Capital of Baseball,” this installment of the documentary revolves primarily around New York City and the three teams who dominated the baseball world during this decade: the New York Yankees, the New York Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. For ten straight years (1947-1956) a local team always played in the World Series, and a local team won nearly all of them as well.
It was certainly a great decade for the Yankees under manager Casey Stengel. With Mickey Mantle in the outfield and Yogi Berra behind the plate, the Yankees were as dominant as ever. The way Roger Angell describes the atmosphere in New York during this period, where everything seemed to revolve around baseball, makes me wish this type of world would come back into existence. “Stengelese” became a thing, though I like how the discussion also revolves around Stengel’s baseball intelligence. Similarly, while Yogi Berra remains most commonly known for “Yogi-isms,” he was also a phenomenal ballplayer. After all, you don’t get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame just for speaking amusing phrases.
Jackie Robinson, released from his three-year vow of silence with Branch Rickey, began lashing out against those who slighted him. It’s an understandable reaction, especially considering how long he had to go without answering the racism he faced. His play just grew better with his anger, leading the Dodgers to some great seasons, including a World Series championship in 1955.
We get to watch the Giants’ Bobby Thomson’s ever-popular “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” during the 1951 playoffs against the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was an event that ignited a tremendous amount of excitement not only at the Polo Grounds, but also in fans’ homes as the game was televised across the country. I always get a kick out of hearing Russ Hodges’s excited screaming, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
A good portion of the disc was devoted to Mickey Mantle, who essentially took Joe DiMaggio’s place with the Yankees. The attention he receives is well-deserved, as is the attention to his struggles with injury and his tendency to stay up all night partying. Given how well he was able to play in spite of being hurt much of the time, one can’t help but wonder what Mantle would have accomplished had he been healthy. Sadly, we’ll never know. Mantle himself doesn’t even touch on the subject in his own discussions of his playing days on the documentary.
While the breaking of the color barrier by Jackie Robinson in 1947 was undeniably a great thing for baseball, it did have an unfortunate downside. Attendance at Negro Leagues games fell as black fans flocked to watch Robinson and those who followed him play in the major leagues. On the positive side, players including Willie Mays, Curt Flood, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron became stars in Robinson’s wake. We get to watch Willie Mays make “The Catch,” a play that seemed impossible until he pulled it off.
The other unfortunate events, besides the end of the Negro Leagues, that we see during this decade involved the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants to the west coast. In the case of the Dodgers, the move took place in 1957, not long after the team finally managed to win a World Series, which made the move all the more heartbreaking for its fans. The Dodgers’ last ever World Series in 1956 saw them lose to the Yankees in a Series that involved Don Larsen’s perfect game. These moves were great news for Californians, of course, but Dodgers and Giants fans left behind in New York found themselves at a loss. Brooklyn and the Giants weren’t the only teams that moved during this period. The Philadelphia A’s moved to Kansas City, and the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles.
The subtitle for this Inning, “The Capital of Baseball,” proved itself undeniably fitting. We love to think of baseball as a game and a pastime, but in the case of professional leagues especially, it is first and foremost a business. Bill Veeck’s promotional stunt of sending Eddie Gaedel to the plate is one of many displays of the importance of commercialism in baseball. It makes for a hard reality check when your league is forced to fold or your favorite team moves to an entirely new city, and in the present day, we experience a number of miniature heartbreaks any time an impactful player becomes a free agent and moves on to other teams.
The only way to prove that you are a good sport is to lose.
Let’s play two.
Major League Baseball has yet to see its first woman player, but the Negro Leagues were ahead of the times in this regard. Three women played professional baseball in the Negro Baseball Leagues, the first of whom was one Toni “Tomboy” Stone.
Born Marcenia Lyle on July 17, 1921, in St. Paul, Minnesota, Toni Stone signed to play second base for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953. It was a path that went against the hopes and dreams that Stone’s parents had for her and her siblings. From a young age, Toni Stone loved competition, and she excelled at a variety of sports as she grew up, including baseball, track, and ice skating. Her parents, who would have preferred that she focus more of her attention on her schoolwork, went so far as to set up a meeting for her with the local priest to try to talk her out of baseball, but by the end of that meeting, the priest had invited her to join his team in the Catholic Midget League.
By the age of fifteen, Stone had joined the Twin City Colored Giants, a traveling men’s baseball team. In the 1940s, however, she moved to San Francisco to help a sick sister, taking a brief hiatus from baseball. But then in 1949, she joined the San Francisco Sea Lions of the West Coast Negro Baseball League. In her first plate appearance with the Sea Lions, Stone earned two RBIs.
Being a black woman playing on a men’s team in Jim Crow America, Stone’s experiences playing ball weren’t always fun, of course. She often dealt with a barrage of jeers and insults from fans and players alike. Stone was quite proud of the fact that the male players were out to get her, however, wearing it as a sort of badge of honor. At one point, she said, “They didn’t mean any harm, and in their way they liked me. Just that I wasn’t supposed to be there. They’d tell me to go home and fix my husband some biscuits, or any damn thing. Just get the hell away from here.” As a woman, Stone was not allowed into the men’s locker room, but if she was lucky, she was sometimes permitted to change in the umpires’ locker room. In spite of the hardships, she took advantage of the exposure that she gained playing with the Sea Lions, and in 1953, the Indianapolis Clowns signed Toni Stone to its roster.
Stone appeared in 50 games that year. She hit .243, including getting a hit off the legendary pitcher, Satchel Paige. She also had the opportunity to play with the likes of Willie Mays and Ernie Banks. Stone’s time with the Clowns did not last, however, and in the off-season, she was traded to the Kansas City Monarchs. She retired at the end of her season with the Monarchs, however, due to age and a lack of playing time. Stone had compiled a .240 career batting average.
In 1985 Stone was inducted into the Women’s Sports Foundation’s International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. Then, in 1993, Stone was inducted into the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and into the Sudafed International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. Toni Stone died of heart failure in 1996.
Lately, I seem to be catching all the big news while on the treadmill at the gym. The problem with that is that I find myself having to be careful not to trip over my feet when a headline like the death of Ernie Banks flashes across the screen in front of me.
Ernie Banks became the Cubs’ first African-American player on Sept. 17, 1953. He went on to win the National League Most Valuable Player award twice and was an eleven-time All-Star. Over the course of his career, Banks hit 512 home runs and had 1,636 RBIs, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977. He passed away yesterday, Friday, January 23, in Chicago at the age of 83.
Farewell, Mr. Cub.