Someone (unknown) once commented, “Baseball is an island of activity amidst a sea of statistics.” There’s no doubt statistics drive the game. Here’s a good general timeline on how that has played out over the years.
After a long hiatus, due to having to return the series to the library and wait for others to finish their turns with it before having my chance at checking it out again, I have finally made it back around to watching the Ninth Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns. This installment in the series covers the time period from 1970 to 1993, the ending representing present day at the time, as the series was originally released in 1994.
The Ninth Inning opens with a baseball game being played between a pair of Dominican teams. A couple players from one of the teams give interviews expressing the importance of baseball to the Dominican culture. “It’s like a religion,” one player says. “There’s never been a revolution or war during baseball season.” Historian Manuel Marquez-Sterling compares baseball to the opera, insisting the two are essentially the same kind of thing.
On this disc we learn about Brooks Robinson leading the Orioles to the 1970 World Series championship against Pete Rose and the Cincinnati Reds. In 1971, the Orioles found themselves on the losing side of the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Roberto Clemente of the Pirates made a name for himself during this period. He was an icon for both the black community and for the Puerto Rican community, and he gave back to society as much as he could. On New Years Eve of 1971, however, Clemente’s plane crashed in an effort to bring relief supplies to Nicaragua following an earthquake.
Baseball’s reserve clause met its end during this time period. Curt Flood’s battle in the courts against the clause at the start of the decade came away largely fruitless, though it did serve to bring the issue into the public spotlight. In 1975, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, with the help of Marvin Miller, took on the reserve clause by claiming free agency. In the end, the reserve clause was abolished and players were now eligible for free agency after six years. This, as we see through today, resulted in an explosion of baseball salaries. The collusion of baseball owners in the late-1980s threatened this newfound free agent market, in much the same way owners once had observed the “gentleman’s agreement” to never sign a black player. This collusion, however, would soon get exposed and would cost the owners a considerable sum.
The treatment of both Roberto Clemente and Curt Flood highlighted the points made by Jackie Robinson shortly before his death. Certainly, as Buck O’Neil mentions, a lot changed in baseball, and in American society, as a result of Robinson’s role in breaking the color barrier. Nevertheless, baseball still had a long way to go in terms of racial equality. Henry Aaron knew all about this reality, playing for the Braves and chasing Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record. The hate mail sent to Aaron, some of which gets read in this episode, sends chills down my spine. In 1974, Hank Aaron did break Ruth’s record, and deservedly so. The 1987 interview of Al Campanis regarding the reasons behind a lack of blacks in baseball management drove home the existence of the persisting prejudice.
The Oakland A’s of the 1970s drew attention, not only due to their excellent performance, but also due to the appearance of their players. Players were given bonuses to grow their hair out, and many went on to sport some quite interesting facial hair. Catfish Hunter’s pitching for Oakland was stellar, almost unfair in the eyes of some hitters, who noticed the strike zone seemed to grow larger whenever Hunter took the mound.
The Cincinnati Reds returned to the World Series in 1975, this time against the Boston Red Sox. Not only did the Reds have Pete Rose on their roster, but also boasted of names like Johnny Bench, Ken Griffey, and Joe Morgan. Game 6 of this Series proved one for the history books, featuring Carlton Fisk’s dramatic walk-off home run for Boston in the twelfth inning to tie the Series at three. Cincinnati would win the Series, however, in Game 7. As a side note, I particularly enjoyed the various stories told by pitcher Bill Lee on this disc. The man was certainly a character. He speaks candidly and hilariously about his own experiences, blunders, and shortcomings, and his wild gesturing made it just as fun to watch him speak as it was to listen.
The 1970s saw the rise of George Steinbrenner as owner of the New York Yankees. Free agency worked in Steinbrenner’s favor, and he spent freely to build a winning organization. Though they lost the 1976 World Series, they won it in 1977 and 1978, led by Reggie Jackson. Steinbrenner became notorious for running through managers like a child runs through fads, bolstering his reputation for trying to buy his way to championships.
The 1979 Series featured Willie Stargell and the Pittsburgh Pirates, and then in 1980, the Philadelphia Phillies defeated the Kansas City Royals, led by Pete Rose, who had signed with them after becoming a free agent. Rose would return to the Reds later in his career. Nolan Ryan also took advantage of free agency, dominating from the pitcher’s mound with multiple teams. After the collusion among the owners was busted up, baseball contracts exploded, and player after player made headlines as the newest highest paid player.
After this point, the documentary ceased to cover every single World Series championship, but rather focused on the ones that would be deemed “most popular” in baseball history. The 1986 World Series saw a continuation of the Curse of the Bambino. The Boston Red Sox lost the Series in a stunning fashion to the New York Mets. After giving up what seemed like a sure victory in Game 6, the Red Sox also lost Game 7. The 1988 World Series went to the Los Angeles Dodgers, a championship victory that included the unbelievable tale of Kirk Gibson’s home run in Game 1 in spite of his injuries.
In August 1989, Pete Rose was banished from baseball. Bart Giamatti gave the announcement in a press conference, stating that Rose’s involvement in gambling had hurt the game, and that the game must be held to the highest standards. In spite of a depressing end to the 1980s, and in spite of all the scandals and other struggles in baseball, John Thorn and Buck O’Neil exalt the continuing survivalist spirit of baseball. Admittedly, the timing of these statement is a bit ironic, considering that the next World Series after this documentary was released, the 1994 Series, did not get played due to the players’ strike. In spite of that, baseball did come back, and I’d say the fact that so many baseball blogs, such as this one, exist is a testament to the continuing love and wonder that baseball brings.
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.
Congratulations to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros on winning their respective league pennants. For those looking to follow along, here’s how the 2017 World Series is scheduled to take place:
Game 1: Tuesday, October 24th @ 8:00 PM ET – Astros @ Dodgers
Game 2: Wednesday, October 25th @ 8:00 PM ET – Astros @ Dodgers
Game 3: Friday, October 27th @ 8:00 PM ET – Dodgers @ Astros
Game 4: Saturday, October 28th @ 8:00 PM ET – Dodgers @ Astros
*Game 5: Sunday, October 29th @ 8:00 PM ET – Dodgers @ Astros
*Game 6: Tuesday, October 31st @ 8:00 PM ET – Astros @ Dodgers
*Game 7: Wednesday, November 1st @ 8:00 PM ET – Astros @ Dodgers
If you’re keeping track, the Astros last appeared in the World Series in 2005 (as the NL team), losing to the Chicago White Sox in a four-game sweep. The Astros have never won the World Series. The Dodgers last appeared in the Series in 1988, when they defeated the Oakland Athletics in five games.
Ewing Kauffman became the owner of the new American League franchise in Kansas City on January 11, 1968. The franchise was eventually known as the Royals. With the departure of the A’s for Oakland, the pharmaceutical entrepreneur became a key force in bringing a lasting MLB club to KC.
It’s been nearly two years since I first wrote about Pat Venditte, who at the time was a switch-pitcher in the Yankees organization. Last night, Venditte made his Major League debut with the Oakland A’s, as they faced the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.
How did he do? The first full-time switch-pitcher of the modern era threw two scoreless innings, beginning the seventh pitching with his left arm to get Brock Holt to ground out, then coaxing a double-play ball out of Mike Napoli throwing with his right. He only faced three in the eighth inning, though switch-hitter Blake Swihart did give him a momentary crisis of “which side should I pitch from?”
That’s not a bad conundrum to have, in the grand scheme of things. To be a young pitcher making history in this manner, and having the opportunity to do it at Fenway? Can’t complain about that!
In case you missed it, things certainly got interesting between the Royals and the Athletics over the weekend. It all started with a high slide into second base by A’s third baseman Brett Lawrie, which sprained the knee of Alcides Escobar. There has been much speculation as to whether or not Lawrie was deliberately trying to take out Escobar. Watching Sunday afternoon’s game on television, the consensus by Royals broadcasters seems to be that a slide like that can only be intentional. Lawrie, of course, insists that he was just playing the game:
We may never know the true story behind the incident, but whatever his intentions were, Lawrie’s slide sparked a firestorm of animosity between the two teams. I had the pleasure of attending Saturday night’s game and experiencing first-hand the overwhelming disdain of the crowd for Lawrie. Any time his name was mentioned, every trip to the plate, every defensive play that he made received a booing that makes Kim Jong Un look popular. Then, in the midst of a disastrous top of the fourth, Yordano Ventura beaned Lawrie, and the benches cleared as the crowd roared its approval:
No punches were thrown, but being in the crowd as this all transpired proved to be an eye-opening experience. I’ve experienced the vindictiveness of Kansas City fans at Chiefs games, but when it comes to Royals games, I had never seen the crowd act so maliciously. Then again, up until last year, every Royals game I had ever attended featured a sparse crowd, and certainly not this level of drama. Even after he was plunked once, the folks around me were screaming for another beaning in Lawrie’s next plate appearance. As harsh as it seems, it’s not hard to understand the feelings of the fans or the Royals. Escobar is a fan favorite in Kansas City, and nobody wants to see a beloved player removed from the lineup under such suspicious circumstances.
Unfortunately, the Royals never recovered from that disastrous inning and lost Saturday’s game in an embarrassingly uninteresting fashion. It was the drama and receipt of the replica AL Champions trophy that kept the trip from being a bust:
Sunday afternoon’s game proved no less interesting where the drama was concerned. Lorenzo Cain was hit by a pitch in the bottom of the first, and Kelvin Herrera threw a pitch behind Lawrie in retaliation during the eighth inning. By the time the game was through, Royals manager Ned Yost, pitching coach Dave Eiland, bench coach Don Wakamatsu, Alcides Escobar, and Kelvin Herrera had all been ejected from the game. On the plus side, the Royals rallied in the bottom of the eighth inning to break a 2-2 tie and win the game and, thus, the series.
The Royals and the A’s next play each other on June 26th in Oakland. It will be interesting to see whether this all carries over.