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.
On August 14, 1888, New York Giants pitcher Tim Keefe lost to Gus Krock and the White Stockings, 4-2, at the Polo Grounds. This defeat marked the end of a nineteen-game winning streak for Keefe. 1888 proved to be the Hall of Fame pitcher’s best year, as he posted a 35-12 record and a 1.74 ERA with 335 strikeouts, earning him the Triple Crown that season.
In a game against the Yankees on 16 August 1920, Cleveland infielder Ray Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch thrown by Carl Mays. Though, according to some accounts, the pitch barely missed the strike zone, Chapman had been crowding the plate against the submarine huler. Carl Mays was also well-known as a headhunter when it came to hitters who crowded the plate, and few doubted that the inside pitch was accidental (not that Mays intended to kill, of course). After being struck by the pitch, Chapman was taken from the Polo Grounds to the hospital, where Dr. T. M. Merrigan performed surgery. He never regained consciousness, however, and Chapman died twelve hours later, at 4:40 a.m. on 17 August. It is the only case in Major League history in which a ballplayer died as a direct result of being hit by a pitch.
Of the tragedy, the New York Tribune wrote:
The extreme rarity of fatal or even of serious accidents in baseball is surprising, when one remembers the vast multitudes who play the game. Consider the number who are drowned while bathing or boating, who meet injury or death while hunting. In the light of such comparisons baseball is singularly free from untoward happenings. Ray Chapman’s fate, sad as it is, may be rated as sheer accident. It represents a coincidence not likely to occur again.
Nevertheless, the incident resulted in some rule changes in Major League Baseball. The following season, the league established a rule that required umpires to replace the baseball anytime it got dirty (prior to this, pitchers made a point to dirty them up as much as possibly, in order to make them more difficult for a batter to see). The banning of the spitball after the 1920 season was also due in part to Chapman’s death. Interestingly, however, it would be another thirty years before batting helmets would be invented.
“Beaned by a Pitch, Ray Chapman Dies.” The New York Times, August 17, 1920. The New York Times Company, 2004. Web. Accessed 17 August 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/sports/year_in_sports/08.17.html
Gorman, Bob. “‘I Guess I Forgot to Duck’: On-Field Player Fatalities in the Minor Leagues.” Nine 11.2 (Spring 2003).
“Ray Chapman.” BaseballLibrary.com. The Idea Logical Company, Inc., 2006. Web. Accessed 17 August 2013. http://www.baseballlibrary.com/ballplayers/player.php?name=Ray_Chapman_1891
It was the bottom of the ninth inning at the Polo Grounds in New York on 3 October 1951. The Giants trailed the Dodgers 4-1. Alvin Dark and Don Mueller each got on base with singles to start the inning. Monte Irvin fouled out. Whitey Lockman hit a double to drive in Dark and send Mueller to third. Mueller, however, hurt his ankle sliding into the base and was replaced by a pinch runner, Clint Hartung. With two runners in scoring position, only one out in the inning, and the scoreboard now reading 4-2, Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen decides to replace pitcher Don Newcombe with Ralph Branca.
The rivalry between the Giants and the Dodgers had been an intense battle for the hearts of the fans of New York. It was also a rivalry that had been broadcast across the country, through television and radio. The Giants had trailed the Dodgers by 13.5 games in August, and yet managed to tie them on the last day of the season by going 37-7 in their remaining games. The tie resulted in the three-game playoff that would determine who would advance to the World Series. The teams split the first two games of the series, 1-1. It all came down to Game 3.
Outfielder Bobby Thomson now stepped up to the plate for the Giants. If Branca could close out the game, the Dodgers would be World Series bound, and the Giants’ miracle comeback season would come to an end…
This dramatic play-by-play by radio announcer Russ Hodges pretty much secured the moment’s legacy as one of the most dramatic moments in baseball history. Thomson described the experience, “I can remember feeling as if time was just frozen. It was a delirious, delicious moment.”
It is a moment that would also live forever in the memory of pitcher Ralph Branca:
“I wanted to say it was a cheap Polo Grounds home run. I wanted to say that in any other ballpark it’d be an easy out. I wanted to believe that I was dreaming. I didn’t want to believe that it was really happening. I wanted the pitch back.
“But the ball was gone and the game was over. The series was over. The pennant was lost.
“There was pandemonium. There was hysteria. There was Thomson rounding the bases. There was Durocher jumping up and down from the third-base coach’s box like a crazy child. There was confetti flying.”
Unfortunately for the Giants, the magic wouldn’t be enough to sustain them through the World Series. They would lose the championship to the New York Yankees in six games.
Nevertheless, “the shot heard ’round the world” is a moment that remains embedded in the heart of American culture. In 1999, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp celebrating Thomson’s homer. In ESPN’s SportsCentury, the moment ranked #2 in the list of the Ten Greatest Games of the 20th Century (behind the 1958 NFL Championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants).
“Now it is done,” wrote Red Smith in The New York Herald Tribune. “Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”
Branca, Ralph. A Moment in Time: An American Story of Baseball, Heartbreak, and Grace. New York: Scribner, 2011.
Goldstein, Richard. “Bobby Thomson Dies at 86; Hit Epic Home Run.” New York Times 18 August 2010, New York ed.: A16.
MacCambridge, Michael, ed. ESPN SportsCentury. New York: Hyperion ESPN Books, 1999.
“Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Baseball Reference. Sports Reference LLC, 26 January 2013. Web. Accessed 30 April 2013. http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Shot_Heard_’Round_the_World