On April 5, 1934, Cincinnati Reds president Larry MacPhail hired Red Barber to broadcast the team games on WLW radio. Nicknamed “Ol’ Redhead,” due to the color of his hair, Barber spent the first five years of his Hall of Fame career in Cincinnati before moving to the Dodgers alongside MacPhail in 1939.
The next time someone whines that baseball doesn’t have enough action, you can do two things: first, explain the planning, strategizing, calculating, and deception that place before every pitch. Then quote Hall-of-Fame announcer Red Barber: “Baseball is dull only to dull minds.”
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.
Whenever you have a tight situation and there’s a close pitch, the umpire gets a squawk no matter how he calls it.
Continuing on with the journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us to the decade of the 1930s. The United States, indeed, the world, was facing off against the Great Depression during the 1930s. As a result of high unemployment rates and widespread poverty, few could afford the price of tickets to attend professional baseball games, and as a result, attendance fell drastically. Baseball did what it could to try to draw fans back in, from the first All-Star game to the creation of the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, the financial difficulties that faced the nation at this time were too great.
Even as the Depression was getting underway, the Yankees signed Babe Ruth to the biggest contract in baseball history in the early 1930s. It was a move that seems only too-appropriate, given Ruth’s ostentatious lifestyle. Meanwhile, Lou Gehrig continues to stay merely in the shadows of the spotlight, in spite of his consecutive game streak and consistent high level of play.
Subtitled “Shadow Ball,” the Fifth Inning of this series by Ken Burns focuses on black baseball. (The subtitle, by the way, is not a reference to race, but rather to the illusion that these games weren’t being played with a ball at all, because it could barely be seen.) While white baseball suffered during the Depression, black baseball flourished. Many black teams came under control of racketeers, as they were among the few who could afford to fund baseball during this time, but interestingly, this seemed to be to the advantage of the Negro Leagues. And the crowds flocked to watch the black teams play. Listening to the nostalgia in the voices of former negro leagues players, you can tell there was a true love for the game, even in spite of inequality, the hard road trips, and the racism they faced.
We learn about Satchel Paige, considered by some to be the greatest pitcher in all of baseball. He had such an arsenal of pitches that few could hit off Paige. Some saw him as black baseball’s equivalent of a Babe Ruth, in that he drew large crowds to ball games. He even seemed to hold true to this comparison in his off-field personality. He hated to drive slow and cultivated a persona for those around him. Buck O’Neil, however, indicates there was much more to Paige than often met the eye.
Babe Ruth himself became the center of attention yet again during the 1932 World Series in Chicago when, in Game 3, he appeared to call his shot. No one will ever know for certain whether he really did, or if Ruth was merely engaging in a different gesture altogether, but it was a moment that, as we all know, has remained a part of the baseball psyche for decades. As the decade went on, however, Ruth’s level of play would decline, as it always does as a ballplayer gets older. When the Yankees made it clear they would not offer him a manager position, he did a brief stint with the Boston Braves, then retired from baseball. Meanwhile, new stars stepped into the spotlight. Not just Lou Gehrig, but also figures like Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Dizzy Dean, and Bob Feller.
As for home run hitters in the Negro Leagues, catcher Josh Gibson was well-known for this ability. While many called him a black Babe Ruth, Burns notes, there were some who thought they had the comparison backwards, and that Babe Ruth was actually a white Josh Gibson. Indeed, the list of accomplishments for Gibson certainly seems to pass those of Ruth, including a season with seventy home runs, some of which exceeded 575 feet in distance. The Negro Leagues’ version of the Yankees were the Kansas City Monarchs, led by first baseman Buck O’Neil. In his commentary, O’Neil speaks about the camaraderie between the players and the fans.
We learn about the 1930s Brooklyn Dodgers, “dem bums,” and we learn about the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, the “Gashouse Gang.” In 1936, Joe DiMaggio made his first appearances as a rookie with the New York Yankees. DiMaggio would help lead the Yankees to four World Series. Also in the thirties, we see the first night game in Major League Baseball (though night games had been played in the Negro Leagues for some time) and the increasing popularity of radio broadcasts, especially those by Red Barber, created new fans, as more and more people came to understand the game.
During the off season, many black players traveled south to Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In doing so, they were able to play baseball year round. They also discovered that the racial attitudes south of the United States were very different. They were paid more and welcomed more warmly by the locals than they were back home.
Discrimination didn’t stop with just the black population. Hank Greenburg came into prominence as first baseman for the Detroit Tigers. He wasn’t the first Jewish player in the game, but he was probably the first to really make a name for himself. Greenburg faced a considerable backlash of anti-Semitism, but his stellar play eventually helped to win fans and players over. Greenburg felt his role was of particular importance in light of the actions of one Adolf Hitler in Europe.
In 1939 came Lou Gehrig’s ALS diagnosis, and thus the end of his streak and his baseball career. On July 4th of that year, Gehrig gave his “Luckiest Man” speech at Yankee Stadium. Two years later, he passed away from the disease, which now bears his name.
1939 also saw the opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the induction of the first Hall of Fame class. It was the 100-year anniversary of the myth of Abner Doubleday‘s founding of baseball in 1839. The disc then ends with Buck O’Neil describing the long-awaited matchup between Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson — Negro League Baseball’s best pitcher versus it’s best hitter. O’Neil’s account left me with a smile.
On August 11, 1951, WCBS-TV in New York City televised the first-ever color broadcast of a baseball game. The Boston Braves defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers 8-1 in the first game of a doubleheader at Ebbets Field. Red Barber and Connie Desmond of Brooklyn provided the play-by-play commentary.
History’s first televised baseball game was broadcast by NBC on 26 August 1939. The Reds played the Dodgers at Ebbets Field and split a doubleheader, the Dodgers winning 6-2 in the first game, and the Reds taking the second game 5-1. The telecast was shown on experimental station W2XBS. Red Barber called the game for the television audience.
Only two camera angles were in place for the game: one down the third base line, and the other high over home plate in order to capture the entire field. And cameras, not nearly as advanced as they are today, had difficulty capturing any fast-moving plays. While baseball owners initially feared that television coverage would hurt game attendance, they quickly embraced the increased coverage and revenue that could be gained through the sale of broadcast rights and from advertising.
Today, televised sports is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Baseball is dull only to dull minds.