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 American League’s new Seattle team chose a name for its new club on March 31, 1968: the Pilots. The moniker came from Seattle’s connection with the airplane industry, as well as co-owner Dewey Soriano’s part-time job as a harbor pilot.
Steve clued me in to the existence of some songs about the Seattle Pilots, and while it has proven difficult to locate these songs in a format that I can post here, my digging around did uncover this little gem from BaseballHistoryShorts.com. It appears to be a promotional video, created following the 1969 season, talking up the future of the Pilots. The clip even mentions the potential for championship series, World Series, All-Star Games, and so forth. The voice over talks about the team’s various promotions and other exciting events from the past season; and yet, much to my amusement, the video itself seems to be more of a highlight reel of all the team’s brawls during the 1969 season. Nevertheless, given the politics and economics surrounding the debate over the team’s stay in Seattle, I doubt that a better promotional reel would have done the team any good, and after only one season, they became the Milwaukee Brewers.
Over the weekend, I finished reading a book that had been gifted to me by a good friend who lives in Seattle. She’s always known me as a baseball fan and an avid reader (not to mention my interest in history), so when this book about the Seattle Pilots came out, she made sure that a copy landed in my hands.
Bill Mullins’s Becoming Big League provides more than just a recap of the Seattle Pilots’ only season. It brings to us the story of the relationship between the city of Seattle and Major League Baseball during the 1960s and 1970s. This book delves into the economics and politics involved in, first, bringing the Pilots to the city of Seattle, and second, the attempt–and failure–at keeping them there once the season ended. I was not around to witness the glorious debacle that was the Seattle Pilots, but after reading this book, I kind of wish I had been.
While the Pilots are remembered today with some nostalgia and romanticism for the past, the reality behind their stint in Seattle was less than glamorous. Mullins traces the initial struggle to bring Major League Baseball to the city by Dewey and Max Soriano, and the wariness, if not outright resistance, of Seattle’s citizenry and leaders. In spite of its growth and self-identification as a city open to new things, when it came to sports in the 1960s, Seattle was still very much a college town. The city had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, through the door to becoming “Big League.” Mullins shows us how the Pilots became the first ugly steps through that door, and how that ugliness and constant political bickering resulted in the Pilots’ demise.
Interspersed between chapters of the discussion of stadium politics, Mullins includes chapters about the Pilots themselves. I found this to be a nice touch, reminding the reader that, for all the politics and business involved in baseball, there is still a game that takes place on the field–and the appreciation of that game is what makes such a struggle worthwhile. Readers get a glimpse of the team, the personalities of its players, and get to follow the Pilots through their one and only season in existence. While the team’s final record was mediocre, at best, the Pilots nevertheless exceeded performance expectations for an expansion team’s first year in existence. Unfortunately, as Mullins details for us, the politics of stadium-building hindered the desire for would-be baseball fans to come out to the ballgame. By the end of the year, the Seattle Pilots were bankrupt.
There is no doubt that copious amounts of time and effort went into the research and writing of this book. The scope of the book covers not only the Pilots themselves, but also explores the character of Seattle, its citizens, and its leaders in the 1960s and 1970s. Mullins elaborates on the mindsets of the citizens and of the city’s leaders, as well as the struggle to convince Seattleites that Big League baseball was what they wanted, even if they didn’t know it yet. He untangles the knots of political debate, the economic struggles, and the business decisions involved in the Pilots’ birth and plight, and he does it in a way that is not drab or cumbersome, as I have found in so many other books about history and politics. Mullins manages to take this overwhelming labyrinth of a subject and lays it out in a way that is not only understandable, but also enjoyable to read.