By the Numbers: Forget 1950s; we are now in Golden Age of Baseball

Greg Jayne: By the Numbers

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 

The 1950s have been gilded and glorified, proclaimed by many to have been The Golden Age of Baseball.

Sure, you’ll find arguments to the contrary. Some consider The Deadball Era to be baseball’s Golden Age, but those people are centenarians longing to see two dozen hit-and-runs in a game that ends 2-1. We’ll respectfully dismiss that notion.

So, somewhere along the line, the 1950s have come to be the consensus choice as baseball’s Golden Age.

There was Willie, Mickey, and The Duke. There was Ted Williams and Stan Musial. There was a young Willie Mays and a young Hank Aaron and a nation feeling reborn in the years following World War II.

But while many great things happened in America during the 1950s — you know, such as “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley” — there’s really no justification for suggesting that baseball was one of them.

Consider:

• Until 1953, the major leagues existed in 10 cities spread out over eight states.

• As late as 1957, Major League Baseball reached no further west than Kansas City. It landed on the West Coast the following season.

• The major leagues were integrated in 1947, but they weren’t exactly the United Nations throughout the 1950s. Through 1952, only seven teams had been integrated, and no clubs had more than a handful of blacks throughout the decade. In 1959, the Red Sox became the last club to integrate when Pumpsie Green joined the team.

Considering the success of Mays, Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Ernie Banks, and others throughout the 1950s, it’s safe to assume there were some potential stars who never got a chance at the major leagues even after the color line was broken.

• There were few Latin American players, although some had played when the color line was still in effect.

• There was little competitive balance. The Yankees won eight pennants and six World Series during the 1950s, and the Dodgers and Giants combined for six NL pennants while they were in New York (the Dodgers added another in Los Angeles). That’s 14 of 20 pennants landing in New York, along with eight World Series titles.

While fans these days like to complain about the Yankees being the Walmart of baseball, five clubs have won World Series in the past five years and eight franchises have won pennants.

• In 1950, 17.5 million people attended a major-league game — or one game for every 8.7 people in the United States. By 1953, attendance had dropped 18 percent, although it rebounded in subsequent years. By 1959, attendance was one game for every 9.3 people, even though there now were teams in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

• As for the product on the field, the strategy of the day was to stack the lineup with one-dimensional sluggers and wait for a three-run homer. The result was a station-to-station affair that was boring in its simplicity.

In 1950, Dom DiMaggio led the American League with a grand total of 15 stolen bases for the entire season; in 1956, Luis Aparicio led the AL with 21 steals.

The question, of course, is why the 1950s came to be known as baseball’s Golden Age, and the answer has two intertwining parts:

With New York teams and players dominating the sport at a time when most of the national media was based in the city, the era came to be viewed with a New York-centric myopia.

This myopia was reflected in the 1972 book “The Boys of Summer” by Roger Kahn. Rightfully regarded as one of the great sports books of all-time, “The Boys of Summer” painted the period with a golden hue.

This is understandable, but it’s also a misnomer. Now, with modern stadiums spread all over the country and players from all over the world displaying a combination of speed, power, and fielding prowess, the game of today is far more entertaining than it was 60 years ago.

Baseball might, indeed, have a timeless appeal. But its appeal right now is about as high as it’s ever been.

Question or comment for By the Numbers? You can reach Greg Jayne, Sports editor of The Columbian, at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at greg.jayne@columbian.com. To “Like” him on Facebook, search for “Greg Jayne - The Columbian”