I’m often asked the same question: Were the guys “back then” better than they are today? I’ll try to answer that.
Take away the fame and fortune. Take away the television show and the hit records. What remains is a family that was very much like the Nelson’s on the 1950’s. My dad was of similar age to Ozzie, the rather quiet patriarch. My mom didn’t dress like Harriet, but she was always kind and supportive, just like Mrs. Nelson. My older brother seemed to be the same age as David -and had little to do with his younger brother. That would be me. Ricky was older than me, but I somehow related to his life. In our own way, we were the Nelson’s. Without the hair, looks, fame and fortune.
When I was strong enough and big enough, I mowed lawns and shoveled snow to earn money. I spent it all on baseball cards, “Sport” magazine and “The Sporting News.” I “flipped” baseball cards day and night. But I never put a baseball card in my bicycle wheels.
The focal point of my young life as baseball. I went to my first games with my parents on a Sunday afternoon when I was eight years old. I shut my eyes and vision it today. Cleveland Stadium was packed. There were more people there than I had ever seen in my life. It was a doubleheader. Indians vs. the Orioles. I’ll never forget the impact on my senses. The smell of cigars. The unbelievably green grass. The size and noise of the place was overwhelming. It was enormous. I had an orange drink in a carton that looked like a funnel. I tried peanuts for the first time in my life. Unfortunately, I loved them. The hot dogs had brown mustard on them and were wrapped in the thinest paper I had ever seen. And they were fantastic. They were made by Warsaw. I remember that. No longer in business. They were so good, I ate two.
Were the players better? They were different. There were only eight teams in each league. That’s a huge difference. Roster spots were treasured. There were six Minor League classifications. It began with Class D. Players were promoted to C, B, A, AA, and then AAA. Of course, the great players skipped levels.
Were the players better then? Some were bigger than life itself. Ted Kluszewski had arms like Popeye in his short-sleeved shirts. He could probably tear the seams apart on a baseball when he hit the sweet spot. Frank Howard was so big I thought the bat looked like a toothpick in his hands. Were they better? They were really good. But guys today are really good. Things are just different now.
Were the players better? I was a huge Cleveland Indians fan. I was so excited in 1954 I could hardly breathe. My Indians were in the World Series against the Giants. And then it happened. Dusty Rhodes and Willie Mays. Two names from my past. Dusty Rhodes hit .667 in the three games he played (there were only four) and Willie Mays made the best catch I’ve ever seen in my life. You’ve seen it. The catch and the throw. It was amazing. He was amazing. Clearly, Willie Mays is the best player I ever saw.
My memories of the teams of the 50’s include a vision of second baseman Nellie Fox with a huge chew of tobacco in his jaw bunting for a single. I still have the only baseball glove I ever owned. A Nellie Fox model. It’s still in great shape and game ready.
I remember waiting outside Cleveland Stadium on Sunday afternoons to get autographs. Guys like Elston Howard and Andy Carey of the Yankees and even Ted Williams stopped to sign for me. I was 12 years old and I had a Sunday/Holiday pass to the Indians. I rode the Rapid Transit to the games by myself and followed the players as they walked back to their Public Square hotel.
Were they better then? I saw Mickey Mantle hobble on bad wheels but destroy my Indians hitting from both sides of the plate. I saw the big four of Mike Garcia, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Bob Feller dominate teams. Don’t dig in on Early Wynn. You’ll find yourself on the ground. Kind of like Bob Gibson. No warnings to the benches. No warnings to the pitcher. Are you kidding me? They were pitching inside the hitter’s baseball caps. No helmets then. And nobody complained. But they had such great control they could throw a ball into a tin cup if it was placed on home plate. Were they better? They had command and control, that’s for sure. Billy Pearce, Warren Spahn, Johnny Sain, Allie Reynolds, Whtey Ford, Juan Marichal. Every staff had two or three aces. Some, even more. And an ace was an ace.
I got to see Chico Carrasquel and Luis Aparacio, two amazing Venezuelan shortstops that probably set the standard for the off the chart defensive wizards we see today. And I got to watch the Yankees Scooter Rizzuto, one of the spark plugs of the ever-winning Yankees. I hated the Yankees. Hated them! I don’t anymore. In my old age I have learned to admire what they’ve accomplished. The past. It was just prologue. I tip my cap to them and what the franchise has done.
I got to take my little transistor radio to school during each World Series every year and hit it, so I thought, as I listened to Gillette razor commercials during the games. It was usually the Yankees and the Dodgers. Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella , Gil Hodges. Billy Martin and Hank Bauer. Micky, Whitey and the Moose. And Yogi. Were they better then? Wow, they were awfully good. But along with my friends, were were watching through young and very impressionable eyes.
Were they better then? I had six years to recover from the World Series loss to the Giants when on April 17, 1960 total disaster struck. My world ended. The Indians traded my beloved Rocky Colavito to the Detroit Tigers for good hitting Harvey Kuenn. I was devastated. There was only one Rocky Colavito. A big, strong hitter with charisma. On June 6, 1959 he hit four home runs in a game. Of course, I didn’t know what charisma was then. But I know it now. That’s what he had. Charisma. And a loud bat. I promise you, I never knocked the Rock. Even when he struck out four times a game.
I got to watch Larry Doby, Jim Hegan and Al Rosen. My heroes. I got to listen to Jimmy Dudley on the radio calling games. I was fortunate to see Al Kaline play for the Tigers. And i actually saw the great Roberto Clemente play baseball. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. I got to see Harmon Killebrew and Jim Lemon. Willie McCovey and Stan Musial. Wow, could they murder a baseball.
Were they better then? Some were. There were fewer players. They each got more attention. They changed teams far less often. Fans were able to bond more quickly and for longer periods with their favorites. They weren’t all so big and strong. They had their vices then, too. They had their contract issues then, too. They had their clubhouse conflicts then, too. People are people. They were then and they are now.
Were they better then? There are players today with equal ability and charisma. Every era has its guys. We’re getting to see Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Altuve, Andrew McCutchen, Yasiel Puig, Clayton Kershaw, Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Felix Hernandez, Jose’ Abreu, Chris Sale,, Adam Wainwright, Paul Goldschmidt and on and on. Soon we will marvel at Kris Bryant, Byron Buxton, and Kevin Correa. We’ve started to see the world of Javier Baez, Oscar Taveras and Gregory Polanco. They’ll be joined by countless other future stars currently waiting in the development wings.
Were they better then? It’s all in the eye of the beholder. I am grateful for today’s new, bright, shining stars. The game is healthy. It’s thriving. It’s creating memories for eight year olds who are living in homes just like I did with the Nelson’s. Only now they are like those on “Modern Family” or “The Middle.” Has anything changed? Not really.
As always, thank you for reading my work on MLBPipeline.com and for following me on twitter @BerniePleskoff.
That’s it. I’m done.