The Golden Age of Baseball and the Golden Age of Baseball Cards
July 4, 2008
by William Szczepanek
Does the Golden Age of Baseball coincide with the Golden Age of Baseball Cards?
George F. Will’s Washington Post article of Sunday, October 15, 2006 concludes that the Golden Age of Baseball is now. He states that baseball’s supposed “Golden Age” of the 1940s and 1950s were not so golden outside of New York with the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants dominating baseball. Also, improved competitive balance and baseball attendance records indicate the game has never been more popular.
I consider George Will to be one of the foremost writers on the subject of baseball. Even though most of his writing pertains to politics, his insight into the mental mechanics of baseball exemplifies the true enjoyment of baseball really lies. At this point I respectfully disagree with Mr. Will, if only for the reason that you cannot know when a Golden Age is occurring. It can only be viewed by looking into the past. If you think that fifty years from now we will look back at this time as the new, golden age of baseball, then we can rationalize that it is, but otherwise we don’t know. Will competitive balance and attendance records dictate a Golden Age? Maybe they will to corporations, but probably not to the fans. Fred Claire at mlb.com discusses the current golden age as being golden for the players.
Like so much that now occurs in this capitalistic society of ours, it is the social elite or those fortunate enough to benefit from the corporation that get to see the ballgames up close. In most cities it is nearly impossible to get a good box seat without going to a broker and paying an exorbitant price. Season tickets will only guarantee that you can attend the game, not that you’ll have a good vantage point.
I still remember one of the first games I ever attended. I was eight years old and sat with my father in the second row of the box seats in smoke filled Wrigley Field for a double header between the Cubs and the Milwaukee Braves. It was a sunny, Memorial Day Wednesday, May 30, 1956, with an attendance of 29,113. The highlight of the game was a brawl when Bill Bruton, the lead-off centerfielder for the Braves, was beaned by Russ Meyer and both benches emptied. I also remember home runs by Hank Aaron, Ed Mathews, Bobby Thomson and Ernie Banks and a triple by Monte Irvin. Warren Spahn was on the bench. The Cubs won 10-9 in the first game and lost 11-9 in the second game. I worried the entire game that I’d get hit with a foul ball. I came down with the measles, before the end of the second game – not pertinent to this discussion, but memorable.
The Braves began to build their team for two pennants to come in 1957 and 1958. So many names now in the Hall of Fame or famous for their historic accomplishments were all in one game, including Jocko Conlan, one of only eight umpires in the Hall of Fame. If the Giants were playing the Dodgers, the number of Hall of Fame players in a game would be even more at the time. If the Kansas City Athletics were playing the Washington Senators it might be more like today. While I’m sure there were some, I don’t remember any women at the game. Does this scenario lend proof that this was a Golden Age?
Now let’s fast forward almost 40 years to June 16, 1995. I am attending a game with my eight year old son. Months before, I purchased the best box seats available for this game. We were sitting in the first row of box seats in the upper deck looking over the infield. They were good seats, but everything seemed so far away. This game between the Cubs and Dodgers was speeding along with no runs scored. The only annoyances, and they were minor, were the four women who were seated to our left, who every half inning got up to get drinks, get food or do something else. They were very apologetic. But something continued to bother me. I looked down at the box seats where I had sat with my father nearly 40 years ago. Why can’t my son experience something like I had? I tried to relax, but grew more irritated with the situation as the game progressed. My eyes kept looking toward that area of the box seats immediately to the right of home plate and for the first 5 innings I saw two empty seats. I told my son to follow me, stay close, don’t ask questions. We made the long walk down the winding ramps all the way to the main entrance of the park. We walked to the tunnel marked “Lower Box Seats” and up the steps. I reminded my son to follow close. I walked to the aisle behind the first ten rows of boxes and watched the eyes of the usher guarding the entrance to the cherished land. As her eyes moved to the right I walked to her left and down to the fourth row of seats and sat in the empty seats. The people around smiled and my son and I settled in for the rest of the game.
I tried to compare this game with the game of 39 years ago. It was very different. There was no fear of foul balls. There was no smoke in the air. The beer flowed even more than before, but the surroundings were significantly different. It was sunny, with an attendance of 26,077. We were surrounded by business men in casual dress and women in halter tops and bikini tops. The smell of sun tan lotion permeated the air and the people in the seats seemed more interested in themselves than in the game itself, but it was still a magical moment. It was Trachsel vs. junk throwing Candiotti. The game had few really big stars though Mike Piazza in his third full year already looked like a Hall of Famer, and Sammy Sosa was playing well but had not yet bulked up. The head of Tommy Lasorda was visible as he strategized from the dugout. The game was scoreless going into the bottom of the ninth. Mark Grace singled and was sacrificed to second. The aging, switch hitting veteran, Howard Johnson, walked to the left side of the plate with the winning run in scoring position. The wind was blowing in furiously over the right field wall. A single would win the game. Johnson, hitting .129 for the year, lashed into a fastball and sent a high fly ball to center field. The wind pushed it to the left and it landed safely in the first row of the bleachers. The crowd roared and it seemed like it took forever for Johnson to round the bases. Grace rounded third with a huge smile on his face and then crossed the plate to a crowd of waiting teammates. Johnson slowly trotted around third with similar smile that made it seem as if it were his first home run, stretching the magic of the moment for as long as he could. The expressions on the player’s faces were more than what you could possibly see on TV. It was a magical moment that I hope my son will remember for decades to come. Could this be indicative of a Golden Age?
Golden is also related to the number 50 as in golden anniversary. For modern day purposes that would put the golden years smack dab in 1950. Will a new modern era begin in the year 2000 and be spoken of as such in the years to come. Maybe it will fifty years from now when the Global Baseball League composed of 300 teams from countries around the world compete in a true World Series. The Hong Kong Yankees, having moved from New York in 2030, would dominate their 5 leagues of 20 teams each. The Cubs, still playing in Wrigley Field, will still not have won a World Series and the odds of that happening would now be astronomical.
Getting back to the question of the Golden Age of baseball, let’s analyze it a bit more. If true playing ability of those players in a game was the standard for exceptional baseball, defined as the likelihood of Hall of Famers to appear in a game, then let’s look at how many current Hall of Famers played in each year of modern day baseball. If we look at the modern era we see numbers that might surprise you. They did me. I fully expected to see those glorious years of the fifties as the years with the most Hall of Fame players. In fact, the most Hall of Famers played in the twenties and thirties. To be more accurate the 10 consecutive years with the most Hall of Fame Players were 1924 to 1933. The numbers continue to fall year after year through the war years of the forties and fifties all the way to 1960. The numbers rise slightly for four more years before a steady decline to the present. Now, a lot was at play in those early years. The Negro leagues have gotten some respect over the years and these figures include those who played outside the Major Leagues. Now if we try to adjust for these figures by looking at the number of Hall of Famers per number of team our results change slightly. The number of teams then stays fairly steady at around 26 until the Negro Leagues are disbanded after 1949 when the number of teams dips to 16. Accounting for expansion through the remaining years we see that the decade with the highest average number of Hall of Famers per team is again 1924 through 1933. The numbers even out better over the years, but still do not come close to this period of time when 80 Hall of Famers were active and the average number of Hall of Famers on a team was around 3.0. That meant that in the late twenties and early thirties on the average you would see 6 HOF players in a game, probably more if you were in New York. This did put the Golden Age of Baseball nearly 50 years from the first Major League game played in 1871.
Now in looking over these statistics I have to wonder whether some of the players in the baseball Hall of Fame actually deserve to be there, but we need to remember that those voted in were considered the best eligible for entry at the time. So, time is relative and for that matter so is the Golden Age of Baseball.
The game of baseball means different things to different people. The skill required to make a play in the 1930s differs from today. The perspective of the skill has a lot to do with the value of the experience. Steroids and corked bats, versus heavy bats and light bats ― strength versus timing ― athletic ability versus mental ability, there are many differences. My father’s perspective of a good fielding play was different than mine. He came from a time of simple baseball mitts with open fingers. He would constantly harass me for missing a catch using my bushel basket glove. (I will not take the time to define what a bushel basket is. It’s much too difficult and beyond the scope of this article.)
A Golden Age is defined by the observer, by the beholder of the times. It varies by individual, by the teams they root for, by the players they idolize. One game can be ecstasy to one person and pure torture to another. How good was the winning? How bad was the losing? Even bad times can often be viewed though rose-colored glasses. To define a Golden Age as a time that is good for the most people defeats the purpose. The Golden Age of Baseball is the period of time the game had the biggest impact on the individual.
The same is true for baseball cards. I define the Golden Age of baseball Cards as:
Partial List of Criteria:
I hope that today is someone’s Golden Age of Baseball Cards. That they get something from collecting baseball cards that is more than just the idea that they have something monetarily valuable ― something that they will remember 50 years from now as something special. The Golden Age of Baseball and the Golden Age of Baseball Cards are both relative terms that can mean many things to many people as long as thoughts of baseball and baseball cards still exist.