Baseball Then And Now

It is said that the term “National Pastime” was given to the game of baseball in the 1850’s. Baseball began being played early that century and captured America’s heart. Certainly, there was not as much to occupy Americans then as there is currently. Football, basketball, soccer, and golf all vie for the sports fan’s attention and dedication today. Parents seem to be constantly balancing schedules to get their kids to and from practices and games of all the above. But, clinging to tradition, we’ll stay with the idea that baseball is known as America’s “National Pastime.”

The game has changed so much over the years that, in many ways, it is hardly recognizable from my childhood days to now, much less from the nineteenth century. I have always been a baseball fan and played a lot of the game growing up. But much of the change that has come with time and culture has somewhat dampened my spirit concerning the game.

I love to study the early days of baseball. There seemed to be a gentlemanly aspect to the game during the Victorian days. The classic poem Casey at the Bat, written by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, expresses the sentiments of those golden days of baseball.

He grips the reader with the intensity of the baseball moment, when Mudville’s hero power hitter, the Mighty Casey, comes to the plate in the bottom of the ninth with the chance to save the day for the home team.

In the early days, baseball was considered an amateur sport played by gentlemen. Early umpires were “volunteer arbiters,” dressed in top hat and coat, and felt privileged at having been selected as “the sole judge of fair and unfair play.” It wasn’t his job to call each pitch, but to encourage play. Instead of calling a strike, the ump might say something like, “Try harder next time.” It was the pitcher’s duty to throw balls that could be hit and the batter’s duty to put the ball in play.

It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that the newly formed National League of Professional Baseball Clubs instructed the league to begin paying umpires $5.00 per game.

Bats and balls in the early days were, of course, unregulated and it was a free-for-all in size and quality of the equipment. Many pitchers made their own balls with either rubber or fish-eye centers. The balls were lively, bouncing higher and traveling farther, resulting in, as one author puts it, “a scoreboard that looked like something from a basketball game.” A nine-inning game was unheard of. They just kept playing until one team reached 21 runs.

The batsmen were also known for whittling their own bats, to suit themselves, from various types of trees. They would vary in length, style and weight. Long, short, round, flat, heavy…whatever. Those days were experimental and around the mid 1800’s regulations began to be in place to standardize the equipment that was used.

The rules, or lack thereof, was another haphazard aspect of early 19th Century “base-ball”, as it was known in those days. Rules varied from team to team and were inconsistent. A runner could be called out if a fielder threw a ball that hit him. If a fielder caught a fly ball on the first bounce, the batter was out. By the 1880’s the rules were pretty much established as we know them today.

I, of course, was not around during those days, to catch the flair of the early years of the game that captivated the heart of a nation. I came in during the 1950’s and 1960’s. These were great days of baseball and I grew up watching giants of the game like Mantle, Marris, Mays, Gibson, Clemente and all the rest.

These were days when the pitcher’s goal was to pitch nine innings and win the game, the days when batters didn’t use batting gloves or protection padding while facing a pitcher who was known for brushing batters back off the plate with his fastball. It was part of the game and part of the strategy of the game.

I have a friend that knew a scout from a major league team and went with him one day to watch a high school pitcher around 1990. Afterwards he asked him what he thought of the youngster and the pro scout mentioned that his arm strength wasn’t quite developed enough yet. Then he made the prediction that we would later see, in major league baseball, that pitchers would not last a full game because of their arm strength. He said that kids now are not coming from the farm, as they did in the earlier days and are just not as strong as the players from the past.

His prediction certainly was spot on. Today, a major league pitcher is said to have a “quality start” if he pitches 5 innings. And the number of pitches that they throw are closely scrutinized. Going past 100 pitches is almost unheard of. Can you imagine telling Whitey Ford or Bob Gibson they could only pitch 100 pitches and/or go 5 innings?

The players at that time were admired heroes for us. We collected their cards from bubble gum and loved to dream of becoming a Major League player. Many guys my age wish they had kept all their baseball player cards. They are very valuable today.

The game today has devolved, in my estimation. I understand trying to speed the game up a bit. Today’s sports fan is conditioned by the fast pace of soccer, hockey, basketball and football and has less patience with the pace of a baseball game. But some of the rule changes have lessened the game’s impact.

For instance, an intentional walk is simply announced now, and the batter trots to first base, instead of the pitcher throwing 4 wide balls to a waiting catcher. Baseball is a game of strategy and this, to me, takes away from it. A lot of things can and have happened during those 4 pitches that earn an intentional walk. If I remember correctly, it was Rollie Fingers and his catcher that struck Johnny Bench out in an intentional walk situation. You can see it on YouTube.

Another thing we can do without is the replay official. I mean, come on. It takes too long, and the humanity of the umpires is part of the game. They must call a play instantly, as they see it. Sure, sometimes they get it wrong. But that’s part of the game! Human error is OK – it’s baseball, for cryin’ out loud. But we all know that there is so much money tied up in these players and organizations that they must do everything possible to take out any possibility of error. Give me a break.

Many of the guys playing the game today seem to be out there for showtime, rather than for the love of the game. Can you envision Sandy Koufax sporting dangling gold chains around his neck, poking them back in his jersey after every pitch? Boog Powell would have laughed you to scorn if you suggested that he wear a foam protector on his arm at the plate. And Lou Brock would have never been caught dead with a sliding mit on his hand while running the bases.

Certainly, things have changed and all of us baseball purists suffer each time our beloved game is messed with. But, as has been said, “There’s no crying in baseball!” So, I’ll hang in there and wait until they automate the balls and strike umpire. That’s when Mighty Casey will have struck out and I’ll be done. Until then, I’ll hang in there and suffer through the changes and continue to enjoy our National Pastime.