And so another season has come and gone. Another 162 games that led to another series of playoffs that ended in a none-too-rare four-game sweep in the World Series (four times in the last nine years).
Well, first of all, as a life-long Dodger fan, congrats to the rival Giants for their spectacular sweep of the Tigers and for their remarkable comebacks in the two preliminary series (from down 0-2 to the Reds in Cincinnati and from down 1-3 to the Cardinals in the League Championship Series). They made mincemeat of the Tigers, who looked all but invincible in sweeping the Yankees in the American League LCS.
That makes two of the last three years that the Giants have effectively caught fire at just the right time. In 2010, they got hot in September and overtook the Padres to win the Western Division on the last day of the season. Then they rode their pitching through the division and league championship series to reach the big prize, where they dispatched the Texas Rangers in six games.
But this year was even more impressive, not because of how they finished the regular season, but because of what they did in the playoffs to get to the series.
It was exciting to watch, especially, I’m sure, if you are a Giants fan. But good baseball is good baseball, and these playoffs had plenty of good baseball to watch and talk about.
Of course, if you are old enough to remember baseball’s glory years, the game has become an entirely different viewing experience. The glory years I’m referring to are the 1950s, when television was brand new, and baseball was the first sport to be shown regularly on it.
I grew up in that decade, and, living in a suburb of New York City, I had baseball’s three best teams (and many of its best players) right in my back yard. And they were all on television every night, the Giants and Yankees on WPIX, Channel 11, and the Dodgers on WOR, Channel 9. All three teams had pre- and post-game shows and all three teams had great announcers who chronicled the exploits of each team’s best players.
The Giants broadcaster was Russ Hodges, he most famous for the memorable call of Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world.” (“The Giants win the pennant; the Giants win the pennant. And they’re going crazy; they’re going crazy!”) Mel Allen was the voice of the Yankees whose “going, going, gone” home run calls became legendary when Mickey Mantle was in his prime.
And the Dodgers had a very young and extremely talented guy named Vin Scully, who, even then, could make the game sound like Shakespeare as he described the arc of a fly ball or the grace of a slide into second base.
Ah, those were the days, my friends. Baseball was everything in American sports. Football was a college game. The NFL was a struggling business, known mostly for a few stars like Jim Brown and Y.A. Tittle, but hardly the stuff that it is today. Basketball was a high school game. The NBA was a fledgling operation, almost entirely played by slow white guys who played a slow, boring game.
But baseball was America’s game in the 1950s. And every team had an identity that was unchanged from year to year. Trades, when they were made, were big news. One year, the Indians and Tigers traded all-star outfielders (Rocky Colavito for Harvey Kuehn, one a slugger, the other a perennial .300 hitter), and fans of both teams were furious about it.
The Dodgers of my youth were the second best team in baseball. Every year they had five starters at the All-Star game (Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Gil Hodges – all but Hodges in the Hall of Fame, and he should be). The Yankees, were the best team money could buy (some things never change). They had Mickey Mantle and Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, and they always beat the Dodgers in the World Series (except for 1955, when the Dodgers finally won it all).
The Giants were the third best team during that decade. If the Dodgers didn’t go to the World Series for the National League, the Giants did. They had Willie Mays, and a bunch of good ball players. Kind of like today’s Giants in a way. No real superstars (other than Buster Posey now, Mays then), but a lot of solid players and enough good pitchers to make the difference some years.
The Giants lost the World Series to the Yankees in that “shot-heard-round-the-world” year. But they swept the mighty Cleveland Indians (who had won 111 games, losing only 43) in the Series three years later.
The two leagues each had eight teams in those days. Every team played the other teams in its league 22 times (11 home, 11 away) for a total of 154 games. Inter-league play was limited to the World Series, which a team got to by winning the pennant (hence the exultant call by Russ Hodges). The Series was played in the first week of October, the games were played in daylight, and we kids used to sneak transistor radios to school to listen to them (unless we had a teacher who was also a baseball fan, in which case we all listened to the games with the teacher).
Players got paid $8,000 a year if they were decent enough to stay with the big club. Veterans topped out at $25,000. Ted Williams, the best hitter of his day, was the first to get a $100,000 contract. There weren’t many others. The entire payroll for a club would be under a million dollars. Most of the players worked full time in the off season.
You could get a “front row” seat on the field for $3.50 at most ballparks, and bleacher seats on weekdays went for 50 cents.
Times change. The Dodgers are still my team. Baseball is still a great game. But it definitely isn’t the same.