Thursday, April 14, 2011

A contemporary look at baseball in 1953

Seeing the old familiar column heads in the 1953 issues of
The Sporting News brought back pleasant memories of
hours spent honing my reading skills with dad's issues.
I've just finished reading (on microfilm) the entire run of 1953 issues of The Sporting News.

I grew up on The Sporting News. Not in 1953, mind you, I was two years old then. But by the late 1950s and through the mid-1960s, I was a regular reader. I doubt that my dad was actually a subscriber, since money was always a concern. I'd guess that we got our TSN a week late from the same place we got our comic books; from the "clip barrels" at the magazine distributor that my dad worked for when he was laid off at the factory.

Poring over the 1953 microfilms was like getting reacquainted with an old grade-school friend. Many of the graphic column heads were the same as those I remembered from the Sixties.

In beginning my re-reading of TSN, I chose 1953 (I have complete year sets of the films from 1886 through about 1974) because that's the year the Braves came to Milwaukee.

In one issue of The Sporting News in 1953, long-time baseball
card collector Wirt Gammon, dean of sportswriters in Chat-
tanooga, advertised to buy baseball cards. He was looking for
the T206 Honus Wagner and Eddie Plank, along with the minor
league T210 Old Mill and T211 Red Sun cards. Gammon did at
one time own a T206 Wagner.

I've been sharing in this space tidbits gleaned from the paper's pages as they related to the players I remember from my baseball and football cards of the 1950s, and will continue to do so.

Having digested the entire 1953 year in baseball, this seems like an appropriate spot at which to summarize my thoughts about how the game, the players, the media and the nation differed then from now. I'm no expert on any of those subjects as they pertain to 2011. I find it difficult to watch more than an inning or two of a televised game, and I haven't read an issue of TSN this century.

Presenting some of the 1953 themes that stuck in my mind, in no particular order, other than the subject that was No. 1 on my list . . .

Milwaukee Braves. What struck me first was how close to the beginning of the season that the shift to Milwaukee from Boston was accomplished. The team was virtually in spring training when the move was announced. Years of falling attendance in Boston had made the move a fiscal necessity.

Braves owner Lou Perini, as it happened, also owned the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Associatio0n and had just completed construction of a $5 million stadium there. I have to think that before he poured that kind of money into a farm club infrasturcture, Perini knew he was going to be heading to Wisconsin.

The sporting paper provided almost giddy weekly accounts of the welcome that MLB received in Wisconsin, from the day they arrived until the stadium turnstiles clicked the last of the seasons' record-breaking attendance in late September.

I found some interesting items that pertain to the wealth of locally sponsored baseball card issues that were forthcoming for the Braves in the mid-1950s. I'll share those finds in coming weeks.

Bill Veeck and the St. Louis Browns. In contrast with how effortless the move of the National League Braves was accomplished, I was surprised to see how bitterly opposed the American League was to allowing Bill Veeck to move the Browns out of St. Louis. The other owners hated Veeck just that much that they vetoed his spring move to Baltimore to force him into playing yet another money-draining season as the "other" team in St. Louis.

I was surprised to read that previous Browns owners had been ready to move the team to Los Angeles in 1941; it was virtually a done deal until the intervention of World War II. Watching the story of the Browns search for a new home unfold week-by-week, it was clear why the other owners hated/envied Veeck for his business acumen. By playing off against one another such cities as Montreal, Quebec and Kansas City, he was able to squeeze the greatest possible concessions from Baltimore before the league permitted him to move the team. The American League got its pound of flesh in the deal, though. Veeck was forced out as an owner.

Veeck landed on his feet, however, being immediately hired by P.K. Wrigley, owner of the Los Angeles Angels, as well as the Chicago Cubs. Wrigley hired Veeck to investigate the feasibility of a major league invasion of the Pacific Coast League.

It was interesting that one of the paper's chief cartoonists, Willard Mullin, always symbolized the Browns in the form of a rawboned, bare-footed, scragly-bearded hillbilly, often labeled "Po' white trash."

August Busch and the Cardinals. I don't think even The Sporting News fully realized what it would mean for baseball when the Anheuser-Busch brewery purchased the St. Louis Cardinals early in 1953.
The modern era of major corprorate ownership of Major
 League teams was ushered in with the 1953 purchase of
the St. Louis Cardinals by Anaheuser-Busch brewery.
Here, brewery and team president August Busch is shown
in a Cardinals uniform. 

Busch's purchase from Fred Saigh, who was on his way to federal prison for tax evasion, gave the Cardinals perhaps the deepest pockets in baseball. While the National League owners might have had reservations about inviting such competition into their cabal, Busch's publicity machine painted him as the savior who was keeping outside interests -- usually speculated as being Milwaukee's Miller Brewery -- from moving the team out of St. Louis. Busch seemed to be careful about not throwing his money around in his early days as a team owner and thus cemented his welcome into the inner circle.

Television and radio. One of the big reasons American League owners had a hard-on for Bill Veeck was that he refused to allow them to televise games in which the Browns were the visiting team unless he got a piece of the revenue. After all, he reasoned, if the visiting team got a piece of each admission ticket sold, it followed they should get a cut of the television revenue. This was especially true if, as was widely believed though not "scientifically" proven, televising games was cutting into attendance.

The availability of major league games on television was often cited as the principal factor in the decline of the minor leagues. And, the minor leagues were in decline in 1953. By mid-season, when it became clear that some teams were out of pennant contention and fans were staying home in droves, individual teams in several lower-classification minor leagues folded up. After the season ended, entire leagues announced they were suspending operations.

Baseball formed several committees to study the problem as well to determine how to maximize and distribute revenues from All-Star and World Series broadcasts, but accomplished nothing in 1953. Zenith, RCA and other makers of TVs and radios were large display advertisers in nearly every issue of TSN.

Race. In 1953, a few major league teams had yet to add Negro (in the unvarnished vernacular of the era) ballplayers to their roster, and a few had no blacks anywhere in their farm system. A few minor leagues still maintained the color line. Henry Aaron was one of five Negroes to integrate the South Atlantic League in 1953. The Class AA Southern Association had no Negroes. When the Hot Springs (Ark.) Bathers of the Class C Cotton States League signed a pair of black pitchers, Jim and Leander Tugerson, the other owners threw them out of the league, at least temporarily. Jim Tugerson, already 30 years old, went on to win 29 games for Knoxville that season, then sued the Cotton States League and a few of its officials in Federal Court for violating his civil rights. The court decided against Tugerson and threw out his $50,000 suit.

It was common for The Sporting News to identify players with the descriptor of "Negro." The paper didn't do so for established major leaguers, but often did so when announcing signings or promotions of black players. In 1953, some (white) minor league players were still carrying the nickname of "Nig."

Japan was much in the news late in the year when Yankees pitcher Ed Lopat organized a barnstorming tour there. His thunder was stolen, however, by the New York Giants, who became the first MLB team to visit Japan as a (virtually) full team since the Yankees in the 1930s. Headline writers in TSN frequently used "Jap" and "Nip" in referring to the country and its people.

And if Mullin's characterization of the St. Louis Browns as a hillbilly was rough, the Indians he drew to represent Cleveland and Milwaukee were equally brutal.

Barnstorming. The now-defunct tradition of baseball players picking up a little post-season income by scheduling barnstorming exhibition games in small towns and cities around the country was in its heyday in 1953. Besides Lopat's tour in Japan, exhibition schedules were set by all-star aggregations led by Frank Shea in New England, Jackie Robinson throughout the South and into Mexico, and Roy Campanella out west and in Hawaii.

Baseball had rules generally limiting such post-season exhibitions to one month after the end of the World Series, and limiting the number of players from any MLB team that could participate. But more and more, team owners were restricting participation, fearful of the potential injury to star players that could result from games played in sandlots and cow pastures.

Exhibition games. Also vanished from major league baseball today are in-season exhibition games. In 1953, many teams played as many as a handful of exhibitions, including interleague games, games against minor league teams and even games against semi-pro outfits. While the biggest stars often made only token appearances, these exhibitions allowed teams to showcase the bonus babies who often saw very little real action during their two-year tour of duty on major league benches.

Military duty. Until the armistice was signed in late July, the U.S. was fighting the Korean War in 1953. While guys like Ted Williams got most of the headlines, every team had a few players from its roster in military service. One TSN article mentioned that the Pittsburgh Pirates organization had 170 of its players in uniform in late 1953.

Many of the actual major leaguers who were in the service spent their entire hitch playing baseball -- guys like Willie Mays, Don Newcombe, Joe Black, Johnny Antonelli, etc. It was generally conceded that the quality of service play was about on a par with Class A professional ball.

Player "days." Today, there are no more "days" for major league players, at least not of type that were frequently seen in 1953. Back then, it was not uncommon for a popular player or perhaps a retiring player or coach to be honored on a "day" or "night" at the ballpark. The honored player and his family would be introduced with his family before the game and presented with a shower of gifts that often included a new car, savings bonds, golf clubs, etc., along with flowers, appliances and jewelry for the wife and bicycles for the kids. The total value of the gifts usually ran into the thousands of dollars for major leaguers, that amount often representing up to about 25% of his salary. In 1953, the minimum major league salary was $5,000 (raised to $6,000 for 1954). Today, when the minimum salary is $414,500, and bench-warming utility infielders are earning $2 Million+, baseball fans aren't inclined to sweeten the pot.

Rule changes. At the winter meetings in 1953, several rule changes were made. The most significant was the reintroduction of the sacrifice fly rule. The sac fly had been in and out of baseball from the 1880s through 1940. When it was reintroduced in 1953, it was estimated that it would add about two points to batting averages. A rule change adopted for the 1954 season required that players could no longer leave their gloves, sunglasses or other equipment on the field when their team came to bat. While nobody could specifically point out any injuries that resulted from players tripping over gloves, or games being significantly impacted by balls being deflected by such foreign objects, the potential existed, so the rule was enacted. Gone were the days when teammates and opponents could terrify opidiophobic Phil Rizzuto by putting a rubber snake in his glove left on the outfield grass between innings. Other players were known to put live worms, gobs of chewing tobacco and, no doubt, other gross things, into gloves found lying around the outfield.

I'm a baseball and baseball card dinosaur, so given the choice, I much prefer to use my microfilm time machine to enjoy baseball as it was 60 years ago rather than than focus on the game as it exists today. I'll continue to share what I find interesting in this forum.

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