by request: broken flowers (jim jarmusch, 2005)
what i watched last week

in my life: baseball, 1953-present

I’ll be 60 in a little more than a month, and today I found myself thinking about how life has changed during my life. When my father was 60, he had lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. He had lived through Coolidge and Hoover and Roosevelt and Truman and Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon and Ford and Carter and Reagan. He lived through the prominence of radio entertainment in the home and its replacement by television. Big band music, rock and roll, disco, and the beginnings of hip hop.

Just to take one example of change during my lifetime, here are some of the ways baseball has changed.

When I was born, there were 16 major-league teams, split into two leagues of eight teams each. The champions of each league met in the World Series; that was the extent of the “post-season”. Now, there are 30 teams, fifteen in each league, and a post-season including division winners and wild cards.

  • In 1953, the Boston Braves had just moved to Milwaukee. They later moved to Atlanta. Milwaukee eventually got an expansion team, which had spent one year in Seattle.
  • 1953 was the last year of the St. Louis Browns. They moved to Baltimore the next year and became the Orioles.
  • The Cincinnati Reds spent several years in the 1950s calling themselves the Redlegs to avoid and tint of Commie Menace.
  • In 1953, the Dodgers and Giants played in Brooklyn and New York respectively. They moved west in 1958. In the 1953, the big team in San Francisco was the Seals of the Pacific Coast League.
  • In 1953, the Athletics played in Philadelphia. Two years later, they moved to Kansas City. In 1968, they moved to Oakland. In 1969, Kansas City got an expansion team.
  • In 1953, the team in Washington was called the Senators. In 1961, they moved to Minnesota. That same year, Washington got an expansion team. In 1972, that team moved to Texas. Meanwhile, in 1969, Montreal got a major-league team. They moved to Washington in 2005.

In 1953, the average team stole 42 bases for the entire season. In 2012, the average was 108. (League average caught stealing totals were 33 in 1953, 38 last year … teams are a lot more efficient at steals than they used to be. The caught stealings are roughly the same, while the successes have increased 2 1/2 times.) Saves were only tracked by a few teams; they wouldn’t become an official stat until 1969. The leader in saves in 1969 was Ron Perranoski of the Twins, with 31. In 2012, 15 different pitchers had 31 or more saves, led by Jim Johnson with 51.

In 2012, the minimum salary for a full season in the majors was $480,000. In 1954, on his return from military service, Willie Mays made $12,500.

At the beginning of the 2013 season, Forbes valued the Giants as being worth $786,000,000. In case you thought all the money these days was going to the players.

In 1953, and for a few decades thereafter, the “basic” stats like batting average, runs batted in, and wins were considered the final word on performance measurements. I can recall my father telling me Juan Marichal was a great pitcher because he got lots of wins. In 1973, Tito Fuentes played in 160 games at second base for the Giants, leading the league in assists and fielding percentage. He hit .277. He received votes for league MVP. Seven NL second basemen played enough in 1973 to qualify for the batting title. Wins Above Replacement hadn’t been invented yet. With hindsight, we know that Fuentes finished 6th out of those seven in WAR for 1973. He didn’t walk, he didn’t hit for power, and he didn’t have great range at second. But he hit for a decent average, he didn’t make errors, and he played every day. Not MVP quality, but by what we knew at the time, he was considered in the general vicinity of awards.