A New Breed of Baseball Players

This article was written by David Q. Voigt

This article was published in 1980 Baseball Research Journal

One of America’s oldest commercialized sports spectaculars, major league baseball has adjusted repeatedly and dramatically to significant ideological and technological changes. Indeed, so cumulative have been these forces of change that each passing decade of baseball history reveals profound changes in the game’s social organization and in the behavior of the players. Thus, to scrutinize any given decade in the game’s history is to encounter a new breed of ballplayers whose distinct style reflects the ever-changing drama of the spectacle. And as changes in the baseball scene reflect changes in the larger society, so the baseball scene mirrors changes in the society at large.

Nevertheless, future-shocked fans were ill-prepared for the vast scenery shifts that marked baseball’s Expansion Age of 1961-1979. Bewildering to many fans and critics were the unprecedented structural changes and the behavior of the new breed of players that took the stage. Compared with their immediate predecessors of the Postwar Age the mod new breed differed in many ways. In social background, looks, dress, language, personality modes, attitudes, aspirations, affluence, playing style and performances, the new breed stood apart from past generations of players.

Significantly, the new breed stood out as more “on stage” than any past generation of players, a fact attributable to a media revolution that wrought social and psychological changes among baseball’s fandom with its ideological messages and massages.

In advancing the notion that combined ideological currents and technological innovations reshaped  baseball’s structure and changed the behavior of those who played the game, it is necessary to explore these dynamic, shaping forces within the time frame of 1961-1979.

While much has been made of the countercultural revolution of the Sixties, it is evident that little radical restructuring of American society resulted. However, countercultural challenges did effect changes in American looks, language, notions of individualism and attitudes toward authority. In baseball, anti-establishment sentiments triggered a continuing struggle between players, arrayed under their militant Players Association, and owners with their hired officials and spokesmen. As of 1979 this confrontation saw players regaining freedoms that were lost a century ago to owner repression, winning unprecedented salary increases, and challenging established owner expectations of servility.

Thus if the countercultural movements failed to establish lasting communities of freedom for Americans in general, ballplayers at least gained a measure of militant community through the activities of a potent veto group — the Players Association. For its recent successes the Association owed much to ideological stimuli from the Sixties, especially those that demanded greater freedom and equality for blacks and other minorities.

Such broad-based challenges forced a change in the status of black ballplayers while raising the consciousness of others and whetting appetites for freedom of expression and movement. Similarly, as the Vietnam War protest movement taught college students how to battle for causes, so radicalized athletes carried these techniques to the reform of big sports. And with more college-educated players in major league ranks than ever before, the baseball establishment found itself confronted by a new breed of militant players who were more mercenary, critical, outspoken, brash and individualistic than those of past ages. Moreover, such attitudes appeared at baseball’s lowest echelons, in the dwindling minor leagues where managers found their charges less willing to accept arbitrary discipline codes and more ready to quit if expected promotions were not forthcoming.

Such challenges to traditional authority reflected the “jock revolution” that was rife among professional athletes at the time. Moreover, under the growing leisure ethic, Americans of the Sixties were becoming prodigious consumers of big sports spectaculars. Because of increasing public interest, football, basketball, and hockey became formidable rivals of baseball. And as athletes outside of baseball won cash and glory and produced a protest literature against owner exploitations, such attitudes filtered into baseball and raised the consciousnesses of its players. On the other hand, expansion movements in rival sports moved baseball owners to launch their own movements which mightily increased baseball profits. But when it came to sharing their largess with players, professional athletes were inspired by examples set by Mohammed Ali in boxing and Joe Namath in football. Certainly in this time frame this charismatic pair of super celebrities inspired the salary revolution which in baseball so distinguished this new breed from all predecessors. Moreover it was the Au impact and the “Namath effect” that produced baseball’s super celebrity of this time in the person of Reggie Jackson.

Super celebrities like Ali, Namath and Jackson owed much of their charisma to the image-molding power of the new television medium. In this era TV became the prime celebrity factory and its impact was to put ballplayers on stage as never before while turning out a parade of momentary celebrities. As a result it contributed to the revolutionary enrichment of players. Beyond this, TV forced the rival print media to adopt a new style of writing which was more frankly revelatory than before. Hence the new breed of on-stage players found their lives far more probed and bantered about than ever before.

As outside ideologies reshaped the structure of the game they also produced new ideologies within the reorganized game. Thus, under three waves of expansion, baseball’s divisional structure of competition produced a new championship conception. And with each club negotiating its own local TV contract the notion that each needed a celebrity of its own to stimulate viewer interest became an imperative. To tout such performers and to boost the team’s image, each club sought to obtain compliant broadcasters who could be counted on to shill for the local team. Similarly this promotional ploy extended to finding ways to lure larger live crowds who were being seduced by giveaways, electronic entertainment and a variety of side shows.

Through all this peripheral activity, the game on the field continued to embrace the big-bang style of home run offenses, accompanied by a dramatic revival of base-stealing. In fostering run production, when pitching domination threatened to reduce offensive performances, pitchers were penalized and the American league adopted a controversial designated hitter rule. The DH ploy proved successful enough so that by 1979 designated hitters were among the highest paid by position of all players. As the salaried elite, DHers were rivaled by pitching specialists like Bruce Sutter, by elite pinch-hitting specialists like Manny Mota, by switch-hitting virtuosos like Pete Rose, and by a continuing emphasis on platooning. Thus, the new breed of this age resembled highly specialized part-timers. And this new ideology was reflected in player recruitment and in player tutelage with far more training and teaching occurring at the major league level.

In shaping the new breed of ballplayers, technological change was equally important. For example, the Expansion era saw a new wave of ballpark constructions. More capacious than before, the new parks were more uniformly symmetrical. Especially in the National League, Astro-turfed surfaces placed a premium on speed and also facilitated lengthened playing schedules by lessening the number of rained out games. Moreover, artificially turfed surfaces wrought changes in fielding, although in this period such changes owed as much to larger, double-hinged gloves. Armed with such a device, a player no longer needed to follow the tradition of catching a ball with two hands; under the new breed one-handed fielding became the norm.

Along with newer gloves went whippier bats for homeric-minded swingers, batting gloves to grip a bat better, radar guns forclocking pitchers’ throwing speed, lighter catching equipment to ensure greater mobility at that position, and resilient cowhide balls in greater quantity than ever before. Meanwhile gaudy, double-knit uniforms tailored for speed and showmanship contrasted markedly with the baggy flannels of yesteryear.

Of prime importance, too, was the almost total acceptance of night baseball games. By such technology baseball now became a night-time spectacle. And with expansion bringing coast-to-coast air travel, the biological clocks of the new breed were challenged. Then, too, the televising of so many games by putting players on stage as electronic Lilliputians, sometimes before as many as 75 million viewers, subtly reshaped behavior. But TV also proved to be a useful teaching aid; television clips have served as scouting devices, and similar clips have been used for diagnosing pitching, hitting and fielding techniques.

In this era the technology and skills of sports medicine developed far beyond that of past eras. With new surgical techniques, training and conditioning programs, new breed players rebounded from injuries and ailments that might have ended the careers of players in times past.

For taking the trouble to be born in interesting ideological and technological times the players of the Expansion Age stood forth as a breed apart from past generations. A summary of some of their distinguishing characteristics now follows.

For openers, they differed markedly in social backgrounds. In general they were better educated with a majority having some college education. Although a majority were white Americans, some 20 to 25% were blacks and a hundred of the 1979 crop were citizens of Latin American countries. More of the latter came from impoverished backgrounds with more of the others coming from middle income or lower middle income origins. Of the Americans more were recruited from sun belt regions with California and Texas now the leading suppliers of talent.

In numbers, because of expansion, the new breed far exceeded those of past eras. From 400 major leaguers in 1959, the first expansion by 1962 swelled ranks to 500, and in 1969 another round sent numbers to 600, and in 1977 the American league’s independent expansion round sent the total to 650.

In looks and in public perception, it could be said, color the new breed black and add a strong dash of Spanish speech. This because most of the top batting performances were accomplished by black players as were the base stealing feats. When the roll call of batting greats from this era is sounded, names like Aaron, Mays, Carew, Jackson, Brock, Wills, Clemente, Stargell, Parker and Foster lead.  While white players like Mantle, Yastrzemski, Kaline and Rose rank with these, outstanding white performers were mainly among the hurlers where only three blacks or Latins, Gibson, Marichal and Jenkins, numbered among the superb pitching performers of this era.

In personal appearance the new breed differed. Above all, long hair and whiskers showed the impact of the counterculture movement, contrasting sharply with the uniform crewcut style of the Postwar Era. Beyond this the new breed players were bigger, faster, harder-throwing, gaudier-uniformed, better equipped and more inclined to tobacco or gum chewing. And being more on stage they were more covered by the media, more analyzed statistically, and consequently better fixed in the minds of fans.

Predictably their speech also differed. Reflecting changes in American speech patterns and in standards of media coverage, their speech was liberally peppered with formerly tabooed words. In revealing books and articles this was reported along with expressive nicknames like Super Jew, Meat, No Neck, Daddy Wags, Pops, Hot Dog, which replaced the old style bowdlerized nicknames served up by sportswriters in the past. Moreover, as a community their language included colorful new terms like downtown, hit a tater, Vaya, dinger, for homers; local, express, yellow hammer, BBs, or bringing it, for good pitching; while flakes, beaver shooters, stone fingers and clankers denoted extra curricular performances and less than splendid performances.

Varieties of situational personality modes marked the new breed, reflective of America’s growing tolerance for diversity and narcissism. Using rough categories one could cite super flakes like Bill “Spaceman” Lee who outspokenly derided managers and commissioners with pixie aplomb; flakes like Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich who decided to trade wives; squares like Jake Gibbs or Bobby Richardson and others who joined Fellowship of Christian Athlete claques; intellectuals like Jim Brosnan or Doc Medich; tragic figures like Tony Conigliaro or Denny McLain; undisciplineds like Dick Allen, Alex Johnson or Mike Epstein; stubborn loners like Dave Kingman; boozers like Ryne Duren; brash, outspoken types like Reggie Jackson; brawlers like Jim Gentile; overrateds like Hawk Harrelson, wastrels like Joe Pepitone; splendid performers like Sandy Koufax; black leaders like “Pops” Stargell; self-reliant dogma defiers like Mike Marshall; and many others. What was so significant about all of these was their visibility; from ghosted books and revealing articles, readers learned more about players: their sexual adventures, their encounters with oppressive owners and managers, and other titillating insights than ever before.

Realistic probes also revealed iconoclastic attitudes. Admittedly mercenary, unionist, security-minded, anti-owner or manager or commissioner, this breed differed seemingly from those past, but perhaps bowdlerizing reporters of those eras only concealed similar feelings from public scrutiny.

Most of all the new breed stood out as the most affluent generation of players in baseball history. In 1979 Dave Parker commanded the highest salary of nearly a $1 million a year. But by then the median salary was $85,00 with $121,000 the average. Compare these figures with 1957 when only 40 received $25,000 or more and when $100,000 players could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Yet for all their affluence the new breed was a fear-ridden lot who paid a high psychic pride for their affluence. Fear of injuries, of failure, of finings, trades, military draft, or the sudden end to one’s career were familiar fears, gentled somewhat by better sports medicine, union protection, and an end to military drafts. But new fears like fear of media exposure, anxieties over salaries and dishonest player agents, and worries over statistical performances plagued this generation more than past generations.

Finally the new breed differed from past generations by their remarkable number of splendid performances. In batting, Carew’s seven batting titles are topped only by the great Ty Cobb; Pete Rose’s consecutive game hitting streak set a modem National League record and Rose also broke Cobb’s record of most seasons with 200 or more hits; in 1979 Manny Mota set a new record for pinch hits; and in this era seven batters joined the elite 3000-hit club swelling that membership to 15. In distance hitting Aaron broke Ruth’s lifetime home run mark, Roger Maris set a new seasonal mark for homers, and the all-time list of leading homerics is dominated by players from this era.

In base stealing, first Wills, then Brock broke Cobb’s seasonal record and Brock went on to set a new career mark for thefts.

Nor were pitchers excluded from top performances. In this era Earned Run Averages were lower than in any former era; of the all time list of strikeout artists 11 of the top 13 were from this era; and even with relief pitching’s predominance, several top pitchers of the new breed appeared likely to join the charmed circle of 300-game winners.

In an age that glorified statistics it could be argued that such feats were exaggerated and certainly the new breed performers were more honored for their deeds than those of past generations. Nevertheless the new breed of the Expansion Era yielded to no other in splendid performances. Indeed, their presence revitalized the game as evidenced by soaring attendance figures, especially those of the past six years, and by the increasing popularity of the game as seen on TV. In a sport that prides itself on tradition and continuity, the new breed of the Expansion era contributed mightily to the dynamic growth of American Baseball.