Remembrance of Summers Past

This article was written by Bob Broeg

This article was published in The National Pastime: Premiere Edition (1982)

In my years as a traveling baseball writer, namely 1946 through 1958, I believe I bridged the gap between the yesteryear of hero worship and the modern adversary era. When I came along, writers were just beginning to find warts on athletes’ faces. Now? Heck, they’re apt to see nothing but.

Somewhere, of course, there is the proper balance between writing independently and writing arrogantly, between criticizing justly and unjustly. And I’ve never felt, by the way, that no matter how unpleasant an athlete might be, a writer was justified in teeing off on him. In other words, if it’s germane to the story, let the man make an ass of himself, but don’t look for or — most certainly not –originate criticism that isn’t justified. As an epitaph, I believe a writer can qualify for only one: “He Was Fair.” (That’s fair as in “just,” not as in “mediocre.”)

George Hendrick, the St. Louis Cardinals’ right fielder, rarely speaks, though I suspect that underneath his silence lurks a man who would be direct and personable in conversation if he hadn’t been singed somewhere along the line. Hendrick is helpful and supportive of young players and, more pertinently, one helluva fine outfielder. He can crank up for the long ball, hit behind the runner, field and throw.

When I went around the circuit, I never met ballplayers who declared themselves off-limits or were invariably surly. But a generation ago, ballplayers weren’t nearly so financially independent and, maybe, writers were more tolerant.

Although I proudly took out my BBWAA card in Boston late in 1941, shortly before I went into the Marines, I really didn’t travel until 1946. That season, of course, provided an interesting mixture of established stars who had been away and the 4-Fs who had taken over.

Equally interesting–and often sad-was the effort of the returning vets to regain what for too many had been lost. Even though he’d missed the center cut of his career, Bob Feller came back with an impressive flourish. Obviously, Joe DiMaggio had been hurt. From a record standpoint, Ted Williams had been, too. Others were hurt physically. The Cardinals’ Johnny Beazley, a handsome 21-game winner as a rookie in 1942 and twice a World Series victor over the Yankees, ruined his arm through the caprice of a military superior’s command to pitch when not ready. Cecil Travis, a superior hitting infielder who went to war with a career batting average of .327, wound up with frostbite of his feet, and never again hit higher than .252. And the minor leagues’ most promising pitcher in 1942, John Grodzicki, had been hit in the lower backside with a bullet as a paratrooper, giving him a drop foot, he couldn’t offset.

I look back in amazement now that we ever tolerated a day without the blacks in the big leagues. Looking back, I can’t understand how it never struck me as odd that I went through school without ever having a black in class. And I’d competed against just one, who couldn’t hit a curve ball … but, then, hell, I couldn’t, either.

As a writer, I believe I treated Jackie Robinson fairly in 1947, his rookie year. I subscribed to the theory expressed then by Eddie Dyer, manager of the Cardinals. Dyer had been a football star at Rice and an assistant football coach there. He admired Robinson as an all-around athlete.

“Don’t jockey him,” cautioned Dyer. “He’s like Frank Frisch. You make him mad and he’ll beat the hell out of you all by himself.”

The story about the Cardinals’ planned “rebellion” against Robinson early in 1947 is a barnyard vulgarism. Some players grumbled about having to play on the same field with a black, just as did some of the Dodgers. Maybe here and there one popped off about how he didn’t care to play against Robinson, but no one paid attention to it. Certainly not the captain of the Cardinals, Terry Moore, nor his infield alter ego, Marty Marion, the man to whom ballplayers are most indebted for their tremendous pension plan.

Sure, club owner Sam Breadon was worried about his team’s reaction to Robinson. First, a little background. Mr. Breadon was a funny man. Personally generous, he was pretty tight-fisted with his talent, though the sheer ability of the Cardinals made him pay close to top dollar even when the team failed to draw. The colorful Gas House Gang, for instance, needed the 100,000 paid admissions they attracted in the thrilling final week of the 1934 season to draw 334,863. The club’s peak attendance until 1946 was 778,147 in 1928, a pennant-winning season of better financial times.

When the Redbirds went over the one-million mark in 1946, so did many other clubs. Breadon no longer had to pay the more than $80,000 in salary and profit percentage to Branch Rickey, but he writhed when that apple-cheeked, graceful outfielder, Stan Musial wanted big money. Stan was paid $13,500 at the outset of the ’46 season, in which he shifted to first base to shore up a hole and also hit .365. After all, Musial reasoned, wasn’t Feller getting about $80,000 at Cleveland and DiMaggio and Williams doing extremely well, too? He had turned down $75,000 cash and an attractive contract from the brothers Pasquel, who, in effect, did almost as much for the players in their day as the Federal League had earlier and arbitrator Peter Seitz much later.

The Man asked for $37,000 and settled finally for $31,000, which made Breadon fretful, to say the least. With his ballooning payroll Sam, who had grown up poor and had an abiding fear of coming up short again, was beside himself when his world champions lost 11 of their first 13 games in ’47. Hmmm, were they worried too much about that black man in the Dodgers’ lineup? He consulted with Moore and Marion about Dyer’s control of the club. After all, Breadon had been, in part, an early-day George Steinbrenner. From 1926 through 1930, he’d had six managers even though the Cardinals won three pennants.

Moore and Marion checked out Dyer as A-OK, but Dr. Robert F. Hyland, the surgeon-general of baseball, as Judge Landis described him, expressed Breadon’s concern to an old friend, Rud Rennie, baseball writer of the New York Herald-Tribune. Rennie told his sports editor, Stanley Woodward, who went to National League president Ford Frick. Frick did the only thing logical-yes, decent-and said he’d suspend any player who went on strike because of Robinson.

The Herald-Trib broke a copyrighted story and the monkey was on the Cardinals’ back. I’ve always resented the story, not because I had to scramble at night to follow it up, but only because it put so many fine players in an unfavorable light.

The truth is, to repeat, the Cardinals did NOT plan a strike against Robinson even though a few players grumbled in their beer about the athlete of a different color. But baseball history has labeled them unfairly.

I’ve got at my desk a picture, that, as a photo often does, tells the story. It shows Robinson, ejected by Bill Stewart for his publicized chokeup sign in a key moment of an important game in 1949, walking through the Cardinals’ dugout, grinning at St. Louis players who were smiling over something said by Robinson or by one of them.

Another postwar development was the establishment of the baseball pension, in which the prime influence was Marty Marion and the Cardinals. I broke the story and watched the wire services pick it up and bounce it around the country. I was delighted over the years to watch the idea take hold and become a reality.

In 1946, as Boston lawyer Robert Murphy sought to form a players’ union and Jorge Pasquel beckoned from Mexico, the teams asked management for rinky-dink improvements: more meal money . . . buses instead of taxi cabs after night games. . . personal luggage handled by the club instead of the players, etc.

Aided by trainer Weaver, Marion drew up the Cardinals’ recommendation at the old New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan. Each player would make a modest daily contribution toward a pension and the club would match it. In addition, All-Star game receipts and World Series radio rights would be used. If necessary, too, a midseason exhibition between natural rivals (Cubs vs. White Sox, Yanks vs. Giants, Red Sox vs. Braves, Athletics vs. Phillies) could be played.

Other clubs recognized a good idea when they heard one. So, too, did such management representatives as Larry MacPhail, Tom Yawkey, Phil Wrigley, and Breadon. Breadon had been giving the National League $100 a month to dole out to alcoholic Grover Cleveland Alexander, unwilling to let his role become public.

The World Series representatives, the Cardinals and Boston Red Sox, had to approve. The Redbirds did, unanimously. Veteran Bosox, moaning about a skimpy Series between two teams with small parks, didn’t want to give up the radio money, but Yawkey offered to put up if they didn’t shut up. And the Sox recognized a truly fine sportsman’s beau geste.

So now, 36 years later, the original notion of $100 a month at age 50 has been transformed by the television windfall, aggressive player unionization, and ownership opulence. Today’s pension setup spirals to more than $50,000 a year at 65—if any of the well-heeled present-day players will need it.

To get back to where we came in, as a traveling baseball writer I saw the game go a l-o-n-g way, sometimes backward, more often forward. I don’t like to sound too much like an oldtimer, much less a grouchy one.

The game has changed from trains to planes; from regional to national; from soggy, dirty flannel uniforms to clean, form-fitting polyesters; from smaller gloves that required sure hands to beartraps that often will snare a ball without the hand knowing it.

The players no longer wear cabbage leaves under their caps — dugouts are air-conditioned and, thank heaven, so are trains and hotel rooms. I used to make those three-and four-week trips with so much clothing that I had to take a theatrical trunk-and I wasn’t a clothes horse.

When I was on the beat, they changed old ideas with new ones that made sense. They hauled players’ gloves off the field, to avoid a mishap, and they began to drag the infield, a midgame boon for concessionaires, weak kidneys, and dented infielders’ cups. Now, of course, they’ve got artificial turf, which has done to game-canceling wet fields almost what night baseball did to the sport, as Breadon saw it: that is, made every night Sunday.

Personally, I like the ersatz fields, the development of the relief pitcher into a position of prominence, and the present-day combination by which the stolen base and home run, previously strange bedfellows, coexist if not cohabitate.

No newspaperman–I am not an exception–likes it if a player won’t talk or sulks out of bounds in the trainer’s room. I recognize, too, that fuller radio coverage, including clubhouse programs for which players often are paid, have made the job more difficult for print reporters. Television heading toward national cable coverage will have further impact. But the prophets of doom should look elsewhere than baseball. Funny thing, I have a 1932 Baseball Magazine in which a headline reads: “Will Broadcasting Kill Baseball?” Obviously, despite some of its own attempts to commit suicide, the grand old game is still pretty healthy.

The state of baseball writing is another matter. Yes, a reporter has to interview players and use the clubhouse for illuminating comments, but I honestly believe writers need to rely more on their own judgment, to review a ballgame as if they were reviewing a movie or a stage play. A film critic can’t ask Burt Reynolds if he thought he’d had his stuff in this scene or that one-and when did you ever hear of any drama reviewer asking an actor his opinion of the audience on opening night?

Pointed questions, clarifying a situation for the writer and the reader, are extremely worthwhile, but I weary of, for instance, talk about the batter hitting a “hanging” slider or curve. Hell, I can see that. Besides, who cares? The question is banal, the answer insipid.

Writers today are generally better educated and as a whole write better. They ought to rely more upon their abilities: a well-written narrative, not peppered with quotes, can be an excellent change-of-pace.

The years in which I traveled regularly, until I became a sports editor in 1958 and merely picked my spots, were a joy and an education. Those ten-day barnstorming trips north from Florida every spring, each town a one-night stand, enabled a guy to see places he otherwise would have missed. Yet my most enjoyable trip was a 1960 season-opening tour from St. Petersburg to San Francisco which included a week’s stop-off in the Phoenix area.

A highlight of the trip was the last confrontation of Stan Musial and Ted Williams as active ballplayers. The Red Sox, after all, trained then at Scottsdale. Both great hitters had suffered what appeared to be end-of-the-career seasons in ’59 (Musial .255, Williams .254). But they put on a great show that day and then some. Williams hit a home run, Musial hit two.

That year Ted went on at 42 to hit .316. Stan, three years later at nearly43, played enough to contend for an official batting championship, hitting .330. Musial was a delight to travel with as a player and as a person, before and after his 3000-hit railroad bandwagon trip from Chicago to St. Louis in May, 1958, the Cardinals’ last train ride.

When the Cardinals made their first plane trip west to Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1958, it was, of course, an emotional tug, the loss of Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field and New York’s Polo Grounds. But I looked forward to the Coast, where I’d spent two enjoyable springs with the Browns in 1950-51. They lived in Hollywood and trained near Burbank.

I’m glad that I got out there again when the Giants’ home was Seals Stadium, the springboard to stardom for Joe DiMaggio, and the Dodgers played at the Coliseum where Roy Campanella, if he hadn’t been hurt, would have used that open staance and uppercut swing to hit a ton of home runs.

At San Francisco, where the raw trade winds at night should have foretold the problem at Candlestick Park, Ty Cobb saw Musial play the first big-league game there. Stan went 4-for-4 and Cobb invited him to breakfast, chortling: “You still can run and you still can hit. Drink a little wine before dinner and you’ll play for years.”

At the Coliseum, where the right-field fence was in Siberia by contrast with the pitch-and-putt screen looming large in left, Duke Snider moaned to Musial at the batting cage before the game. Stan nodded, motioning to left field, “If you can’t beat ’em, Duke, join ’em. Go the other way.” So with a large crowd there to see Musial, as there had been in San Francisco, The Man broke in at L.A. the same way: 4-for-4.

After all, he was en route to 3000 hits then, past 37years old, and he didn’t want to waste time. “I might get hit in the can with a cab,” he said. So he made it in just 22 games-with 43 hits!