Not so many years ago, two baseball fans were discussing the state of the American League pennant race when an eavesdropper interrupted them with a brave but futile "What about the race in the National?" The American Leaguers withered him with scorn: "Buster," they told him, "we're talking about the big leagues." It was about the same time another baseball seer was moved to observe sourly, "All baseball is divided into three parts: the A merican League, the National League—and the New York Yankees." Then he thought a moment and added, "On second thought, you can scratch the National League."
But that was the past. It is almost midseason 1956 now, and there is probably no clearer or surer fact in baseball than that things have changed. The evidence is in. It's the American League which is beginning to look bush. The National League is becoming the bully boy of baseball. The game has undergone a revolution, and it is the purpose of this article to explore the scope of that far-reaching change.
In order to do so it is necessary to refresh oneself on the extent to which the National League was tyrannized by the American League in the 30-odd years before the overthrow. Since 1923 and up to 1955 the National League had lost 22 out of 33 World Series and 12 out of the first 16 All-Star Games. More often than not, it had lost humiliatingly. To be sure, the New York Yankees were the palace gang behind the tyranny. Of the 22 American League Series victories, the Yankees had won a staggering 16—six of them in four straight. In the All-Star parade of American League victories, it was usually Yankee bats which had cowed the National Leaguers into submission.
The situation became so bad that a loud braying was set up from time to time to "Break up the Yankees!" But the cold facts of the matter were that not even this would have let the senior league out of the dungeon. The truth was that the factors which made the National League peculiarly inferior to the Yankees also made them inferior, as a group, to the rest of the American League.
June 10, 1956
But let's begin at the beginning:
The beginning was the 1923 World Series. The New York Giants and the New York Yankees were meeting in that one for the third time, and I like to think this was baseball's first Armageddon. More than a world's championship was in contention. Actually, a baseball revolution was at stake.
The Yankees, in all truth, represented the new order—the home run and the big inning. The Giants were old-style players—the bunt and the one-run-lead boys. Symbolically, it was a struggle between Babe Ruth and John McGraw. Ruth was the trail blazer of the long-ball era. McGraw was fighting the rear guard for the gaslight brand of ball. It was McGraw's idea baseball should be played the way it was when he was a kid—before the turn of the century—a fast-running, fancy-fielding brand of the game in which the ball was little more than a dead beanbag and there was no room for wild-swinging sluggers.
McGraw's Giants, who had won the 1921 and 1922 Series from the Yankees, went down in the 1923 World Series—and with them went an era. The long ball won out and, although McGraw totally failed to perceive it, the Yankees' Babe Ruth had made a new game of baseball and had sown the seeds for three decades of American League domination.
The American League was quick to capitalize on the facts of life in baseball, even to shortening the fences and jazzing up the ball. Its teams began to scour the bushes for strong-backed young sluggers who could fit the new concept of the game. If the pure science of baseball had been sacrificed in the process, no one seemed to mind, least of all the fan, who soon showed he much preferred the home run to the no-hitter and the booming triple to the deft bunt. The shutout became a statistical rarity.
Meanwhile, saddled with the McGraw legacy, the National League continued to play McGraw baseball. The result was disaster. World Series degenerated into full-dress batting rehearsals for the American League sluggers, and it should have been evident to the National League it was trying to win an atomic war with bows and arrows.
The Yankees began to win Series games by football scores (12-6, 13-6 against the Cubs in 1932) and once even by 18-4 (the Giants, 1936). In 1929 the Philadelphia Athletics scored 10 runs in one inning against the Chicago Cubs, which was more than some National League clubs would score in a whole Series. Since baseball—like democracy—derives its strength from a two-party system, the situation was grave. The invincibility of the American League in general and the Yankees in particular became a baseball fact of life.
What happened? Well, in the year 1943, Branch Rickey moved in as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and set about to build himself a pennant winner. It was a feat he had accomplished from time to time with the St. Louis Cardinals, who won three out of four Series in the early '40s—but those were the war years. The Dodgers, before Rickey's day, had been mainly the comic relief of the loop. Outfielders would get their heads instead of their gloves under fly balls, base runners would steal occupied bases, infielders would show up with full spade beards, and Ebbets Field was usually awash with jokes and second division teams.
Rickey painstakingly began to alter the face of Brooklyn. By 1946 he was within a whisker of fielding a pennant winner. Then in 1947 Rickey brought up Jackie Robinson. Rickey long had cast covetous eyes at a hitherto untapped mother lode of minor league talent—the Negro leagues. There, unclaimed and unwanted by any major league teams, was major league talent aplenty—outfielders of the caliber of Joe DiMaggio, infielders of a Charley Gehringer order and catchers who could press even a Bill Dickey for a job. Rickey comprehended he had his equalizer right here in this made-to-order farm system. And he reached a big hand in and pulled out a plum.
Jackie Robinson, it is my intention to prove, was to the National League what Babe Ruth was to the American. He was a revolution. The sociological aspects of his advent are not germane here—and it is to Rickey's credit that he never claimed he had any in mind. The baseball aspects are.
Robinson and the Negro players Rickey brought in after him abruptly pushed the Dodgers over the top, made them to the National League what the Yankees were to the American League, and indeed created a new Armageddon in baseball—Dodgers versus Yankees—as fiercely contested as the 1921-22-23 set between the Giants and the Yankees. The achievement of the Robinsonian Dodgers is growing as impressive as that of the Ruthian Yankees. In the 30 years before Robinson joined the Dodgers, the Brooklyns had won only two pennants—21 years apart. Since Robinson joined the Dodgers nine years ago, they have won five pennants. Once they lost the flag on the last day of the season (to the Phillies) and another time in a postseason playoff (to the Giants). And the only laughter heard in Ebbets Field these days is for the opposing pitcher. Can one Mayer make that much difference? Well, Ruth did. Willie Mays did. And Jackie Robinson did.
But the biggest boon the recruitment of Negroes brought to the National League was that it broke the pattern of recruitment generally. Rickey did not pick his Negro players to fill holes in second base or to get a rotation pitcher or to beef up his fielding. He Simply picked the best players. And it so happened the best players happened to be guys who could bounce home runs off the steel girders in left field in Flatbush and who were great all-found athletes besides. Their advent made Ebbets Field the same kind of execution chamber the Yankee Stadium was in the days of Ruth and Gehrig. It is my contention generally that the sacrifice bunt is an obsolete weapon in modern baseball. In Ebbets Field, with a heel-swinging array of fritters confronting those chummy walls just over the infielders' heads, a sacrifice bunt would be criminal. The Dodgers began to hang up some football scores of their own. It was the best thing that ever happened to the National League.
How did it affect the rest of the league? Simple. In the same way the Yankees had affected theirs. In order to beat a power baseball team, you have to have a power baseball team of your own. You can't field a home run, no matter how magically you wield a glove. And the best defense against an atom bomb is to have one too. The National League scurried to get even. Players like Eddie Mathews of the Braves and Ted Kluszewski of the Cincinnati Redlegs, who might not have made the grade in McGraw's day as fielding risks. They gave the National League the kind of fire to meet fire it had been needing for 30 years.
Since Robinson and Company came on the scene, only one "old-fashioned" National League entrant has managed to get into the World Series. This was the 1950 Phillies, and they got an "old-fashioned" National League greeting from the Yankees: they went down in four straight.
Otherwise, the whole league picked up. After losing 12 out of the first 16 All-Star Games, the National League proceeded to win five out of the last six.
Admittedly, the National League still has the problem of the Yankees. A team whose keystone was power, they were not easily beguiled into abandoning their tradition. But Brooklyn was no four-straight patsy. Twice the Dodgers led the Yankees down to seven games and once to six games.
And then last year, in the miracle of Flatbush, they beat the lordly Yankees. At that not only Brooklyn but all baseball could rejoice. It is my belief that the Yankees would have been tumbled to earth in the 1953 World Series by the Dodgers if the Brooklyn manager, Chuck Dressen, had not suffered a fatal lapse into McGrawism at a crucial moment in the first game. What happened was this: the Yankees had leaped into a commanding 4-0 lead, thanks to a pair of characteristic first-inning triples. But in the sixth, the Brooklyns began to swing from the heels, slugging Allie Reynolds out of the game. In the seventh they tied the score and served notice they meant to go right on fence busting. There were men on first and second and no one was out. Then Dressen had his seizure. With the heaviest-hitting team in baseball just beginning to find the range and with a big inning obviously coming up, he ordered his bully boys to—bunt! There were two bunts in a row. Yankee Catcher Yogi Berra pounced on both of them, threw to third to retire the front runner—and the rally was choked, the momentum was gone and the Series lost.
This turn of events sidetracked the inevitable only momentarily. The National League continued to flex its muscles, and the American League, incongruously, turned to art. The Yankees remained relatively steady in the cannoneering department, but their stubbornest rivals, the Cleveland Indians, preferred to concentrate on pitching. The Chicago White Sox began to look, of all things, for daring base runners. The Washington Senators hired Chuck Dressen. And the Boston Red Sox, where a once explosive lineup boasted Jimmy Foxx, Joe Cronin and Joe Vosmik, sought "youth" to back up an aging Ted Williams.
The American League, in short, is no threat at all any more. Its birthright has been surrendered. In 1954 the Cleveland Indians hung up an all-time record of 111 wins. But they were easy prey for the Giants in the Series that year—four straight. Why? Because the Giant pitchers had gone through the season looking at the likes of Kluszewski and Jim Greengrass (Redlegs); Mathews and Joe Adcock (Braves); Stan Musial (Cardinals); and Gil Hodges and Duke Snider (Dodgers). Cleveland looked easy.
There are always those who will want a more obscure explanation for the change in the anatomy of baseball. For them, some hard statistics: since 1947 the National League has had the big league home run champion every year, whereas before the war the National League had home run champions only twice in 15 years.
This year there are indications that the National League will break the all-time homer mark with about 1,340 for the season. The Redlegs, Cardinals, Braves and Pirates all should break their alltime club records for homers. Indeed, baseballs never disappeared at a more dizzying clip than they did on Memorial Day in Chicago where the Braves and the Cubs set a record for a day's bombarding—15 homers in all. The hitting, in fact, has been so heavy that Brooklyn suddenly finds itself in mortal danger of being superseded by at least four other teams, only because its own bats have slackened off from last year's pace while the bats of the others haven't.
But—argue some purists—aren't the ball parks in the National League smaller? In general they are and there is no doubt that parks help hitters. But does anyone mean to suggest that a Mays, Campanella, Snider, Mathews or Dale Long would not hit home runs out of any park? The shortening of a fence or the insertion of a trick bleacher section makes very little difference to the true slugger. Mel Ott had the short right field wall at the Polo Grounds but, like the true sluggers, he seldom hit cheap home runs. Had he, he probably could have wrecked Ruth's record.
So, continues the dissent, isn't the American League changing over to a concept of speed and hit-and-run? Yes. Cleveland may be faster. But Al Lopez would much rather have Al Rosen lead the league in home runs and runs-batted-in again. Just ask him. Put the ball over the fence and you don't need speed. Neither do the guys on base in front of you. I'll give you all the 10-second men you want. Give me the guys who can sock the ball out of the park and they'll have the sprinters' tongues hanging out chasing base hits.
Brooklyn wins on sheer power. Whoever succeeds them will succeed on power. Anyone can tick off the old New York Giants' big four pitchers (Hubbell, Parmelee, Schumacher, Fitzsimmons) or the new Cleveland's (Lemon, Score, Wynn, Garcia). But try to name the Brooklyn Dodgers' rotation for any one of their pennant-winning years. Johnny Podres was a Series hero last year but not exactly a terror on the hill in league play. The plain truth is any pitcher who can keep his earned-run average below four will suffice for the Dodgers. Podres shutout the Yankees in the crucial game last year. But in the crisis games (when Brooklyn was down 2-0 in games to the Yankees) it was Brooklyn bats (Campanella got six hits for 10 times at bat-two homers, two doubles, four runs-batted-in—in those games) which won.
The picture is clear. The National League manager of today understands the dynamics of power baseball and the spectacle of a Snider or Hodges or Long bunting is spared the once long-suffering fan who can now take heart-in the fact that the spirit of John McGraw is dead. The Yankees can go on winning those "exhibition" games in the junior circuit like the Harlem Globetrotters playing hometowners in Iowa. They'll get their real competition in the World Series in the fall. With two World Series wins in a row, with five out of six of the last All-Star Games, there is a new cockiness in the league of Snider and Robinson. Instead of "Break Up the Yankees!" it's "Bring On the Yankees!"