ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It may be hard to fathom, but there was a time when major league ballgames often lasted far less than two hours, when gloves were left on the field between innings, when outfield walls weren’t all pillowy soft and when players didn’t throw the ball into the stands when there were only two outs.
It’s almost enough to make baseball veterans from the 1940s and 1950s shake their heads in disbelief when watching today’s games.
Over the past week, seven ex-major leaguers – Mel Parnell, George Strickland, Gene Freese, Bobby Doerr, Jerry Coleman, Johnny Pesky and Babe Martin – who played in the 1940s-1950s chimed in with their thoughts on a game that’s sometimes hard for them to recognize.
Students of the game
Freese, who came up with the Pirates in 1955 and was the star third baseman for the pennant-winning Reds in 1961, can barely stomach some of the antics he sees today.
“We knew fundamentals a hell of a lot better than they do today. We had great fundamentals – we just didn’t have great ballplayers,” he chuckled, making reference to the awful Pirates teams of the 1950s.
And don’t get him started on Cubs outfielder Milton Bradley, who recently was seen preening for fans after making a routine catch and then chucking the ball into the bleachers – all while a base runner loped home. Unfortunately, there were only two outs at the time.
“He ought to go up in the stands and leave the ball out there,” Freese said. “I’m sure (manager Lou) Piniella feels the same way, but he can’t say it.”
Not that people didn’t commit similar gaffes early on. They just didn’t make a spectacle of it.
Said Coleman, who played on four title teams with the Yankees wrapped around combat stints in World War II and Korea: “I’ve seen (Joe) DiMaggio put his head down and start running in with only two outs. … When you’re out there every day for six months, and it’s hot, you get tired, it happens.”
Parnell, who has the major league TV package at his New Orleans home, is flabbergasted at the mind-set of batters.
“I’m amazed at what the hitters are thinking,” said Parnell, a lefty who had a 125-75 mark record, including a no-hitter, for Boston from 1947-1956. “When you have two strikes on you, you have to be a goaltender. You can’t put it in the umpire’s hands by taking. And I also see them taking that first pitch right down the middle. They just stand there. The theory is, if it’s a fastball over the plate, you swing.”
Apparently not anymore. Not to mention how players today leave the ballpark in a flash after games.
“We stayed in the clubhouse afterward and had a couple of beers,” Freese said. “Now they leave right away to find out where their money is.”
One thing that’s unanimous among the players is that the fields today are a quantum leap better than the ones they played on.
Strickland (1950-57, 1959-1960), like Freese, also came up with the Pirates and played shortstop before helping the Indians win the 1954 AL pennant. He committed 37 errors his first full year.
“When I went to Pittsburgh in 1950, it’s like they never took care of the field,” he said, emphasizing he had to place the blame for his errors somewhere. “It was like playing on concrete. When I was traded to Cleveland (1952), it was like playing on the living room floor.
“St. Louis was the worst,” he said of Sportsman’s Park, which served as home of the AL Browns and NL Cardinals until the Brownies left for Baltimore after the 1953 season. “It was a rock pile.”
He must not have been kidding.
Said Martin, who played parts of six years in the majors (from 1944-1953) as an outfielder and a catcher, but primarily with the Browns in 1945: “The head groundskeeper did everything in the world you could possibly do, but you know how high the temperature gets in St. Louis in the summer, right? We didn’t even have grass. It was eaten up by the sun. In the outfield, there would be lumps of ground. Lumps! Divots all over.”
And it was no picnic chasing fly balls to the outer reaches.
“The walls were all concrete,” said Martin. “Today, the fences are so different because they’re all made of cardboard or are rubberized or whatever.”
One of the most puzzling habits in baseball was when infielders and outfielders would leave their gloves on the field between innings. Is that one of the dopiest traditions in baseball history? Strickland, in particular, saw no harm in it whatsoever.
“It’s not like you left an 8-by-10 plank laying out there,” he said when asked if gloves ever got in the way. “Fielders might have kicked them away chasing an infield fly, but as far as seeing a batted ball hit a glove, no.”
Players did, however, take advantage of the situation to play practical jokes. It seems the Yankees’ Phil Rizzuto, a former MVP shortstop, was squeamish when it came to creepy stuff.
“He was scared of insects” among other things, Parnell said. “One time he saw a rubber snake in his glove and he went running and screaming. Umpire Bill Summers was stomping on the thing trying to kill it.”
Said Pesky, a Red Sox shortstop from 1942-1954, with three years out for military service: “If someone had done that to me, I found out who did it, and I’d have shot him. No, don’t say that. I’d have kicked him in the fanny.”
OK, but what happens when it rained?
Said Pesky: “We took it in stride. Sometimes when it rained, the glove felt good.”
Big, big gloves
Gloves used to be more form-fitting with a tiny pocket.
Said Strickland, “It’s like they’re playing with pancakes now. I always thought that playing the infield you’d want a smaller glove.”
Coleman goes one better: “In the early days, the gloves were the same used by the motormen on trains. Now they’re like jai alai baskets. Consequently, they’re so much bigger you have a lot of this diving crap, sit-slides to make catches.
“You never saw Mays or DiMaggio slide. Hank Bauer did, but he liked to put on a show. Basically you’re running at a dead sprint and (you slow up) to slide. It’s stupid. It’s insane.”
One of the most controversial elements of the modern game is the babying of pitchers through their formative years. Witness Joba Chamberlain when he was still wearing his Yankees diapers.
To see a major leaguer reached 130-plus pitches is highly uncommon.
Parnell said he never was on a pitch count because no one ever counted them.
“I never knew, but I’m sure I did 150 and 160 quite often,” he said. “As long as you were getting guys out you were out there.
“In the minors I once pitched an 18-inning game. We were figuring it out one night, and at four pitches per batter, I must have thrown more than 300 pitches that game. And the other guy went 18 and had about 300, too.”
And, Parnell said, he came back on his typical three-days’ rest feeling swell.
“Today, these kids are pitching six innings, or 100 pitches, and have more arm injuries than ever,” he said.
And all this pitch-count stuff translates to more pitching changes.
“Every game now has four, five, six pitchers,” said Coleman, 84, who is a Padres broadcaster. “Rarely do you get a guy like (Roy) Halladay with five complete games. We just had two games where 12 pitchers were used. That’s takes t
ime. That’s the biggest problem. If it’s less than three (pitchers) in a game, it’s a minor miracle.”
And what about doubleheaders? The old-timers would play back-to-back twin bills without flinching.
“I could have played all day,” Freese said. “Nowadays, it would kill them just to play a day game after a night game. They have in their contracts they don’t have to play them. That’s garbage.”
Today’s hurlers bemoan the fact they aren’t allowed to protect the inside of the plate without getting the umpire’s pants in a bunch.
“Invariably,” laughed Doerr, who played for the Red Sox from 1937-1951, with one year off for WWII, “when someone hit a home run before you, the ball was under your chin. They threw so much more at you. They’d back you off the plate.
“Some were worse than others. Sal Maglie, (Oral) Hildebrand of St. Louis would brush you back. Early Wynn would knock you down. Nowadays they hardly every come in. They get warned for crying out loud.”
Or, the pitcher would take note and get the slugger his next at-bat.
Said Freese: “That’s why I always ran around the bases so fast when I homered. They’d be looking and saying, ‘Who hit that?’ By that time I was already in the dugout having a cigarette.”