The more things change . . .

2019-09-05 JimmieFoxxFrankieFrisch
Generational debates on player “toughness” and baseball conditions didn’t end with Jimmie Foxx (left), Frankie Frisch, and a group of fellow Hall of Famers in 1954. They won’t end ever, really.

“Today they don’t have the great number of tough players and hitters. That is because life is different. As a kid I used to shovel manure with a pitchfork. Today everything is done by machines.”

If I gave you that quote without attribution, you’d think it came from one of today’s old-school fans or analysts who think, erroneously, that baseball today lacks “toughness.” But it doesn’t come from one of today’s grumps. It comes from Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx. And he said it to Sports Illustrated in 1954.

A present-day SI writer, Jon Tayler, exhumes it for a kind of state-of-the-game address. And it might be fun to look at what the other Hall of Famers still alive in 1954 said about the state of the game then. The title of that piece: “Are Today’s Baseball Players Sissies Compared to The Old Timers?” You may or may not be surprised at who said what.

“Baseball is a more aggressive game today,” said outfielder Paul (Big Poison) Waner, answering clearly in the negative. “The players can’t let up a bit. In my day we could. Today the pitcher has to throw hard to every man in the line-up. That’s the reason for so many substitutions. There are many more home-run hitters playing today. And there are cracker-jack fielders.”

Waner should only have been able to see the kind of hard throwing that was yet to come. In 1954, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson were playing basketball on college scholarships (Koufax at the University of Cincinnati, Gibson at Creighton University), Sudden Sam McDowell was in middle or junior high school, minor league legend Steve Dalkowski was still in high school, and Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan were still in grade school.

Rogers Hornsby (second baseman), who wasn’t exactly baseball’s Mr. Congeniality (when he was canned as the St. Louis Browns’s manager in 1952, Browns players led by pitcher Ned Garver presented owner Bill Veeck with an engraved trophy), answered the headline in the affirmative. Feel like a little wager that without knowing it was Hornsby this could have been said by Goose Gossage?

“[I]t’s the fault of the managers, not the players,” Hornsby said. “They change men too often. A pitcher will be removed for one bad pitch. A left-handed batter will be removed for a right-hander, for the percentage. Would they ever have taken out Cobb, Speaker, Wagner or Frisch?”

You wonder if Hornsby wasn’t taking a jab at Casey Stengel, a product of the John McGraw school when all was said and done, but who made a dark and successful art out of changing men, playing percentages, manipulating relief pitching—and kicking the American League’s ass for most of a decade plus while he was at it—during the era Hornsby lamented.

Al Simmons (outfielder) demurred from Hornsby’s assessment. “It was soft for us,” said Bucketfoot Al. “We had no Sunday games. Besides double-headers, today’s players have to play day, night and Sunday baseball.” The doubleheader today is the exception, not the rule, but players in 2019 also have to play night, Sunday, and day baseball. Often while traveling from one coast to the other or north to south.

I bet you think the following remark could be said by any reporter, columnist, or analyst today: “Many of the players today are fully as good as most of the old-timers. But comparisons are difficult to make. One of Ty Cobb’s great assets was base-stealing; in the 1915 season he stole 96 bases . . . With the rabbit ball today, why risk an out? It’s better to wait for the long hit.”

And I bet you’re wrong. That was actually Carl Hubbell, he who wore the silks of the New York Giants while striking out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Bucketfoot Al, and Joe Cronin in succession in the 1934 All-Star Game. And Hubbell had a point if you consider it to be that there were (and still are) those who considered 1950s baseball, which some of today’s old schoolers still think was the game’s Golden Age, to be too little more than a big power game. (In 1954, Little Looie Aparicio was just about to start the real return of the stolen base.)

To the question in the 1954 headline Cy Young (there’s a pitching award named in his honour, I think, wink wink) said, “Yes. They can’t take it. I’ve seen some of them threaten the pitcher when a ball brushed them back. Most rugged old-timers took this as a part of the game. It’s the rule today to use several pitchers in one game. Iron Man McGinnity pitched 55 games for the Giants in 1903. He won three double-headers in one month.”

I don’t suppose it crossed Young’s mind that in the dead ball era pitchers such as himself weren’t oriented or taught all that much to try throwing the proverbial lamb chops past the proverbial wolves, or that dead-ball pitching’s number one orientation was inducing contact, the more the better, and that the lack of power pitchers in the dead ball era normally meant that getting hit by a pitch wasn’t liable to leave a welt or a splitting headache.

Would it be fair to have asked Young if he would have flinched pitching against, say, Bob Feller, and had to face retaliation from Feller if Young had knocked down or drilled one of Feller’s Indians? Would it have been fair to question Walter Johnson’s “toughness” because the legend has it that whenever the gentlemanly Big Train did hit a batter he’d be almost apologetic about it and genuinely hopeful that he didn’t injure the poor guy?

“Players today like Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Duke Snider, Eddie Mathews, Mickey Mantle, Bob Feller, Phil Rizzuto and [sic] Pee Wee Reese are as rugged as any of the old-timers,” said third baseman Pie Traynor. “The trouble is that they are handicapped by having to play day and night baseball. This shortens their careers.”

Brushing aside that Rizzuto proved to have the shortest career of the players Traynor named, and that with the exception of Mantle and Mathews all those players had playing careers interrupted by World War II service, Traynor was probably right about their toughness but not quite right about the day/night conundrum. Night ball shortened a lot of Hall of Famers’ and others’ statistics more than their careers; injuries tended to shorten their careers more.

Williams (nineteen seasons) and Musial (22 seasons) would finish very long careers the majority of which seasons were played in the night ball era. So would Feller (eighteen), Mathews (seventeen), Mantle (eighteen), Snider (eighteen), and Reese (sixteen).

In due course you would see such protracted, predominantly night ball careers, from such Hall of Famers as Mantle (eighteen years) Henry Aaron (23 years), Ernie Banks (nineteen), Johnny Bench (seventeen), George Brett (21), Lou Brock (nineteen), Chipper Jones (nineteen), Willie Mays (22), Willie McCovey (22), Joe Morgan (22), Mike Schmidt (eighteen), and Jim Thome (22) among others among the position players.

Among the mostly- or exclusively night ball-era Hall of Fame pitchers? Hello, Warren Spahn (21; “He’ll never get into the Hall of Fame, he won’t stop pitching,” Stan Musial once cracked about him), Robin Roberts (nineteen), Whitey Ford (sixteen), Bob Gibson (seventeen), Juan Marichal (sixteen), Tom Seaver (twenty), Steve Carlton (24), Ferguson Jenkins (nineteen), Dennis Eckersley (24), Greg Maddux (23), Tom Glavine (22), Randy Johnson (22), Mike Mussina (eighteen), and Mariano Rivera (nineteen), among others.

But baseball’s rolls also include too many players whose careers were compromised or shortened by injuries, especially by being foolish enough to try playing through them regardless. That kind of “toughness” gets you some immediate admiration but costs your team a useful-or-better asset and you a career.

They still talk about Mickey Mantle’s what-ifs (forgetting that what was was impossibly great regardless) despite almost his entire career being an orthopedic experiment. And, to this day, baseball fans of long standing lament the what-ifs regarding a lot of players whom injuries compromised or finished: Pistol Pete Reiser, Carl Erskine, Karl Spooner, Herb Score, Wally Bunker, Tony Conigliaro, Mark (The Bird) Fidrych (who came back too soon from one injury too many), Butch Hobson, and Kirby Puckett (who made it to the Hall of Fame anyway), among others. They’re liable to do it regarding David Wright, Joe Mauer, and Buster Posey, too.

Funny that Hornsby should have mentioned his fellow second baseman Frankie Frisch. Frisch had something to say about whether players in 1954 were sissies comparied to players in his day or earlier. Which might surprise those today who remember how Frisch (and his running mate/successor Bill Terry) were so convinced nobody was as good as the good old days’ players that they corrupted the Hall of Fame by ramming as many of their Cardinals’ and Giants’ cronies into the Hall of Fame as they could get away with.

“It’s tough to say who are the tougher,” said the Fordham Flash. “Night games and the rabbit ball have changed everything. The managers seldom play for one run. And the players swing from the end of the bat. But baseball is a nicer game today. They meet you at the train and drive you to the park. TV has them hamming”

If only Frisch hadn’t concluded by adding, “But we got more fun out of the game.” Fun is obviously in the eye of the beholder. But Frisch and company in 1954 should remind us that a Hall of Fame manager named Sparky Anderson would prove right when, continuing his mastery of the double (or more) negative, he’d say in due course, “We try every way we can think to kill this game, but for some reason nothing nobody does never hurts it.”

And the more things in baseball change, the more most of them stay the same.

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