Baseball History for Kids is a fascinating and unique journey through the modern history of America’s favorite pastime. Kids will discover how the game has changed over the years, reading about topics such as the Dead Ball Era, World War II, segregation and integration, Bonus Babies, the Reserve Clause and Free Agency, and the Designated Hitter. Along the way, they’ll enjoy firsthand quotes and stories from more than 175 former major leaguers who were eyewitnesses to and participants in baseball’s most incredible feats and biggest moments. Readers will also get an intimate look at the game’s greatest legends, from Babe Ruth, Satchel Paige, and Ted Williams to Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays, including insightful and amusing anecdotes from former teammates and opponents. They will gain additional insight into the game through 19 interesting activities. Children will learn how to calculate a player’s batting average and ERA, throw a palmball, design a logo for their favorite team, cook a bowl of Cracker Jack, and more. The book also includes a time line and list of books, websites, and places to visit.
About the Author
Richard Panchyk is the author of World War II for Kids, New York City History for Kids, Franklin Delano Roosevelt for Kids, and three adult titles about New York City history.
Read an Excerpt
Baseball History for Kids
America at Bat From 1900 to Today with 19 Activities
By Richard Panchyk
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 Richard Panchyk
All rights reserved.
There's something timeless about baseball — the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, the growl of the umpire. Every one of the nearly 20,000 athletes who have played major league baseball started out playing the same way as the rest of us: picking up a bat and ball, and playing. But even though most players learned to play baseball as kids, there were many old-time players who knew nothing of the major leagues or any of its stars. "When I was growing up," remembers Tim Thompson, who was born in 1924, "I didn't even know who Babe Ruth was. I lived in the coal region, and all we did was play ball. Growing up I didn't know anything about professional baseball. We had a taped ball and put nails in our bat. We might have two gloves on both sides of the field. Very few people had gloves. We had rocks for bases."
Many rural areas had no ball fields. This was the case for Johnny Hetki, who was born in Kansas and pitched in the majors starting in 1945: "They ask me, Where did I play? We didn't have ball fields like they have today. Guess where we played? Cow pastures. We played in the cow pastures: We stepped out the base paths, and used a piece of cardboard or something for a base. We made our own pitching mound and put our own plate. We had no one coaching us."
But living in the country may not have been a disadvantage. Bob Speake, who was an outfielder for the Cubs and Giants in the 1950s, says, "I had a natural grip holding the bat, because I grew up on a farm and had a hoe in my hands all the time."
Kids growing up in the city had access to ball fields and parks, but sometimes the best place to practice was right at home. "My favorite pastime when I was growing up," says pitcher Dick Hall, a St. Louis native, "was to throw against the front steps. From the sidewalk in front of the house it was about 30 feet away. And I had a strike zone on the steps, and I would make-believe I was pitching to people. And if you'd just tip the top of the step, it'd bounce back and crash into the screen for the front door, but my mother didn't seem to mind that I was wrecking the screen."
These days, talented young players are selected by teams in a draft and don't have a say in what team they will play for. Before the draft, there were several ways a kid could wind up with a professional baseball contract. Most were first noticed by a scout, whose job was to seek out new talent. The scouts of old spent their days watching youngsters in a variety of settings — American Legion, Police Athletic League, high school, college, semipro, and even sandlot, playground, and softball games. Scouts couldn't be everywhere at once, so they often had a network of part-time bird dogs working for them.
If you happened to do well when someone was watching, you were in luck. After high school student Fred Van Dusen hit a grand slam and a triple in the New York City Championship game at Ebbets Field in 1955, "so many scouts called that we couldn't have dinner. We had to take the phone off the hook."
A hot prospect would have been chased by 5, 10, or maybe even all 16 teams! How to decide? He might pick the team that offered the most money, or perhaps his hometown team, or maybe the team offering the best chance of advancing to the majors. Jerry Coleman's parents wanted him to take an offer from the Dodgers, but "the Yankees was always my club, the only one I had any interest in," says Coleman, who eventually did sign with the Yanks. "Everybody got mad at me 'cause I wanted to be a Yankee."
Teams held tryout camps around the country that each attracted hundreds of boys. To make money for school clothes, Cloyd Boyer was baling hay in the summer of 1944 when his father convinced him to go to a tryout camp in Carthage, Missouri, where he was signed by the Cardinals.
Some kids, like Hal Schacker, took matters into their own hands. "I asked for a tryout from Casey Stengel," says Schacker. "I wrote him a letter and asked for a tryout. He wrote me back and told me to report at Ebbets Field when they came in, and pitch batting practice. And I did. And that's how I started my career with the Boston Braves."
Owners made personal contact with players and spared no expense to make players feel at home. Dave Ferriss was invited to join the Boston Red Sox twice in 1941 and got to pitch batting practice to them and meet legends such as Ted Williams and Jimmie Foxx. In September 1941, he traveled with the Sox to New York, and Williams took him to Times Square and then on the subway to Yankee Stadium. Browns owner Bill DeWitt called shortstop Al Naples and asked him to meet in Boston, where the Browns were playing. Naples did, signed a contract, and was used in a game just days later.
Movie star Bing Crosby, a part owner of the Pirates, used his famous name to get prospects to sign. The 1950s Pirates pitching star Vern Law recalls his experience: "The last people to come in was the Pirates. And when they come in they had a dozen roses and a box of chocolates for my mother. And halfway through the conversation the phone rings, and Babe Herman says, 'Mrs. Law, you'd better answer the phone.' Well, she answers and on the other line is Bing Crosby. Well, my mother like fainted. So that really made an impression."
Money was not even an issue for some. Stan Pawloski, who wound up on the 1955 Indians, recalls, "You're happy to get paid. You know, you come out of the coal mines and someone says they'll pay you to play baseball. You think Wow, what's going on here, I'd do it for nothing."
Many kids were multisport athletes and had to decide which sport to pursue. Some, like Carroll Hardy and Tom Yewcic, played both Major League Baseball and NFL football. Others, like Pirates pitcher Laurin Pepper, picked baseball over football. "Football didn't offer any money in those days, and baseball did," says Pepper. Gene Conley played NBA basketball and Major League Baseball and is the only two-sport player to win championships in both sports. Leo Posada was one of the top cyclists in Latin America before he chose professional baseball.
LIFE IN THE MINORS
Getting to the majors means advancing through the minors, which used to have six levels: D on up to C, B, A, AA, and AAA. Until about 1920, teams purchased contracts of promising players from independent minor league clubs. Rich teams gobbled up the best talent. Then along came former player and manager Branch Rickey, who implemented the "farm system" by buying or affiliating teams with the St. Louis Cardinals, so players on those teams would be off limits to other big league clubs.
Through the 1930s, most clubs only had a handful of farm teams, but those numbers rose in the 1940s. The 1940 Cardinals had 31 teams! The number of low minor league teams was mind-boggling. In 1949, there were 190 D teams in 25 leagues, including the PONY League (Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York) and the Kitty League (Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee); 106 C teams in 14 leagues; and 84 B teams in 11 leagues. More farm teams meant there was more room for young players. On the other hand, it also meant more competition for a spot in the big leagues. In 1949, Ted Williams advised young pitcher Russ Kemmerer to sign with the Red Sox rather than the Reds or Pirates, because for one thing, the Sox had only eight farm teams. Kemmerer took that advice and wound up in the majors three years later.
Johnny Rutherford, who signed with the Dodgers in 1947, explains: "It was a bad time to try to get anywhere because the Dodgers had about 25 teams in the minor leagues. So there's only two or three players that ever come up to the Dodgers at one time, you know. And it was a struggle."
After peaking in the 1940s and early 1950s, the number of farm teams decreased. By 1953, the Dodgers were down to 16 teams and the Giants were down to 9. The D, C, and B levels were abolished in 1963, leaving only A, AA, and AAA; most teams now have about seven farm teams, including a couple of teams in the Dominican Republic.
Competition among minor leaguers was tremendous. There were always several rising stars at each position. If you pitched for a lousy team, you'd have a terrible record and a poor chance of getting promoted. You had a better chance of making it up to a team with lots of turnover than one with long-term superstars. A catcher signed by the Yankees between the late 1920s and early 1960s had a slim chance of making it because of the dominance of two superstar Yankee catchers, Bill Dickey (1928–1946) and Yogi Berra (1946–1965). Catcher Gus Triandos, who spent years in the Yankees farm system and hit .368 in 1953 for AA Binghamton, couldn't get a foothold with the Yanks and was traded to the Orioles a year later.
The key to making it to the majors was getting out of the low minors. Though every player hoped to get to the majors, when the time came, it could still be a real surprise. That was the case for George Spencer, who'd signed with the Giants in 1948: "I was with Jersey City, and I had won my first eight games, and [then] I lost four in a row. Joe Becker, who was the manager, called me up — we were on the road — and he said, 'You're going to Philadelphia to pick the big club up tomorrow.' I said, 'Sure.' I said, 'I just lost four games in a row for crying out loud, and they're gonna take me in the big leagues?' I started laughing. He says, 'George, I'm serious, you're going to the big leagues.' I says, 'You've gotta be kidding me.' And he wasn't kidding me, and I did."
Minor league careers have always involved low pay and a lot of moving, travel, cheap motels, and greasy diners. It's a lifestyle better suited for bachelors. Baseball wives have to be patient and ready to move at a moment's notice.
White Sox president A. G. Spalding was the first to send his team to a southern locale to train for the coming season. The Sox set up camp in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1886 so they could bathe in the cleansing hot springs and sweat off excess fat. The idea of going south for training caught on, and teams have been doing it in March ever since. In 1980, 18 clubs trained in Florida, 7 in Arizona, and 1 in California. By 2013, there were 15 teams training in Florida and 15 in Arizona.
Spring training is a proving ground for farm team players invited to train with the parent club. Established big leaguers compete with up-and-comers from the minors for a spot on the roster. There may be 5 catchers, 12 outfielders, a bunch of third basemen, and a whole army of pitchers showing off their stuff.
"You'd have a good year," says 1960s outfielder Len Gabrielson, "and in spring training you'd run out to your position and turn around and there's eight guys standing there that can hit better, throw better, run better."
A good spring doesn't guarantee anything, but a bad spring does: a trip back to the minors — or home. Gary Blaylock, a 1950s pitcher, recalls the stress: "You'd go to this little office they had, and you'd look up your name in alphabetical order. You'd go to your name and sign beside your name, and they'd give you your meal money for that week. But when it got down to cut-down time, near the end of spring training, if you went to that office to get your meal money and there was a red line drawn through your name, that meant you go to the office and get your fare home. Well, I went through two of those. They'd give it out every Thursday then, near the end, so the last day I went to pick up my meal money it looked like somebody spilled blood on that page. There were so many red lines. There were seven red lines above my name and seven red lines below my name. And my heart just jumped up to my mouth, so to speak, 'cause it meant I was coming home. But there my name was. It didn't have a red line. So I grabbed that meal money and I ran."
Still, hundreds of players who never made it to the majors got a taste of major league life in spring training, and for a few weeks they got to play with some of their idols.
In the days before air travel, teams slowly made their way north at the end of spring training, playing games against some of their farm clubs along the way.
WELCOME TO THE BIG LEAGUES
For most of the season, teams are limited to a 25-man roster, but from September 1 to the end of the season, expanded rosters of up to 40 players are allowed. Because of this rule, many players have their first major league game in September.
Some first games were forgettably bad, others memorably good. Few can top pitcher Pete Richert's first appearance for the Dodgers in April 1962. In relief, the Long Island native struck out seven Reds, including the first six batters he faced. This pitching performance is the record for a first game. Or how about pitcher Jim O'Toole, who found out after his first big league game in 1958 that he'd been named Minor League Pitcher of the Year and was invited to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show alongside Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra?
Here are some other first game stories:
Eddie Yost, 1944 Senators: "I faced Lee, a left-handed pitcher. The manager put me up to pinch hit, and I took three strikes. I was so damn nervous, I didn't know what town I was in. I struck out. Didn't even swing the bat. I can remember, Bobo Newsom, he was on the bench, 'Swing the bat! Swing the bat!'"
Dick Welteroth, 1948 Senators: "The first game I went into was against the Boston Red Sox, and the first three hitters I pitched against were Williams, Doerr, and Pesky, and I got them out one, two, three. I came back to the dugout after the inning and hung my glove up — they had hooks at the back of the dugout — and a couple of the players said, 'What the heck are you doing that for?' I said, 'My day was made.'"
Johnny Logan, 1951 Braves: "My first game, against the New York Giants, in '51. Major leagues, in Boston. Willie Mays was on the team, and Sal Maglie, and all them guys. The Giants! And we won that game. The Boston Braves beat the Giants 2–1. I got a hit, hitting .333. One for three. I fielded about seven chances without [any] errors. And then the conclusion was we won. And I said, 'Boy, I'm up in the major leagues!' Now the second game, I'm hitting eighth. Billy Southworth is the manager. In the second inning, we got bases loaded, and I'm coming up with two outs. Time out. Billy Southworth came over and put his arm around me, and he said, 'Hey kid, I'm taking you out for a pinch hitter.' In the second inning. And I went to the dugout all by myself, sat in the corner, doing a lot of thinking. I said, second inning? After playing triple-A ball for three years, I said to myself, 'Shall I pull for Willard Marshall to get a hit, or should he ground out?' And you know what he did? He grounded out! And I said, 'I could have done that!'"
Neal Hertweck, 1952 Cardinals: "In St. Louis, you go from the clubhouse to the dugout, you had to go through an area that was open to the public, and maybe ten steps across the big aisle there, and then you went into a door that went down the steps to the dugout. Ushers would stand there and kind of keep an aisle open for you. So as I was going to the door to get to the dugout, two youngsters were there. 'Sign my card, sign my scorecard, gimme an autograph!' So I said, 'Well, you know, OK, I'm a big-time ballplayer here, I can do that.' So I signed the youngster's scorecard, and just as I opened the door, then I heard the one kid say, 'Well, who'd you get, who'd you get?' And the other kid says, 'Neal Hertweck.' And the other boy says, 'Who in the heck is that?' Your bubble gets burst in a hurry."
Bob Skinner, 1954 Pirates: "Fred Haney called me into his office and said, 'Listen, what I want you to do is just observe for a week. You're not gonna play. Preston Ward will be playing first base.' He said, 'Take it easy, and get your feet on the ground, and we'll go from there.' So I was the most relaxed rookie that ever hit the major leagues. My manager told me I didn't have to worry about playing or anything. Robin Roberts is pitching that day against Bob Friend. As things go in baseball, we were behind 3–1 in the eighth inning, and I hear this voice say, 'Skinner, get a bat!' Well, I didn't even have a bat. So he sent me up there to pinch hit for Friend, and Robin Roberts just threw a fastball right by. I was so nervous; my legs were shaking and that cocky relaxed rookie was now the most nervous guy in town. I'd never seen 35,000 people before in the stands, and they were all hollering. So anyhow, he threw another pitch, and before I knew it, he had two strikes on me. And I said, Oh, I gotta do something here. So he threw the next pitch and, lo and behold, I got a base hit right through the middle, drove in two runs, and tied the game, and we went on to win."
Excerpted from Baseball History for Kids by Richard Panchyk. Copyright © 2016 Richard Panchyk. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1. PLAY BALL!,
2. THE MODERN ERA BEGINS: 1901–1939,
3. WORLD WAR II AND INTEGRATION: THE 1940s,
4. THE GOLDEN ERA: THE 1950s,
5. EXPANSION: THE 1960s,
6. THE MONEY ERA: 1970–TODAY,
YOU NEVER KNOW,