Life in Professional Baseball
By George Gmelch
University of Nebraska Press
Copyright © 2006
University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
It Ain't the Same Old Ball Game
New in this edition of Inside Pitch, this chapter looks at some of the
ways baseball culture has changed in the nearly four decades since I
was a player. Fans talk about the timelessness of their sport, its respect
for tradition. Baseball, they say, doesn't change like football and basketball.
To me, after returning to my old ballparks and clubhouses,
baseball today looks a lot different. After being absorbed with the
game in my youth, I turned completely away from baseball after I was
released in 1968. When I finally came back, it was like Rip van Winkle
waking up after his twenty-year nap in the Catskills.
Let me remind you of what baseball was like in the 1960s, since that
is my baseline for describing change. The season ended with two pennant
winners; there were no playoffs. Most World Series games were
played during the day. Major League Baseball had just moved west of
the Mississippi with the relocation of the Dodgers, A's, Braves, and
Giants. There were expansion teams: the Houston Colt 45s and New
York Metropolitans came first, followed by the Expos, Padres, and
In the entire decade there was only one Japanese player in the Major
Leagues. Hepitched just one season for the Giants and then returned
to Japan. It was believed that Japanese players weren't good enough
to play pro ball in the United States.
It was the golden age of pitching, with an oversized strike zone and
a mound five inches (or one-third) higher than today. The best year
for pitchers was 1968, when Bob Gibson's ERA was 1.12 and Denny
McClain won thirty-one games. And it was the worst year for hitters:
Carl Yastrzemski won the AL batting title with an average of .301, and
the entire league batted only .230.
The first indoor stadium opened: the Astrodome, with the first synthetic
turf. Old ballparks were replaced by concrete, multipurpose stadiums
that served football as well as baseball. Umpires wore coats
and ties. There were no sports psychologists, nor agents. Televised
baseball was the Saturday "Game of the Week."
While the Vietnam War raged on, people were disenchanted with
baseball. Polls showed football fast becoming America's favorite
sport, and the NBA was pulling in ever-bigger crowds. The same
Denny McClain who'd won thirty-one games and a Cy Young Award
proclaimed that he'd rather be a pianist. CBS bought the New York
Yankees for $11 million. At the end of the decade, Jim Bouton published
That was my era. What follows are the changes that struck me in
Where Has the Group Gone?
Today's players spend less time in groups than we did. When they go
out after a game it's usually in twos or threes. On the road and in their
hotel rooms, players spend more time with the TV or their MP3 players
and video games than with teammates. Until a few years ago, everyone
had a roommate when on the road. In the big leagues, players
now room by themselves. A few superstars even stay in separate hotels
away from their teams-to avoid groupies and autograph hounds.
This individualism is also evident in the lack of conformity on the
field. Although some organizations now have a dress code for their
Minor Leaguers, most players have more personal freedom, and there
is less of a single-team standard. Some players wear their pants long,
right down to their cleats, while some of their teammates wear their
pants short, showing their baseball socks. In my day everyone was
required to wear the uniform in exactly the same way. We were to be
clean-shaven, and no one dreamt of wearing a necklace or an earring.
We had a curfew and sometimes a bed check. Facial hair and jewelry
are now widespread, and curfews are mostly advisory.
I sense that the bond between players is not as strong as it used
to be. Sure, some players hug after a big hit or a win, and certainly
players develop strong friendships with some of their teammates, but
overall I think there is less sharing of confidences and less genuine
camaraderie. This is partially due to free agency, which brings considerable
turnover in rosters each new season. No team is going to be as
tight or cohesive if its membership changes every year. Another effect
of declining intimacy is that fewer players have nicknames (see page
Players no longer chatter in the infield. I developed calluses on my
vocal chords from having to keep up the constant talk from first base.
On the other hand, in today's dugouts players congratulate one another
for the most minor achievements. Everything from a sacrifice bunt to
lamely moving a runner over to third with less than two outs elicits
high fives. Some say it's a carryover from the celebratory excesses of
Little League, where parent-coaches urge their charges to always support
Bigger, Faster, Stronger
The belief that today's ballplayers are bigger, faster, and stronger than
ever before happens to be true. When I played I was taller (at 6'2")
than most of my teammates; today I would be shorter. Over 80 percent
of players on opening day rosters in 2006 are over six feet tall. There
is hardly a pitcher under six feet, unless he is left-handed.
Players are better educated today. Most have had some college, a rarity
in the 1960s. None of my coaches had been to college, and some
were disdainful of players who had. It was believed that college kids
weren't as hungry to make it in baseball as kids who came right from
high school. Now, many organizations prefer to select college players
in the annual free agent draft. Nearly 70 percent of North Americans
playing in the Major Leagues in 2005 were drafted out of college.
Improvement in college baseball programs means that Major League
organizations no longer believe they have to sign a kid out of high
school in order to mold him into a big leaguer.
Despite being better educated, ballplayers are just as superstitious
as ever. The difference today is that players are less willing to admit
that they have superstitions. Perhaps it seems pejorative. When I asked
today's players directly about their superstitions, most denied having
any. However, when I asked what they did mentally to give themselves
confidence in playing the game, they often talked about their
rituals, taboos, and good luck charms-no different than the players
of the 1960s.
Though today's players may have more years of schooling, their
coaches and managers say they have less baseball sense. Some Major
Leaguers don't run the bases well, and few can drag bunt. Many
left-handed pitchers don't have good pick-off moves to first base, and
some outfielders don't know how to crow hop to throw out a runner
tagging from third. It's partially the result of rushing Minor Leaguers
to the big leagues. Another factor is the complete replacement
of youth-organized sandlot ball with adult-supervised Little League
baseball-athletes raised in the United States today have had a lot less
playing time than those in the past.
I realize old-timers often idealize the past, but today's players seem
a lot less curious about the history of their sport. Traveling with the
very same teams that I had played for thirty years before, I was surprised
that players seldom asked me about the old days or how things
had changed. You've heard the stories about how today's players
don't know much about Jackie Robinson or the contributions of Curt
Flood. Baseball clubs might do well to show Ken Burns's documentary
Baseball to their Minor Leaguers on those idle evenings during
spring training when there is little else to do. I also found players less
curious about the places they visit; few look out the bus window at the
passing scene. In fairness, the country has become somewhat homogenized
and less interesting to look at. There is a sameness now to the
highways and to the towns they travel to.
Excerpted from Inside Pitch
by George Gmelch
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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