No wonder Don Larsen was perfect

Not really, but the rebroadcast of his 1956 gem showed that hitters back then were a different, lesser breed than today's sluggers.

Topics: Baseball,

The second show aired on the new MLB Network last week was the first national broadcast of Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series since the day it happened.

I found it fascinating to watch, but not so much for the perfect game. The fun of a perfect game, after all, is the suspense. Once you know what happened, it’s just a bunch of outs. What had me glued was watching a baseball game from 1956.

Bob Costas, hosting from the new MLB Network studios, went on at some length about the ways in which the broadcast was different — no instant replay or center-field camera, laughably primitive, seldom-used graphics, that sort of thing. And while that stuff was mildly diverting, I was a lot more interested in just watching these guys play.

The game itself was much the same in 1956 as it is today. This wasn’t a revelation to me. I came into baseball consciousness in the late ’60s, and while 1956 will always seem relatively paleolithic to me, it wasn’t that much earlier in the scheme of things than my earliest memories.

There wasn’t anybody on the field in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series who I saw play, but I only missed Mickey Mantle by a year or so and I did see Don Drysdale, who had pitched the day before. And I knew this generation of players. Some of the best of 1956 — Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Luis Aparicio, Al Kaline — were still stars when I started paying attention.

And yet, it was a completely different game. I’m guessing I would get a similar impression watching a game from 1970, and I also realize all of this has been possible for quite a while on ESPN Classic. I’ve just never bothered.

The biggest difference I noticed was the approach of the batters. They were all over the place in the box before the pitch. Hitters today tend to be very still. They have their wiggles and timing devices, but for the most part, once the ball is coming, the best hitters waste little motion. They shift their weight, rotate their hips and — wham! — whip the bat through the strike zone.

So it was startling for me to watch Yogi Berra literally walk around in the batter’s box as the pitch was on its way. He’d sometimes take a little stutter-step backwards, away from the plate, with each foot as he loaded up his swing. Almost every hitter practically wound up before getting his bat moving forward.



Those bats were enormous pieces of lumber compared to what players swing today. They had to load up.

Watching these Yankees and Dodgers struggle to get those logs through the strike zone, I wondered why it took so long — until the ’80s and ’90s — for the baseball world to figure out that lighter bats are more effective. Didn’t they have physics teachers back then? Couldn’t somebody have convinced someone like Billy Martin that the bat speed he’d gain with a lighter bat would make up for the mass he’d lose?

This wasn’t just a major league problem. I played Little League baseball from 1971 to 1975 and I swung a 27-ounce bat at the age of 7, probably about a 29-ouncer when I was 11. And I was a scrawny, banjo-hitting second-baseman. The sluggers swung 31s and 32s.

I’m a big ol’ grownup now and a 32-ounce bat — the size Barry Bonds used — feels heavy to me. No wonder I struck out so much. At 11 I was using the bat that Martin and Pee Wee Reese should have been using in 1956. The bat I should have been using didn’t exist. They didn’t make ‘em that light.

So these 1956 players, who looked more like store clerks than like athletes, were flailing away with these telephone poles. And then there was Mantle. He didn’t look like any store clerk. He wouldn’t have stood out in a crowd of muscled-up 21st century ballplayers. He was also noticeably quiet in the box — but he also ended every swing, including one that produced a home run, with his head flailing toward the first-base dugout.

Between all the moving parts in their swings and the tree trunks they were lugging around and calling bats, it’s almost a wonder anybody ever got a hit. Then again, it’s hard to picture Larsen getting three consecutive outs against today’s hitters with the stuff he was throwing, never mind 27 in a row.

That was the main impression I got from watching that wonderful 1956 ballgame: These guys couldn’t play worth a damn!

That’s an exaggeration. Of course they were good. They were the best in the world at the time, and given the state of training methods and nutrition, the level of knowledge that had been attained and the lingering effects of segregation, they were as good as they had to be.

Magically transport Duke Snider, who looked to my 21st century eyes like a decent muni-league softball slugger, 50 years into the future and give him the benefits of the various advancements of those 50 years and he’d probably be fine. He might even be Duke Snider. But the Duke Snider who actually played that day in 1956 would have been blown away by a league-average middle reliever from 2008.

I think anybody who says that today’s pitchers aren’t as good as the old-timers, who calls them wusses for not finishing games or wonders why they get paid millions to put up ERAs like 4.56, ought to be invited to watch a game from 1956. Or pretty much any year before, guessing here, 1975.

Baseball in 1956 is easily recognizable as the game we watch today. But those old-time pitchers really were playing a different game, a much easier one.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>