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?

You Might Also Like

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

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • 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>