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.