Dig the 1950s

The 1950s are often presented as a time of dull conformity, staid normality, boring predictability. Black-and-white images of too-safe TV shows and calm, bland white people in gray flannel suits populate the America-in-the-fifties stereotype. Scratch beneath the surface of this tepid veneer, however, and one discovers that the actual 1950s were anything but dull or placid; any serious look at America in the fifties encounters enormous social and cultural changes punctuating the decade: from Joe McCarthy to Rosa Parks to Elvis Presley to Jack Kerouac, the 1950s was actually a time of extraordinary personalities, searing conflict, and dramatic change. As Kerouac might say: dig it.

Baseball reflects and illustrates this. The image we’re often given of baseball in the 50s is one of static conservatism; we may be led to believe it was a dreary and monotonous time of stolid teams in baggy gray uniforms, relying upon tried-and-true formulas. The truth is entirely different: the 1950s in baseball was almost certainly the decade involving the most fundamental, startling, and dynamic change of any in modern baseball history.

Pick an angle, any angle, and you’ll see it: race, geography, technology, the major/minor league structure, or the game itself on the field. There was no other time in the 20th century of such swift and significant transformation in baseball.

Race

Ask most fans when baseball became integrated, and they’ll say “1947!” That’s technically true, of course, but comprehensively false. 1947, with Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby coming on the major league scene, was just the beginning of a long process. The vast majority of the wrenching and inspiring events of baseball’s integration took place in the 1950s. In 1949, just three franchises (the Dodgers, Indians, and Giants) employed players of color: the remaining 13 of 16 teams integrated in the ’50s.

In 1950, among regular major leaguers (defined as batters with at least 50 games, and pitchers with at least 50 innings), there were nine players of color (2.6%). By 1960 the total had become 52 (14.4%). Take a moment to contemplate the rich tumult of human lives and stories encapsulated in those stats: the choices, breakthroughs, conflicts, struggles, and triumphs represented. All that stark change took place in the decade of the 1950s.

It was a time of anything but stasis and conformity. It was an era of bold challenge of long-held norms and assumptions about race in baseball, brave testing of new arrangements – social, political, and economic – on a scale and depth not seen before or since. Minnie Minoso, Willie Mays, Joe Black, Jim Gilliam, Ernie Banks, Sam Jones, Vic Power, Hank Aaron, Elston Howard, Connie Johnson, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda - all these fascinating careers and many more – all are, to a great extent, tales of the enormous changes that took place in the 1950s.

Geography

Entering the 1950s, no major league franchise had been moved in half a century. The geographic configuration of teams was fixed, a given, essentially permanent. Major league baseball was almost entirely a Northeast and Midwest institution.

Before the decade was over, nearly a third of big league franchises would move. Five new major league cities would be established, including two on the Pacific coast, rendering MLB a nationwide entity for the first time. No geographic realignment of the sport since can begin to compare with the significance of that which took place in the 1950s, in boldness or in scale.

And one of the 1950s moves – that of the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles – must certainly be regarded as the single most controversial and culturally meaningful franchise shift in U.S. sports history.

Technology

It was a technological innovation that made MLB’s move to California feasible: fast, reliable, and cost-effective jet air transportation. Even for short road trips, the conversion of team travel from trains to planes became nearly universal in the 1950s.

This change had an impact beyond just in-season road trips. Train travel had facilitated a traditional practice of whistle-stop barnstorming at the end of spring training, as teams would often make several stops along the way home from Florida or Arizona, playing additional exhibition games and/or making publicity appearances. Plane travel helped phase out this custom in the 1950s.

Another technological change was in the ballparks themselves: the installation of lights for night baseball became universal everywhere in baseball (except Wrigley Field) in the 1950s. Night games were still fairly rare in the 1940s, but in the ’50s they became a standard offering, with nearly every team playing several night games a week. This had implications – few of them positive – for the neighborhoods surrounding inner-city ballparks, and new ways in which teams began to assess ease-of-access considerations for customers.

Speaking of access, in the 1950s most fans began traveling to the ballpark by car. This also had far-reaching implications, as the difficulty of finding safe and easy parking nearby inner-city ballparks was a huge factor in the desire of owners to find new facilities, in the suburbs and/or in new cities.

But certainly, the biggest of the many technological revolutions of the 1950s was television. TV was a novelty in the 1940s, but in the ’50s it suddenly became ubiquitous. Major league baseball became a televised event on a large scale. The implications of this can hardly be overstated in terms of revenue generation and marketing opportunities for the sport, and in many other ways as well.

The Major/Minor League Structure

Perhaps none of the many impacts of TV on baseball was bigger than what it meant for the minor leagues and semi-pro baseball. In 1950 there were 58 minor leagues in organized baseball, and countless more semi-pro operations. By 1960 there were only 22 minor leagues, and semi-pro baseball had largely become extinct.

In the early 1950s, many minor league teams were operating independently or semi-independently; they weren’t “farm teams” for the majors, but autonomous for-profit business ventures. By 1960 nearly all of the remaining minor league teams were strictly affiliated major league farms.

There were a number of reasons for this dramatic transformation, but probably the most meaningful was the TV boom. With major league baseball (and, of course, many other amusements) freely available on TV, the choice of fans to spend evenings and weekends at local minor league or semi-pro ballgames became a far less easy one to make.

Among the many ways television transformed small town American life in the 1950s was the shift away from communal gatherings at events such as minor league and semi-pro baseball games, and the resulting greater primacy of the major leagues as “the show” in baseball.

The Game on the Field

Popular baseball mythology holds that white baseball in the 1940s was staid and slow. Then, the legend goes, Jackie Robinson and the other players of color burst on the scene and shook this all up, re-introducing daring baserunning, particularly the stolen base.

It’s a great myth. All it lacks is that pesky little element of being factual. Stolen base rates remained low and flat over the decade of the 1950s. More bases were stolen in major league baseball in any season through 1946 than in any season of the 1950s. The most stolen bases in any year in the ’50s occurred in 1951 (when there were still very few black players in the majors), and only three seasons (’50, ’51, and ’59) deviated more than 10% above or below the average for the decade. Whatever things black players did for major league baseball, stimulating an immediate revival of the stolen base was not among them.

Yet in nearly every other regard, the style of major league baseball changed utterly in the 1950s, as dramatically as any decade in history other than the 1920s. Consider these facts:

- Home runs per game increased by 32% from 1949 to 1959.

- Triples per game declined by 29%.

- Walks declined by 22%.

- Strikeouts increased by 41%.

- In the entire history of MLB prior to 1950, a batter had a season of hitting less than .250 while hitting 20 or more home runs a total of seven times. In the 1950s this happened 27 times.

In short, the way players and teams approached the task of manufacturing runs, and the acceptable cost/benefit tradeoffs batters assumed in swinging for the fences, were completely transformed in the 1950s.

There are many causes of this revolution, both practical and cultural – we’ll be exploring them in the months ahead. The point for today is that the style of play in baseball changed enormously in the 1950s, but not in the way that’s often assumed: the game didn’t become more oriented around base stealing. Instead the 1950s was the decade in which baseball became completely enamored with the home run – a development with obvious reverberations to this day.

Next time someone tosses off that casual dismissal of the ’50s as a plain, dull, boring time, in any regard, baseball chief among them – let’s see, how would Kerouac put it? Get ‘em hip.

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