Sunday, March 4, 2012

1969-1991: Baseball's Real Golden Age

Awhile back I read a book that I'd highly recommend to all the baseball heads out there: Big Hair and Plastic Grass, by Dan Epstein. It's a fun, breezy look at baseball in the 1970s that persuasively argues that the Polyester Decade brought major changes to the game. Free agency and the DH are just two of the more important ones. Since reading it, I've inevitably been comparing baseball then to now, but especially to the so-called Steroid Era.

I tend to date the start of the Steroid Era to 1992, and reliable sources back me up on this. There's no doubt that players were using steroids prior to 1992, but evidence shows that by 1992 a critical mass of users had developed. Some of this is consistent with the fact that Jose Canseco came to the Texas Rangers that year, and got many prominent teamates, most notably Rafael Palmeiro, onto the juice. The home run numbers in 1992 also start going through the roof.

As a fan of the game, my issue with the Steroid Era goes well beyond accusations of cheating. The preponderance of muscle-bound sluggers slamming long balls made the sport much more one dimensional and less interesting. For example, Barry Bonds had once been an exciting all-around player who could run, hit, and field. When he managed to break the home run records he had been transformed into a slow, lead footed bruiser topped by an anabolically swelled colossal Olmec head. Not only did the new focus on the long ball create one-sided stars, the attendant high scoring meant more pitching changes and longer games.

It didn't used to be like this. In fact, I think the era right before the needle held its sway over the diamond may in fact be the greatest in baseball's history, though we never think of it that way. I for one can't define any period before the integration of baseball to be a "golden age" for obvious reasons. While some wistful oldsters might praise the 1950s as a golden age, it too was an era of boring, station-to-station baseball. Plus, if you weren't a New Yorker, you hardly ever got to see your team in the World Series.

The laggard pace of the game at least began to change in the 1960s. By 1969 other important changes had happened. Both leagues were now truly integrated after years of foot-dragging in the American League. That year also saw expansion and the addition of the playoffs, which have been great for adding excitement in October. By that time the cultural changes of the sixties were finally being felt in the button-down world of the National Pastime. As Epstein argues in his book, during the ensuing years baseball would adapt to fit the times.

Why is the time between 1969 and 1991 the best? Here are my reasons:

Faster Style of Play
I've explained this already above. If home runs become too common, they stop being special. Furthermore, stolen bases, hit and runs, squeeze plays and other small ball tactics make the game that much more exciting.

The Uniforms

It has been fashionable to deride the double-knit unis of the seventies and eighties ever since baseball teams dropped bright colors, stirrups, and elastic for the baggy, belted, and boring duds of today. While some of the concoctions might not have been successful (such as the infamous Bermuda shorts introduced by Bill Veeck's White Sox shown above), they were at least interesting, which is more than what I can say about the uniforms since. Here are some of my favorites:

I think the Astros' "tequila sunrise" shirts made JR Richard and Nolan Ryan that much more intimidating. Or maybe not.

Who can resist the Padres' taco-colored fantasia?

Road blues! They look so much cooler than grey.

Classic World Series Championships
For reasons that can't be fully explained, the time between 1969 and 1991 saw several memorable World Series championships. The bookends themselves are pretty damn good: the 1969 "Miracle Mets" shocking the baseball world, and the 1991 Twins winning in a seven-game war with the Braves that might be the best World Series ever. The 1991 series was only one of several seven game nail-biters: the 1972 tilt between the dynasties in Oakland and Cincy, the "You Gotta Believe" Mets and the As in 1973, the famous 1975 Reds-Red Sox battle (another contender for best ever), the 1979 "We Are Family" Pirates prevailing over Earl Weaver's Orioles, the Cardinals and Brewers in 1982, the Royals and Cardinals, in 1985, the classic Mets-Red Sox tilt in 1986 (including the infamous Buckner game), and the back and forth battle between the Twins and Cards in 1987.

Even in the matchups that fell short of seven games there were plenty of memorable moments: Kirk Gibson's miracle homer in 1988, the earthquake in '89, and Reggie Jackson hitting three homers on three pitches to clinch the title for the Yankees in 1977, just to name a few. The seven gamers have plenty of their own, of course: Buckner's flub in 1986, Carlton Fisk willing a home run in 1975, and Jack Morris' dominating performance in game seven of the 1991 series.

Small Market Dynasties
I also think the game had a lot more competitive balance in the 1969-1991 period. Curt Flood, Marvin Miller, and the players finally killed the hated Reserve Clause and won the right to free agency and salary arbitration, but the smaller market teams could still compete, Hell, they had dynasties of their own. During this time the Oakland As won four championships, including three in a row between 1972 and 1974. The Minnesota Twins won twice, in 1987 and 1989, the Reds in 1975, 1976, and 1990, the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1971 and 1979, and the Kansas City Royals in 1985. The Royals also went to the World Series in 1980, and won their division in 1984, 1976, 1977, and 1978. This is a team that today, like the Pirates, is seemingly stuck at a permanent disadvantage due to the current economics of the game.

Great Movies
I don't know why or how, but this period, especially the 1980s, brought us a slew of classic baseball movies: The Bad News Bears, The Natural, Bull Durham, Eight Men Out, and Major League. I watched the latter film so many times in college I just about have the damn thing memorized.

Baseball Cards
The 1980s were indisputably the greatest time ever to collect baseball cards. A fever gripped America for the cardboard fetishes, much like the tulip mania that overtook 17th century Holland. Like tulipomania, it couldn't last forever, and the bottom dropped out in the 1990s. However, it was a lot of fun while it lasted. With Donruss and Fleer competing with Topps after 1981, the number and variety available to young collectors like yours truly seemed limitless. Before Upper Deck ruined everything, they were still relatively inexpensive, meaning that the $2 I got for mowing the lawn could get me at least four packs, depending on the brand. My personal favorite series, for sentimental reasons, is the 1987 Topps, since that was the first that I ever seriously collected. I especially liked looking at John Franco's contorted arm.

Then again, Score's 1988 series was a great leap forward that pushed other card makers to great heights before it all came crashing down. The owl of Minerva flies at dusk indeed

More Outlandish Player Appearances

Is it just me, or have baseball players become a lot more bland and conservative in their dress and style? Where are our Bill "Spaceman" Lees, our daffy Mark Fydrichs, afroed Oscar Gambles, or sartorially mustached Rollie Fingers?


Between 1969 and 1991, several great records were broken without the aid of performance enhancing drugs. Henry Aaron beat the greatest record of the all, eclipsing Babe Ruth to hit more home runs that any other player (he also has more RBI and plate appearances, too.) Pete Rose beat Ty Cobb's all-time hit record, and Lou Brock, then Rickey Henderson, topped his career stolen base mark. Reggie Jackson beat Ruth's record for most home runs in a World Series, and Nolan Ryan set a new mark for career no-hitters that will never be broken.


To be fair and objective, I should discuss the things that made the 1969-1991 era less than stellar. As my good friend Brian I. pointed out when we discussed this once, the seventies and eighties were the high point of Astroturf and ashtray-style, brutalist, multipurpose modernist stadiums. No one is really shedding any tears these days over the demise of Veteran's Stadium, the Metrodome, Riverfront Stadium, Three Rivers Stadium, or the Kingdome. The renovation of Yankee Stadium in the 1970s made it much more sterile and less human. The new Yankee Stadium lacks the history of the old, but its open concourses make going to the game much more fan-friendly.  Houston's Astrodome may well have been the Eighth Wonder of the World, but Minute Maid Park (which I've attended) is a much more enjoyable place to watch a ballgame. Furthermore, Miller Park, Jacobs Field, Camden Yards, The Ballpark at Arlington, A&T Park and Turner Field are all considerable improvements over their predecessors.

However, let me play devil's advocate for a second. Astroturf is unsightly and presents injury dangers for players, but it did contribute to the speeding up of the game. (I will only take this so far, there really should be a Constitutional amendment against it.) A great number of the new stadiums have been built with public money, despite the big bucks raked in by major league baseball and the fact that they were usually replacing perfectly serviceable facilities. Considering the financial crisis faced by cities and states these days, that money probably could have been better spent.

The DH
The seventies also brought us that bugbear of baseball traditionalists, the designated hitter. For years I was an avowed opponent of the DH because it distorted the game in favor of offense, reduced the need for managers to strategize, and effectively made players incomplete by allowing them to specialize purely on hitting or pitching. However, I have to admit I am today on the verge of the apostasy of accepting the DH. Who really wants to see pitchers take the plate and kill a rally? Isn't it nice that players like Frank Thomas and Jim Thome can have their careers extended by not having to field? I guess I'd say the status quo suits me just fine: the DH in the Al and not in the NL. As a bit of traditionalist, I do like that the leagues are still distinct from each other.

Labor and Free Agency
In terms of baseball's endemic labor issues, free agency allowed players to actually be paid what they're worth (which is why I won't knock it like so purists will), but owners countered with their shameful strategy of collusion during the 1980s. Perhaps that illegal activity had much to do with competitive balance in that decade, the only good thing that I could say about it.  Unlike today, the prospect of strikes hung over baseball during the 1969-1991 era.  Much of the 1981's season was lost to a strike, but at least it didn't mean cancelling a World Series like it did in 1994.  Although owner chicanery and labor strife were common during this period, in the larger scheme of things, these were the birth pangs of a new baseball labor system that no longer treated players like "million dollar slaves," in the words of Curt Flood.

Finally, there's something about baseball between 1969 and 1991 that really beats what we've got today: the national broadcast network coverage. I am sooooo tired of having my enjoyment of the World Series ruined by Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. McCarver is the worst kind of over-critical ex-jock color announcer, and Buck is a colorless, sanctimonious prig who has his much more talented father to thank for his position. (That's the only explanation I can think of, since I don't know a single sports fan who actually likes listening to him. His lackluster call of the epic David Tyree catch in the Super Bowl should have gotten him fired.)

Back when NBC had all or part of the post-season and its Saturday Game of the Week (which I watched religiously as a child), things were a lot better. For one, so many games were called by Vin Scully, to my mind without a doubt the greatest play-by-play baseball announcer ever. He lets the events on the field speak for themselves and fills the dead time by talking without being a bore. I have to admit that I'm also a big Bob Costas fan (for my money he's the best all-around announcer in the biz, better than Al Michaels, Jim Nantz, Brent Musberger, etc.), especially because he had opinions about things without being a bully or unreasonable. With coverage on Fox these days, his advocacy for reform in baseball has been lost.

Because I have's package I can watch most any game I want on the computer; it's taught me that there are a lot of good broadcasting crews out there. Many small market teams have guys I'd much rather listen to than Buck and McCarver. Please, Fox network, put them out to pasture. Vin Scully is still with us, and Steve Stone would make a great partner for him.

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