Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A Brief Historical Analysis Of Baseball's Divisional Era (1969-1995)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent history of baseball, and that with my obsession with historical periodization made me realize that the period between 1969 and 1995 forms a distinct and important era in baseball’s history.  It is also the period that coincides with the creation of divisions in 1969 and the beginning of the wild card format in 1995.  If I had the time, inclination, resources, and ability I would write a book length history of the topic. Since I possess none of these things, I’ll sum up the themes in this blog post. 

In a lot of ways, 1969 marks a real turning point in baseball’s history.  It was the first year that an expansion team (the Mets) won a World Series.  Expansion in that year also necessitated the division system and playoffs.  In 1969 baseball expanded across the border into Canada with the Expos, an early moment in the internationalization of the game, which would only continue to get more intense over time.  This combined with the movement of teams and integration in the preceeding years made baseball something very different than came before.  

It certainly began to look different.  If you look at film of the '69 series, the teams are wearing flannel uniforms that you could picture on the bodies of Lou Gehrig and Josh Gibson.  Very soon, with the Oakland As as early adopters, double-knits came into fashion, as well as more outlandish and inventive colors.  The same As wore white shoes and bright gold pullover jerseys.  Soon enough the world would witness the Astros' "tequila sunrise" look and the Taco Bell Padres unis.  Add to that the many teams sporting road blues, solid color looks, and a elastic waistbands.  An average fan in 1969 would not recognize half the teams playing in 1976.  Just as the mid-90s rolled around, this sartorial inventiveness began to fade.  Belts replaced elastic, baggy pants billowed, and gray became the solitary road color and white practically the only home one.

In terms of stadiums, the multipurpose sports complex replaced the old ballparks, a trend that began in the 1960s that became dominating by 1969.  In 1995, only Wrigley and Fenway remained of the original parks (Yankee Stadium's renovation in the 70s completely changed its character.)  At the end of the divisional era, new baseball-only stadiums began to be built, and with the success of Camden Yards, opening in 1992, the template for the retro stadium was set.  Over half the parks in the major leagues have been built since the end of the Divisional Era, a truly amazing statistic.  A fan as late as 1990 would only have known a third of the current parks.

This isn't all about looks, though.  If there's a defining attribute of the Divisional Era, it's labor strife.  The strike of 1994, and the attempt by owners to field replacement players in 1995, makes an appropriate bookend, along with Curt Flood challenging the reserve clause by refusing a trade in 1969.  Flood's effort eventually led to the advent of free agency in the mid-70s, which is one of the biggest changes to the game in professional baseball's history.  The players, once docile, became assertive in this era, and the owners, feeling betrayed, clashed time and time again with their teams.  This meant strikes in 1972, 1981, 1985, and 1994, with the strike in 1981 eliminating a large chunk of the season, and the strike in 1994 canceling the World Series.  It also meant collusion by the owners in the 80s to try to thwart free agency.  The players clearly won this long war, and the last twenty years have been marked by a labor peace that is the result of the owners having to accept things that they had tried to destroy or undermine.  The amount of money flowing into baseball from cable TV has also made it easy to make everyone happy.

The Divisional Era is also very interesting from the standpoint of race.  While Jackie Robinson broken the color line in 1947 and many players of color followed, many teams (most notably the Red Sox) resisted integration.  Black stars could easily find a spot on major league rosters, but second tier black players often got overlooked when a white player of similar ability was the other option.  Robinson's last public speech was at Three Rivers Stadium in 1972, during the World Series.  It was an appropriate location, considering the the hometown Pirates had fielded the first lineup without a white player in a game the season before.  That Pirates lineup reflected the rising numbers of black and Latino players at the time, which would lead in 1986 to 19% of major league players being black.  At this speech Robinson lauded the increased number of players of color in the game, but also called for more diversity in terms of managers and front offices.  Soon enough, in 1975, Frank Robinson would manage the Cleveland Indians.  The Blue Jays would win the 1992 and 1993 World Series helmed by Cito Gaston.  However, after the mid-80s the number of black players would start to decline, and there were still signs of racism in baseball, most notable Al Campanis' infamous interview with Ted Koppel, where he implied that black players did not have the intellectual capacity to be managers.  If anything, the Divisional Era both saw deeper integration and illustrated the racist barriers that still existed.

The Divisional Era is very much a transitional period when baseball figured out how to prosper while both no longer being the nation's top spectator sport and breaking away from its past.  Baseball attendance had dipped in the 1960s while the NFL rose and baseball owners remained stuck in the past.  In the late 70s and early 80s, however, attendance started shooting up.  During the 1980s baseball returned to a prominent place in the media landscape and pop cultural mind.  Several baseball movies were hits, and The Natural, Bull Durham, and Field of Dreams have managed to remain in cultural memory.

Beyond a return to pop cultural relevance, the baseball renaissance might have been primarily due to the way baseball was played in the Divisional Era, which was compelling in its balance.  For a long time baseball got boring with station-to-station tactics in the supposed "golden age" of the 50s, when attendance lagged.  (I get the feeling that the preponderance of baseball writers who grew up in the New York area in that time, when the three teams were all great, has something to do with the golden age misnomer.)  Then, just as speed and excitement began to return, pitching became so over-dominant that they had to lower the mound after the 1968 season.  While there were ups and downs in terms of offense, the game was pretty balanced in this era, rebounding from the second dead ball era in the early 70s, but not shooting up in offense until around 1993.  Another round of expansion and the increased use of steroids probably had something to do with that.  In 1996, the runs per game average for a single team would clear the 5.00 mark for the first time since 1936, a sign that the juiced era was on in full force.  During most of the Divisional Era the game included both power and speed, and strikeout rates while rising were much lower than they are today, making for exciting play.

Despite seeing a recovery from the stagnating attendance in the postwar period, the Divisional Era also saw the halo finally and permanently fall off of the game.  To be sure, there had been other scandalous times, such as the reaction to the 1919 White Sox throwing the World Series, but now there was no going back to a norm where baseball's purity was assumed.  This has a lot to do with the general questioning and dethroning of American institutions in the late 1960s and into the 1970s.  The seminal point for baseball was Jim Bouton's Ball Four, which came out in 1970 and described the dirty realities of ballplayers' lives. Joe Pepitone's memoir, which came out a few years later, did much the same work.  Scandals involving baseball players and managers grabbed the headlines, from prominent players being involved in a cocaine ring to Pete Rose betting on baseball.  It is impossible to understand the level of reaction against steroids without taking this period into account.  It established a powerful discourse of baseball as a fallen game, and a standard of behavior not expected of other major sports.

Above everything else, the Divisional Era was the time when baseball learned to adjust to no longer being the top sport in American life, or to being an institution with any assumed level of purity.  It learned, through its revived status in popular culture, that its history and nostalgia for its past were powerful forces.  That emphasis on staying connected to a rich past would come out most visibly in the new "retro" ballparks that followed Camden Yards.  It was a period of survival and adjustment, coming before the "juicing" of the game and all that entailed.  Grayer heads than mine may fondly recall Mantle, Aaron, and Mays, but for me and others this Divisional Era was our golden age.


Steve said...

That Expos calendar is so stylistically/visually cool.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Yeah. I love mid-70s graphic arts. Why does everything today just look so stale and corporate?