“No one will steal my joy. Ever.”
Tim Flannery said that recently, the former Giants coach lamenting the proliferation of analytics-driven decisions in baseball but determined not to lose his love for the game.
Mr. Flannery, I’m with you. I’ve had a number of friends give up watching baseball — or so they claim — because they’ve been beaten down by new-age tactics, instant replay, the dawdling pace and a number of other factors. To me, the game remains pure, the finest of all. Annoyances abound, absolutely, but I refuse to sit around being a grumbling old fool. I’m as excited about the game as I was as a 10-year-old kid.
And so, a proposal for the readers: Let’s go back 50 years and compare the game, then and now. Email me your preference (email@example.com), and if you fall into the millennial category, your opinion is especially valuable. It’s 1969 vs. the season about to unfold.
Pace of game
Photo: Bettmann / Bettmann Archive
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Then: Games were routinely played in 2½ hours or less. That applied to all but one game in the 1969 Mets-Orioles World Series, and the climactic Game 5 lasted just 2:14.
Now: Three-hour-plus games are a given. It’s no shock if a postseason game takes four hours. And the time for between-innings commercial breaks has more than doubled over the years.
Then: Scouts were crucial as they filed advance reports on other teams. Pitchers, and sometimes other groups, met before each series to discuss strategy. But there were no computer printouts or any other such sophisticated data in the dugouts. Managers made decisions based on instinct, memory and the “eye test.”
Now: Scouts are losing the battle to analytics — and losing their jobs — in an era of remarkably expansive information. Players’ tendencies, strengths and weaknesses are documented to the finest detail, with new categories added each year. Several teams still strike a balance between stats and scouting, but there’s an analytics-heavy movement in every franchise, trashing traditional methods for the sake of ever-expanding knowledge.
Then: Teams used four-man starting rotations and usually maxed out around 10 pitchers per staff, always shrinking in the postseason. The Mets needed just six pitchers to win that World Series against a Baltimore team using seven. Position-player benches were deep and full of specialists.
Now: You can’t have enough pitchers, with 13 around the norm in the age of “openers” and “bullpenning.” To gain a precious spot on the bench, you’d better be able to play multiple positions.
Then: Scarce. Fans had to be satisfied with the Saturday “Game of the Week” and selected broadcasts by their local team.
Now: If you’re willing to pay, you can watch any game that’s being televised — which is just about all of them — around the majors.
Then: This was the era of “cookie-cutter” stadiums, mostly built to accommodate Major League Baseball and the NFL, and they were rampant around the big leagues, almost always featuring artificial turf and symmetrical designs.
Now: The construction of Baltimore’s Camden Yards, in 1992, launched a glorious new era of distinctive, baseball-only parks with a ton of charm. Only a few dinosaurs remain.
Then: Virtually nonexistent. Starters routinely worked well past 120 pitches, and they were durable. The 1969 season featured 982 complete games, led by Bob Gibson’s 28. The Giants had the most as a team (71), led by Juan Marichal (27) and Gaylord Perry (26).
Now: Managers are reluctant to let anyone go past 100 pitches or finish a game. Last season there were just 42 complete games, and eight players tied for the individual lead with two.
Then: “Doctored” baseballs and knuckleball artists aside, pitchers generally employed a four-seam fastball, curveball, slider and changeup.
Now: Willing pitchers can be taught the two-seam fastball, cutter, sinker, splitter, “slurve,” forkball, screwball, circle change and knuckle-curve.
Then: Slowly fading out of the picture, but still a regular feature on most team’s schedules. And they were mostly single-admission affairs, with about 20 minutes between games.
Now: A vanishing concept, and it’s generally a day-night setup with separate admission for each game. Surveys indicate that executives, players, media and even the fans would rather see them eliminated.
Then: Ushering in the era of playoff baseball, each 12-team league was divided into two divisions. The winners staged a best-of-five playoff series to determine who reached the World Series — which ended that year on Oct. 16.
Now: October is a monthlong postseason festival featuring wild-card teams, division series and league championship series. It generally ends around the onset of November.
Then: After the ’69 season, the Giants announced that prices would increase for box seats ($3.50 to $4) and reserved seats ($3 to $3.50). Things stayed the same in the bleachers: 90 cents. When the A’s reached the 1972 World Series, tickets at the Coliseum cost $45 at field level, $30 in the second and third decks, and $12 for the bleachers.
Now: Prices vary, depending on the secondary markets, but when the Yankees come to town at Oracle Park late next month, purchasing a pair of field-level seats on the Giants’ website will cost fans between $235 and $350. At last year’s World Series, according to TicketIQ, the average price of a Fenway Park ticket on the resale market was $1,718. The Boston Globe reported that someone bought two front-row seats next to the visitors’ on-deck circle for $10,000 each.
Then: None, except whatever a fan might see on television. To say the least, countless calls were blown over the years.
Now: The replay-review system generally gets it right, often with the cost of tedious delays.
The Bay Area teams
Then: The 1969 Giants, playing their 10th season at Candlestick, opened the season with Willie Mays, Ron Hunt, Bobby Bonds, Willie McCovey and Jim Ray Hart at the top of the lineup, with Juan Marichal on the mound. Mays and Hart were on the downside of their careers, but McCovey was MVP (45 HR, 126 RBIs) and Bonds hit 32 homers. They finished second at 90-72, three games behind Atlanta in the brand-new NL West.
The ’69 A’s also finished second (88-74) but with things about to change — they made the playoffs in ’70 and ’71, then won three straight world titles — they had many of the pieces in place, including Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Dick Green, Campy Campaneris, Sal Bando, Rollie Fingers and the up-and-coming Vida Blue and Joe Rudi.
Now: You know the basics. Second place would look awfully good to both teams.
The designated hitter
Then: A foreign concept (not adopted until 1973).
Now: A fixture in the American League and most lower levels of organized baseball, with a constant threat of being installed in the National League.
Then: African American players represented 14.5 percent of the population, including many of the game’s most cherished stars. Latino players comprised 11.1 percent. Twenty-two of the 24 teams employed white managers, the exceptions being Preston Gomez (Padres) and Al Lopez (White Sox).
Now: Last year’s figure was 8.4 percent for African Americans, while Latino players accounted for 31 percent. Players born outside the U.S. now represent roughly one-third of the MLB population. Of the 30 teams, four have nonwhite managers: Alex Cora (Red Sox), Dave Martinez (Nationals), Dave Roberts (Dodgers) and Charlie Montoyo (Blue Jays).
Before the game
Then: Early-arriving fans were able to watch both teams take batting and infield practice, and it was common to watch a half-dozen teammates playing “pepper” outside the dugout.
Now: In some parks, only one team takes batting practice before the public. The structured, crisp precision of infield practice is a thing of the past, as is “pepper.” (Many examples on YouTube.)
Then: Nonexistent. Teams from opposing leagues didn’t see each other until the World Series.
Now: With an odd number of teams (15) in each league, at least one interleague series is being played at all times.
Then: Every postseason game was played during the day. (The first World Series night game was Game 4 of the 1971 World Series.)
Now: All World Series games are played in East Coast prime time, and although a few playoff games start earlier, the traditional 1 p.m. local start is extremely rare.
Then: With free agency several years away, players were at the mercy of their owners’ whims. The highest-paid player in 1969 was Mays — at $135,000.
Now: Perhaps this says it best: Bryce Harper, in the wake of his $330 million deal with Philadelphia, will make $45,000 for every plate appearance (based on career averages).
Then: A total of 3,119 home runs were hit, with 45 players hitting at least 20.
Now: The 2018 totals were 5,585 and 100.
Then: A total of 22,473 strikeouts were registered during the season.
Now: It happens almost twice as often (41,207 last year).
Then: Weightlifting was widely rejected under the belief limber players performed better than those with bulked-up muscles. Well before the steroid era, players popped amphetamine pills to stay sharp.
Now: The sluggers of ’69 look diminutive compared to generations of players devoted to weight training. As a whole, players throw harder, hit the ball farther and look better in the hotel lobby than ever before. Although performance-enhancer abuse is on a steady decline, violations still exist. Injury data is inexact, but there are far more hamstring, pulled-muscle and oblique injuries today.
Then: Louisville Slugger dominated the market, virtually every player using one of the company’s ash bats. They broke but rarely shattered, and players were known to use the same bat for months at a time.
Now: Ash has been consistently on the wane, most players preferring maple bats. Studies show the ball doesn’t travel any farther with maple, but players love how the bat feels upon sweet-spot contact. Regrettably, maple bats often break into two pieces, putting players and fans at risk when a weapon-like shard takes flight.
Then: It was perfectly legal to take out a middle infielder with such violent aggression; “slides” took on the look of assault. And if a catcher blocked the plate, he had to be ready for an NFL-style collision if the oncoming baserunner was game.
Now: New rules were enforced on both counts, making the game noticeably safer.
Then: Shifts were quite rare, usually little more than guarding the lines or shading outfielders in a certain direction. Left-handed power hitters never saw the type of exaggerated alignments employed today.
Now: There were 34,673 shifts employed in the majors last season. Left-handed power hitters batted .192 when pulling a ground ball between first and second base.
Then: Bat-flips, showy home-run trots and even shady glances were often met by retaliation from opponents clinging to the “code” of “respecting the game.”
Now: There’s still a fair amount of frontier justice, but joyous celebrations become more accepted each year, especially if they’re about personal satisfaction, not an in-your-face insult.
* * *
So there you have it, presented as objectively as I could. Critics have had baseball at its death’s door since the 19th century, but never forget: A game this resplendent can never be killed. It still looks magnificently appealing to me.
And you kids, stay on my lawn.
Bruce Jenkins is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @Bruce_Jenkins1
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/giants/jenkins/article/Was-baseball-better-50-years-ago-Here-are-25-13697301.php.