“When It Was A Game” a wonderful series by HBO

"When It Was A Game" a wonderful series by HBO

There was a wonderful series on HBO about Professional Baseball, and the changes it has incurred over decades.  It was called “When it was a Game”.  It portrayed what baseball was like in the 50’s and 60’s as well as anyone has ever demonstrated.

The “Brooklyn Dodgers” moved to the west coast and became the “Los Angeles Dodgers” in 1958.  I was 12 years old.  My brother and I were being raised by a single mother.  Our entertainment, our passion, was sports.

At age 12, my most important possession was my bicycle, but my baseball glove was a close second.  We lived only one-half block from our school.  My mother left early for work, so it was my responsibility to make sure my younger brother and I had breakfast, and got to school on time.  We had television, but unlike the youth of today, we didn’t sit in front of it at every opportunity.  We would hurry through breakfast, and grab our “gloves” and go behind our apartment and play catch, or our own invented games.

My mother made barely enough to take care of the family’s needs.  But one magical day, our landlord knocked on our door, and asked my mother if he could give us tickets to a Dodgers’ game.  He also volunteered to take us and pick us up after it was over.  (Unlike today, we didn’t have a car.  We walked or took the bus everywhere.)

The Dodgers were playing at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in their early years in L.A.  When my brother and I walked out of the tunnel to the area where our seats were located, we thought we were in heaven.  The Coliseum was not an ideal place for baseball.  It was huge, but was built for the 1948 Olympics, so the shape was all wrong.  Left field was so close to home plate that they put up a chain link fence about 40 feet above the surface.  But the field was unbelievably green, and the excitement of having a Professional Baseball Team in our town was electrifying.

It was one of the greatest days of my youth.  Don Drysdale pitched a complete game, and the Dodgers won 5-1.  I just wish I could remember who they were playing that day.  Wally Moon hit a “Moon shot” over the high left field fence.  I don’t think I stopped smiling for days.

1959 was only the Dodgers’ second year in L.A.  Manager Walter Alston had developed a team that was dependent on good pitching and great defense.  They were not molded as are the Yankees, or the Cardinals, the Phillies, or Detroit today, where offensive power is the focus.  And the total salaries of the Dodgers was less than that of one of the “very good” players today.  The top three Dodger players were, Carl Furillo, $30,000.00, Don Drysdale, $19,000.00, and Sandy Koufax, $14,000.00.

The roster included pitchers such as Roger Craig, Carl Erskine, Johnny Klippstein, Larry Sherry, Clem Labine and Stan Williams.  They had three outstanding catchers in John Roseboro, Norm Sherry, and Joe Pignatano.  Infielders, who were unlikely to make a single error included Maury Wills at shortstop, Charlie Neal at 2nd base, Don Zimmer at 3rd, and the great Gil Hodges at 1st.  In the outfield, Don Demeter was probably the best defensive center fielder in the game, with an arm that was feared by every base runner.  They also had Ron Fairly, Carl Furillo, Wally Moon, Frank Howard, and Duke Snyder.

2,071,045 fans witnessed their 1959 Dodgers finish the season with a .564 winning percentage.  They played 156 games in the season and finished with a record of 88 and 68.  Their team batting average was only .257, but the pitching ERA was 3.79.

The end of the season saw them tying the Milwaukee Braves at 86 and 68.  They won the best of three playoffs by sweeping the Braves in the first two games to win the National League.  There were no never-ending playoffs in the early days of baseball.  They would face the Chicago White Sox in the World Series.

The man I consider the best “play by play” announcer in the history of baseball, Vin Scully, said about the 1959 series:  “What a change of scenery!”  It was the first series since 1948 when no games were played in New York.

The Dodgers won the series in 6 games.  The Los Angeles Coliseum had a capacity of over 100,000 people, although the configuration for baseball made some of the seats difficult to see the game.  Los Angeles fans, hungry for baseball, filled 92,706 seats for game 5, a record unlikely to be broken with the modern seating arrangement.

The Dodgers found an unlikely hero when Chuck Essegian, who hit only one home run in 1959 and had only six in his career to that point, set a World Series record with two pinch-hit home runs.

Larry Sherry of the Dodgers was the fifth consecutive pitcher to win the World Series Most Valuable Player Award (in only the fifth year it was awarded), following Johnny Podres (Brooklyn, 1955), Don Larsen (New York, 1956), Lew Burdette (Milwaukee, 1957), and Bob Turley (New York, 1958). Sherry, who had been born with club feet, finished all four games the Dodgers won, winning two and saving two. His brother Norm was the Dodgers’ backup catcher.

I’m writing this because these were the glory days of baseball.  I remember telling my brother every year that certain players would have a better year, and the Dodgers would win the World Series again, and they did.

There is no question that the “system” gave too much power to the team owners, that the best players never received the financial remuneration they deserved.  But when Curt Flood made it possible for players to freely negotiate their contracts, it changed the game.

Today some players change teams frequently.  I miss watching a team that consisted of players returning at a rate of nearly 90%.  I cannot visualize Sandy Koufax, Maury Wills, Gil Hodges, Gil Snyder, Junior Gilliam, Don Drysdale, Charlie Neal, John Roseboro, or Carl Erskine playing in any uniform but that of a Dodger.

Don’t get me wrong, a part of me, although it be a small part, cheers for the players.  But most of my psyche is not happy.  Salaries combined with the greed of baseball ownership has deprived the “every day man” from attending the game that allowed you to sit in the bleachers if you had fifty cents.  It discriminates against a  working class family of four, preventing them from attending games more than once or twice a season.

The entire salary of the 1959 World Series Championship Los Angeles Dodgers was just over 533,000 dollars.  And even if that is adjusted for today’s dollar value, it still does not equal the pay of one “star player”.

James Turnage

Columnist-The Guardian Express

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