The Glory Days: 1960s Held Certain Mystique
There was a certain mystique surrounding baseball in the 1960s. Unlike today, with the Internet and satellite television providing an abundance of information as well as viewing of every big league game, fans knew very little about their favorite players. They were limited to one televised Game of the Week on Saturdays, and the rest of the time, they relied on radio broadcasts. The radio was, and still is, a medium made for baseball.
Those who followed baseball were treated to the golden voices of broadcasters such as Ernie Harwell, Red Barber, Mel Allen, Bob Prince and Vin Scully. Announcers focused on telling what happened in games, not revealing what players did away from the ball park. Magazines like Sports Illustrated and Sport offered features on some of the brightest stars, but writers did not delve into athletes’ personal lives to any great extent.
As a result, superstars like Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Roberto Clemente were mysteries for the most part. They were, in many ways, like comic book super heroes. That kind of image made it easy to place baseball stars on a pedestal and keep them there.
For a kid, owning the baseball cards of those stars was a privilege; it was almost like a bond. The little cardboard rectangles with players’ pictures on the front and their statistics on the back were a big part of baseball in the 1950s and 1960s.
Baseball cards and kids formed a friendship. There was no dollar value attached to a Mantle card, or a Mays, or a Williams, no hording (or speculating) of the “star cards” as would be the case in the 1970s and 1980s, when collecting baseball cards was looked upon by some people more as an investment than a hobby. Just having one of those players’ cards was the big thing for a kid in the 1960s. There was no thought of what it was worth and certainly no idea of selling it.
In his 1981 record, “Talkin’ Baseball”, Terry Cashman features Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. In fact, that was the original title of the song the former minor leaguer wrote and sang. The record does a wonderful job of highlighting baseball history of the 1950s.
Cashman spotlights the center fielders who were stars of the three New York teams during that decade: Mays of the New York Giants, Mantle of the New York Yankees, and Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers. All three were on their way to the Hall of Fame, while playing a glamour position in a glamour city, which was the hub of baseball. Mantle and Mays continued to shine into the 1960s, while Snider did not.
Mays, Mantle, and Snider were always in the spotlight created by the New York City press. Athletes who play in that city have both their successes and failures magnified. Coverage was not nearly as intense for Aaron in Milwaukee, Clemente in Pittsburgh, Musial in St. Louis, and Robinson in Cincinnati.
Number Seven. Everyone quickly identified New York’s primary sports matinee idol by his uniform number. He was The Mick. Mantle was known for his tremendous power from both sides of the plate, and long-time Yankee fans also remember his patented drag bunts when he was batting left-handed. There was nothing more exciting than watching him run out a triple. All of that power. All of that speed. And the electricity Mantle generated when he walked to the plate in the eighth or ninth inning of a close ballgame. Even his strikeouts – and there were more than 1,700 of them – were exciting.
Frank Robinson always crowded the plate, with his elbows jutting over the inside corner, and he dared pitchers to jam him. He was hit by a pitch 198 times in 21 seasons, but he was never intimidated. He was so quick with the bat that he jerked tight fastballs off of and over the left-field fence, while smashing balls on the outside part of the plate into the gaps.
Robinson’s first 10 years in the majors were spent in Cincinnati, and he was the perfect model for the Redlegs’ colorful uniform. For a while, the team wore vest-like sleeveless jerseys with bright red undershirts and caps that had red bills and white crowns adorned with a red C. Robinson made the uniform look good. He looked like a ball player.
Yogi Berra did not. He resembled a sack of potatoes wrapped in pinstripes, and his batting style was right in step with his physical appearance. Results were another story. At times, Yogi looked off balance as he lunged at a pitch, lining a base hit to any field. He flailed at a ball high and outside, ripping it over the left-field wall. He golfed at one low and inside, lifting a towering shot over the fence in right.
Berra and Mantle personified the Yankees’ World Series dominance, combining to hit 30 home runs and drive in 79 runs, while helping New York win 10 world championships.
People wondered whether Willie Mays ran so fast that he left his cap behind or wore his hat too small so it would fly off as he dashed from first to third or second to home on a base hit. Either way, Say Hey was a thrill to watch, with his basket catches and his daring base running.
There was no questioning the way he played baseball. He played all-out all of the time. He was the model five-tool player. It was as if God made him to be a center fielder. With his amazing skills, zest for the game, and outgoing personality, Mays should have been labeled Mr. Baseball.
Hank Aaron was as unassuming as Mays was flashy. Once, when Berra informed Aaron that his trademark needed to be turned so he could read it (and not break the bat as easily), the Braves’ slugger replied that he was at the plate to hit, not to read.
Aaron did all of his talking with his bat and glove. Being a prolific home run hitter brought The Hammer tremendous fame, but he seldom received the credit he deserved as an all-around player. He stole bases, threw out runners from right field, and he hit for average. Aaron always made everything look easy. And he seemed so relaxed. He would saunter up to the plate like he was at a Sunday picnic. Then those magnificent wrists exploded, and the ball jumped off his bat.
Roberto Clemente was fun to watch, and he was as exciting on defense as when he was hitting or running the bases. He used the basket catch for routine fly balls, and he bristled when writers accused him of copying Mays.
Clemente made sliding catches look easy because he practiced so hard at making them. His throws from the outfield were a thing of beauty, and he prided himself on the way he played caroms off the walls of any ball park. At bat, he would lash a line drive to left off of an outside fastball and whistle a shot to right off of an inside pitch.
Sandy Koufax once said the safest way to pitch Clemente was to roll the ball to the plate. Balls thrown out of the strike zone frequently became base hits. He was a totally unorthodox hitter who batted over .300 13 times, but played in relative national obscurity until the 1971 World Series, which Clemente turned into a personal showcase.
Legend, by definition, is “an unauthenticated story from earlier times, preserved by tradition and popularly thought to be historical”. That being the case, it is easy to understand how certain baseball players have grown bigger than life, their deeds enhanced by adjectives
Aaron’s legendary status in baseball lore would have been greatly enhanced by the adjectives the New York media lavished upon outstanding players. The same is true of Clemente, and many others, for that matter.
Everyone always knew Mays, Mantle, and Snider were great players, and New York writers reminded people of that just about every day of the baseball season. That just did not happen in Milwaukee or Pittsburgh.