In the Season Past series, writers reflect on a specific year in baseball they found to be siginificant to the game's history.
Can you be nostalgic for a season that happened only than a quarter-century ago? Has enough time gone by to smooth the edges to sweet memory? Perhaps. Yet the impact of the 1991 season, especially the World Series that year, continues to echo through the game.
It was a season with a prelude, beginning way before it started, perhaps even moments after Reggie Jackson had taken his big black bat to the plate, and on three successive swings in subsequent at-bats, put an exclamation point on the end of the 1977 World Series, the last of his three home runs soaring into the batters’ black-background of the Yankee Stadium center-field bleachers.
At the beginning of America’s bicentennial year, Major League Baseball paid homage of a sort—by following in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers—when it announced plans to expand once again: west to Seattle (if at first you don’t succeed) and north to Toronto.
“Baseball reminds me of a guy with an ice pick in his inner ear. His equilibrium is shot. He walks like a punch-drunk pug. Any minute you expect him to fall on his face. And when baseball finally does fall, do not weep. Just throw some dirt over the body. Take the dirt from the pitcher’s mound. That’ll be appropriate. Pitching is the name of the guy who stuck the ice pick in baseball’s ear. Though the pitchers have had their accessories. Lots of them.” Arnold Hano, in the November 1968 issue of SPORT.
It was called the Year of the Pitcher, and with good reason.
In 1968, Major League Baseball batted a collective .237, the lowest in history. Teams scored only 3.42 runs per game. The New York Yankees hit a pathetic .214 as a team. Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski won the American League batting title with a .301 mark. The Cardinals’ Bob Gibson set a post Deadball Era record with a microscopic 1.12 earned run average (and somehow lost nine games in the process).
In the 1961 All-Star Game (actually, two All-Star Games were played), the National League roster included Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, Orlando Cepeda, Don Drysdale, and Eddie Mathews—11 future Hall of Famers on the 28-man roster.
Baseball historians have called the 1949 Major League Baseball season the “Year of the Walk.” But it was much more. That year saw two very exciting pennant races, the beginning of a dynasty initiated by a retread manager once thought to be a clown, and a superstar’s career revived overnight just by his stepping out of bed the next morning.
This is about Major League Baseball in 1941, not a social history of America in that remarkable, pivotal year. However, before we see the picture, I think it useful and important that the picture be framed. It wasn’t just a different time, a different era, it was a different world.
Having been born in 1939 into a family with a healthy baseball obsession, I have long been fascinated with that baseball season, not only because it was my own rookie year here on the planet, but also because it signaled the end of one baseball era and the beginning of another—the end of baseball’s Ruthian Golden Age and the beginning of what folks around my age long ago decided to call the Modern Era.