Part II: Doug Wilson talks 1970s baseball

By Glen Sparks

(This is the second of my two-part interview with baseball writer Doug Wilson. We’re talking about some of the great games, top teams and big stars from the 1970s. You can read Part I of the interview here:

Baseball split into four divisions in 1969. Was that another blow for baseball purists?

 As far as the split into four divisions in 1969, I don’t think it was too big of a deal. Over the first decade of the League Championship Series, some of the most exciting moments in baseball history occurred. Just to name a few: Johnny Bench’s 9th inning home run to save the Reds against the Pirates in 1972, the Bert Campaneris bat toss against the Tigers in 1972 (That whole series was great.), the Rose-Harrelson fight in 1973, the Chris Chambliss home run for the Yankees.

I think the much bigger blow to purists was the expanded playoffs in which several rounds of games were required to reach the World Series. That set the stage for seasons in which the best team did not make the Series, only the team that got hot for the two weeks of the playoffs. While the expanded postseason allows more teams to get in, it diminishes the importance of the regular season. So it’s a trade-off.

Baseball was played much differently in the 1970s than it is today. Most teams, for instance, liked to run a lot and didn’t rely as much on the home run.

The Cardinals' Lou Brock stole a record 118 bases in 1974.

The Cardinals’ Lou Brock stole a record 118 bases in 1974.

Stealing bases made the game more exciting. Baseball in the 1950s was pretty much played station-to-station on the bases. Then, in the 1960s it started to change with Maury Wills and Luis Aparicio. Lou Brock and some other guys (Davey Lopes, Omar Moreno, Willie Wilson, etc.) really got things going in the ‘70s. You also had a guy like Joe Morgan, who combined power and speed.

I think the artificial turf, multi-purpose stadiums played a large part. They were big, and you could hit the ball and start running. It was tougher to hit home runs, so guys wanted to steal after they got on base. It was a lot of fun. Now, we’re back to teams not wanting to run.

The theories behind Moneyball have played a part in that. Billy Beane (the general manager of the Oakland A’s, subject of Michael Lewis’s 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game) doesn’t like the running game. He likes on-base percentage and home runs.

But the A’s still haven’t won a World Series under Billy Beane, have they? Moneyball hasn’t won it all yet, so maybe it’s not the bible some people think it is. Oakland hasn’t even gone to the World Series under Beane. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with stealing bases and taking the extra base. That sort of stuff makes watching baseball fun. It isn’t just about walks and hitting home runs.

We touched a bit on free agency in the first part of our interview. Do you think free agency been good or bad for the game?

Free agency was inevitable; it had to come. In the past, the players really were abused in many instances, and most of them were underpaid. Most guys in the off-season had to grab a lunch pail and get a job. They couldn’t pay the bills with just their baseball salary. In the early ‘70s, I think the major-league minimum was like $12,000. It was still a big deal to make $100,000. Guys had to fight to get even a minimal raise. The GMs certainly abused their power in contract negotiations because they knew players really had no recourse whatsoever.

Now, it’s gone the other way. You have mediocre middle relievers signing $20 million contracts. A very large percentage of teams give up in late June every year and dump salaries if they don’t think they can make the playoffs. So it’s very frustrating for a fan to have tickets in, say, mid-July and show up and essentially see a AA team on the field because management has conceded that because they can’t compete, they are going to save as much money as possible (and tell fans they are building for three years down the road—often in three years, they are still in the same spot).

Hank Aaron broke baseball’s all-time home run mark on April 8, 1974. Where were you that evening?

The great Hank Aaron hit his record 715th home run off Al Downing on April 8, 1974.

The great Hank Aaron hit his record 715th home run off Al Downing on April 8, 1974.

On the night Aaron was trying to break Ruth’s record, I was at a friend’s house and we were going to watch the game there because they had a bigger, color TV (It was something like a 28-inch. That was a big deal in those days). His mother commandeered the TV to watch the network showing of Hello Dolly with Barbra Streisand. After she kicked us out of the living room, we were in a panic. By the time we rode our bikes back to my house, we would have missed his next at bat. Luckily, my friend’s big brother was out. He had a tiny black and white TV in his room. So we ran up to his room and watched it on that. We tuned it on just in time.

Aaron retired with 755 home runs. Barry Bonds hit 762 home runs in his career, but, of course, many fans calls his numbers into question due to accusations of steroid use. Who do you think is the rightful home-run king?

Aaron, of course. To be honest, I did not know how many career homers Bonds hit. I purposely did not want to know and did not care; the numbers mean nothing because they are fake. It was obvious as soon as guys started hitting 60 and 70 home runs every single year that something very bad was going on and that it was going to ruin the numbers of the game, and that is a big part of the history of baseball. It’s a shame nobody had the guts to do anything about it.

I’ve thought a lot about this, and I think the leader of the players union, Donald Fehr, bears the most guilt for the whole mess. His sole response to what everyone knew was going on was to cover the guilty players in a shroud of bluster and defiance (which led to more and more players doing it just to keep up) and to fight against testing. If he had truly been representing what was best for the players, he would have pushed for testing to protect the innocent players from being overrun by the cheaters. If he had done that in the mid-90s, there’s no doubt that guys like Bonds and Clemens would be in Cooperstown right now. He dropped the ball by being such a jerk, and look where it led. Do you think Bonds and Clemens (and McGwire and Palmeiro and Sosa) are happy now that they weren’t subject to testing back then?

All-Star games of the 1970s did not decide home-field advantage in the World Series. The games, though, still seemed more popular and intense than they are today. Pete Rose, for example, famously collided with A’s catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 match-up. There was a more of a rivalry between the leagues back then. Why do you think that was the case?

Pete Rose famously barreled into Ray Fosse during the 1970 All-Star game.

Pete Rose famously barreled into Ray Fosse during the 1970 All-Star game.

It may sound quaint now, but the players played for pride. There was no inter-league play then. The only time the two leagues met each other was in spring training, the World Series and the All-Star game, so it was a bigger deal. Also, players didn’t change teams or especially leagues nearly as often back then, so it was more of this us-against-them sort of thing. I have heard several African-American players from that era speak about the chip on their shoulder they carried as National Leaguers because, especially in the 1960s, the American League was still not very integrated—so they had that extra incentive.

Another thing that made the All-Star games better is that there were only 24 teams, so you could fill out a roster without that stupid “every team has to have a representative” rule and still have room for virtually all the great stars of the day. Now, by the time you add a few middle relievers and .240-hitting second basemen from all the lousy teams, there’s no room left, and modern All-Star games never have the best players. That takes a lot away from it. There is much more of a party/exhibition/spectacle atmosphere now.

Ron Bloomberg came to bat for the Yankees on April 6, 1973, at Fenway Park. He was the first designated hitter in baseball history. Are you a DH guy or anti-DH?

I guess the DH helped keep some aging stars in the game and adds a little offense. I’m not violently opposed or against it at this point.

ESPN went on the air in 1979. For much of the decade, baseball fans relied on the NBC Game of the Week to see out-of-market teams. Joe Garagiola, who passed away earlier this year, helped fans get to know players from throughout the game.

If you were a baseball fan, you tuned in on Saturday to watch the Game of the Week and listen to Joe Garagiola. If you were a kid like I was, you’d come back from Little League practice and catch at least a few innings. Joe educated people about baseball and had a great time doing it. He had so many funny stories that he relayed to fans.

Was Reggie Jackson the player of the ‘70s, with this combination of power and showmanship?

The Yankees' Reggie Jackson slugged five home runs in the 1977 World Series against the Dodgers.

The Yankees’ Reggie Jackson slugged five home runs in the 1977 World Series against the Dodgers.

It’s hard to name the player of the decade. You could make a good argument for Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, probably Willie Stargell and a few other guys. Jackson certainly put his performance where his mouth was. He played for winners in Oakland and New York and then helped California get to the playoffs. And, he did seem to come up big in big moments (18 postseason home runs, including 10 in 18 World Series game). It’s strange that he doesn’t seem to be held in as high esteem nowadays as I would have expected. Maybe it’s because when all the ‘roiders passed his career totals so fast, it made his numbers look pedestrian.

Do any teams today remind you of a 1970s-sort of team?

The Royals of the last few years come to mind with their speed and defense. Each era is different, though, and you have to do what will win in your era. The economics and the play on the field is different; you can’t build a team like you could have built one back then.

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