Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How Good Was the Economy in 1965?

I was doing some light researches into how the sudden collapse in the season referenced above of the New York Yankee baseball dynasty that had dominated the sport for the previous 45 years was perceived at the time, which has always seemed to me a more interesting event in sports history than I have found to be reflected in the existing literature regarding it, when I came upon this Sports Illustrated article of June 21, 1965. The issue featured a weary-looking Mickey Mantle on the cover with the pulsating headline "New York Yankees End of an Era". Mid-June is fairly early in the season to be writing the post-mortem on a team that had won the pennant 14 of the last 16 years, including the most recent 5 in a row, which indicates that they must have looked really spent, though a few of the baseball people interviewed for the piece were still wary of their making a run for the pennant, "if their (aging, in some instances washed-up) stars got healthy" (this did not happen). The article is pretty pedestrian. It identifies the team's obvious problem, namely that their remaining longtime superstars were suddenly in decline, and, for the first time in the modern era, they did not have any young players of comparable talent to replace them. The speculations on the reasons and social forces behind why this had happened appear wild and ridiculous when reading about them now, but there are various inadvertent commentaries in them about the economic and social world that Americans, particularly men, lived in, or perceived themselves to be living in, at the time, which caught my interest and formed the germ of this posting.

To get a couple of asides out of the way first, it is remarkable how well the economy functioned in the 1960s, given that none of the grown men involved in this article, including the writer and the ownership and management of professional baseball teams, seemed to possess what we could consider a sophisticated understanding of economics. Related to this, the way baseball organizations were run in the 1960s were laughably amateurish by our standards, when single-A minor league teams have full time marketing departments and corporate strategies in tandem with the cities they play in. Among the odder circumstances which emerges from the various scouts and general managers interviewed for the article is the seeming conviction that there was in 1965 a shortage of available talent...i.e., the Yankees couldn't replace their star players because unlike in 1938 there weren't dozens of Yankee-caliber prospects emerging from the sandlots and cornfields every year to replenish the farm system. This is ironic in part of course because in 2011 our society is supposedly in dire condition due to severe talent shortages in numerous areas, math and science most famously, but also entrepreneurship, diplomacy, the mechanical trades, even to a certain extent in cultural areas. One area in which we perceive ourselves to be far superior to the past however is in the development of athletes, apart from a few exceptions like boxing that have extreme lower class connontations and have lost popularity with the social classes and institutions that have resources to pour into athletic training. In most sports no one believes that the top competitors or teams in 1965 would stand a chance against their contemporary counterparts--indeed, even I believe that, albeit grudgingly. Baseball's management class in the 1960s appeared to have no idea where they might reasonably find or encourage the development of baseball players if they did not emerge organically from the soil of middle America. Though the sport had integrated in the 1940s and the tapping of the immense talent pool of Latin America was underway to a small degree at this time (60s), as was the case in the other major sports it was simply assumed that having more than 5 or 6 black or foreign players on a team was not commercially viable; hence the primary source of talent by necessity, as was perceived to be the case in most areas of national life at the time, had to be the white American male population. And although no one in baseball at least seemed to be thinking all the way through the ramifications of it yet, there was a growing sense, though not consciously perceived as such, that this group on its own was not up to the task any longer to the extent that the age required.

I must get on with the quotations however. First here is Johnny Johnson, the (evidently inept) director of the farm system, after declaring in the previous sentence that Roger Repoz was going to be the team's next superstar*, "...we don't have the quality of player we used to have. But neither does anyone else, because it just isn't there anymore...kids are getting married younger, some of them at 18. They give baseball a year or two shot, and if they haven't made the big leagues by then they want to quit; their wives are putting pressure on them to make more money...They find out there's better money in industry. They all want security, or their wives do."

Next. a despairing Joe E Brown, GM of the Pirates--who, unlike now, were actually a pretty good team through most of this decade--chimed in with "These days everybody is security-conscious. A boy takes a job and his first question is, what is your pension plan?"

Looking back to the apex of Yankee organizational supremacy, 1938, when their top two farm teams were stacked with major league level talent, the author writes that while in those days "Minor league pay was a pittance...it beat the CCC camps and it was easier to swing a bat than an ax," after the war "the G.I. Bill of Rights began to convert second basemen into certified public accountants". That is rather horrible to contemplate.

I don't know how much of this would hold up to close scrutiny--I suspect very little, especially on the baseball side of things, (i.e., I doubt many major league-caliber 18 year old talents were really passing up chances at baseball careers to become accountants)--but the perception of the possibilities open to ordinary, unspectacularly educated 18-20 year old American boys at the time from the vantage of 2011 is to be thrust back into a different world from that we have known in our time. To be honest, it starts to seem almost incredible that such a state of society could ever have existed, so conditioned are we to suppose that the economy that exists now is somehow more natural and even more just than the affluent society of the postwar era.

Mickey Mantle played four more seasons, '65-'68, after the collapse of the Yankee dynasty, finally retiring because, as he put it, "I just can't hit anymore", and indeed, especially looked at with the naked eye, these seasons were a significant decline from his standards up to that point. However, in the context of the league at the time, which saw offense drop to levels unseen since the deadball era of the 1910s, he was still a well above average hitter, and certainly the best on his own team in most of those seasons. He was limited by injuries to 122 and 108 games in '65 and '66. In '66 he hit .288/.389/.538 with 23 home runs in 2/3 of a season. In '67 and '68--the depths of the neo-deadball era--he moved to 1st base, which enabled him to play 144 games, during which he walked 107 and 106 times respectively, numbers more appreciated now then they were then. While his batting averages of .245 and .237 in these years looked weak, though they were still higher than the league averages (and the '68 Yankees as a team hit .214, which I am pretty sure is the lowest team batting average in any season since 1920), his on-base percentages were .391 and .385, which were the 5th and 3rd highest (respectively) numbers in the league in those seasons. He also finished 10th and 9th in the league in OPS in those years, which though obviously a decline from his peak, when he finished 1st or 2nd in that category 9 times, shows that he was still a very skilled offensive player even on his last legs. His 22 home runs in '67 were 8th in the league. His runs scored and RBI totals were in the 55-63 range in these seasons, doubtless limited by playing in one of the weakest offensive lineups in one of the weakest offensive eras of all time. I'm not arguing that these were great seasons, but I do think they are underappreciated, as the perception I have from what I have read about this decline phase is that it was painful to watch him play out his career when in fact he was still the best offensive player on the team when he retired.

*Roger Repoz was traded early in the 1966 season to Kansas City after amassing 63 hits, including 12 home runs, in his 127 game career with the Yankees. He went on to play 9 seasons in the big leagues, admittedly in a pitching-dominated era, in which he compiled a .224 batting average, 480 hits, 82 home runs, and for the modern stat-hound, an OPS+ of 105. His best season was probably with the Angels in 1970, hitting .238 18 47 in 137 games, with 41 extra base hits. He did lead the American League in sacrifice flies in 1968, with 8.

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