1950s

From BR Bullpen

The 1950s were a decade of movement in Major League Baseball. No franchise had changed cities since the Baltimore Orioles had become the New York Highlanders (the original incarnation of the New York Yankees) in 1903. In the 1950s, five teams would change cities: the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee, WI in 1953, followed by the St. Louis Browns who left for Baltimore, MD the following year. In 1955, it was the turn of the Philadelphia Athletics to escape the status of second team in a two-team city, heading out to Kansas City, MO. All of the new homes had hosted major league cities at some point in the past, albeit for brief periods, but the real shocker occurred in 1958, when New York's two National League franchises, the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers moved all the way to the West Coast, ending up in San Francisco, CA and Los Angeles, CA respectively, the first major league franchises ever to be located in those cities. The movement would continue through the 1960s as well.

The 1950s were the decade in which New York City was the center of the baseball universe: teams from New York won the World Series every year from 1950 to 1956, a New York team lost in 1957, and then won again in 1958. Finally, in 1959, the Series pitted the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago White Sox, but of course the Dodgers were just a recent New York transplant! Thus, only the 1957 Milwaukee Braves managed to break that decade-long stranglehold. However, the relocation of the Dodgers and Giants would mark the end of that era, as the Yankees were the only team left standing in the Big Apple starting in 1958. Expansion would be required to put a National League franchise in New York again, but that would not come until the following decade. Because New York was the media capital of the United States, there has been a whole industry of books and memoirs written about how great it was to be a baseball fan in NYC in that glorious decade. The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn, which came out in 1972, is considered the classic account from that perspective. Left unsaid is that it was far from great for fans in other cities, especially in the American League where attendance was poor because of the Yankees' utter domination, but also because the junior circuit was generally slower to integrate: the Yankees' first African-American player was Elston Howard, in 1955, the Tigers' first player of color was Ozzie Virgil in 1958, and the Red Sox ingloriously closed the parade with Pumpsie Green in 1959, well over a decade after Jackie Robinson's debut in 1947. If there is an account that epitomizes the frustration of AL fans, it would be The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, which became the hit musical Damn Yankees.

Not surprisingly, the most famous event of the decade took place in New York: Bobby Thomson hitting the Shot Heard 'Round the World off Ralph Branca to end the three-game playoff between the Giants and the Dodgers on October 3, 1951. However, the best team of the decade was not from New York: the 1954 Cleveland Indians set an American League record (since broken) by winning 111 games in the regular season. They featured one of the greatest starting rotations ever, with Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Mike Garcia, Bob Feller and Art Houtteman, but were still swept in the ensuing World Series by the Giants. The decade also featured the Dodgers' only World Series win while in Brooklyn, over the Yankees in 1956, and their first as a west coast team, in 1959.

The great stars of the decade were the three New York centerfielders - Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider - whose prowess was later captured in the song "Talking Baseball (Willie, Mickey and the Duke)" by Terry Cashman, but also the members of the first generation of African-American Hall of Famers to play Major League Baseball in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson, such as Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby and Frank Robinson, who set the rookie record for home runs in 1956. Other big stars included Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Al Kaline. It was a high-slugging era with lots of homers being hit, but there was still a tendency to admire some "small-ball" players who were big stars because they hit a lot of singles and sometimes stole bases at a time when few players were doing so: Phil Rizzuto, Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio were in that mold, while another player, Richie Ashburn, who was a better player than those three, was only truly appreciated in retrospect because he did not conform to the mental image fans had about outfielders at the time. There were fewer star pitchers, with the best being Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford, Robin Roberts, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn. Many of the top pitching seasons came from pitchers whose success was relatively short for various reasons: Don Newcombe, Herb Score, Bob Turley or Bobby Shantz... It was still a time when hitters put a premium on not striking out, and as a result, it was common for even successful pitchers to issue more walks than they had strikeouts. The development of top-notch relievers was still in its infancy, but Elroy Face emerged towards the end of the decade as one of the first great multi-year relievers, while Jim Konstanty won a MVP Award in the role. But as a sign of what managers thought about relievers, even after being the MVP during the regular season, Konstanty was used as a starting pitcher in the 1950 World Series, as it was still the general view that one's best pitchers should start whenever possible.

Culturally, baseball became widely available on television during the 1950s, with the development of the Game of the Week shown on various networks. Another phenomenon was the rapid development of Little League Baseball, with the children of the Baby Boom forming a huge basin of young players eager to imitate their idols. These idols became closer to kids with the re-development of the baseball card industry, with the 1952 Topps set being considered the father of modern baseball cards. Contrary to earlier variations, which had been often sold with cigars or cigarettes, these cards were sold with bubble gum and clearly aimed at a kids market. They would quickly become hugely popular and an unavoidable cultural touchstone for a generation of children.

The development of television was widely blamed for the decline of the minor leagues, which had enjoyed a boom in the late 1940s, but were now starting to contract at a very rapid rate. The most famous minor league player of the period was Joe Bauman, who hit a record 72 homers in the Longhorn League in 1954. Typically, however, that league folded after the 1955 season.

International baseball was still in its infancy in the 1950s. Cuba emerged as a major source of major league players, thanks to the pioneering effort of scouts like Joe Cambria, and the first players from the Dominican Republic reached the majors at the end of the decade. However, there were few competitions involving national teams.

See Major League Players Who Played in the 1950s.

Years American League National League Postseason Japan
1950 1950 AL 1950 NL 1950 WS 1950 in Japan
1951 1951 AL 1951 NL 1951 WS 1951 in Japan
1952 1952 AL 1952 NL 1952 WS 1952 in Japan
1953 1953 AL 1953 NL 1953 WS 1953 in Japan
1954 1954 AL 1954 NL 1954 WS 1954 in Japan
1955 1955 AL 1955 NL 1955 WS 1955 in Japan
1956 1956 AL 1956 NL 1956 WS 1956 in Japan
1957 1957 AL 1957 NL 1957 WS 1957 in Japan
1958 1958 AL 1958 NL 1958 WS 1958 in Japan
1959 1959 AL 1959 NL 1959 WS 1959 in Japan

Further Reading[edit]

Related Sites[edit]

  • [1] Article examining the many changes taking place in baseball in the 1950s in The Hardball Times.
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