Eagle Memories: The Way We Were.

The culture of field behavior changes forever.

Unless you are one of us ancients, you may not have noticed the wide range of change in field behavior that has taken place in baseball over the past half century. The game remains the same, of course, but player behavior on the field has mutated considerably from what it used to be. I’ll try to cover some of the major things I see here. Feel free to add, refresh, or comment on this subject below as a response to this subject.

Changes in Baseball Field Behavior Since 1960:

(1) Baseball Gloves on the Field When Your Team is Batting. We used yo copy the pros on the sandlot, throwing our gloves on the outfield grass while our club was at bat. I never played in a game or saw a Buffs game in which a tossed fielder glove interfered with a batted ball or a running fielder. The practice disappeared about 1959-60. I can’t recall exactly how or when it came about.

(2) Pepper Games. Prior to games, players in groups of two to five used to play pepper near the stands almost every time in spite of the “No Pepper Games” signs that prevailed in the interest of fan safety from errantly batted balls. A pepper game was simply a gingerly batted ball at close range to a group of three or four fielders standing back about six ro eight feet from the batter. I haven’t seen a pepper game in ages now.

(3) Infield Practice. It used to be as routine a pre-game ritual as batting practice still is. And what a thing of grace and beauty it was to watch too, but no more. I guess infielders must have gotten so good at what they do that the practice of fielding became unnecessary.

(4) Infield Game Chatter. Infielders used to keep us this hum of chatter on defense. It was there as a voice of distraction to hitters and runners and a show of support for the pitcher. At some point, it became un-cool to do – and infielders stopped. When they did, they seemed to lapse into stone-cold expressions and a more tranquil face on the subject of game conflict in action.

(5) Bench Jockeys. These guys were the original trash talkers. A baseball bench jockey worked on pitchers and batters of the other team. When one of the Detroit Tiger pitchers Schoolboy Rowe went on the air to do a radio show prior to the 1934 World Series, he finished his radio remarks by asking his wife, “How am I doin’, Edna?” And that’s exactly what he got from Leo Durocher, the St. Louis Cardinals’ chief bench jockey in his first pitching assignment. Every time Rowe walked a man or gave up a hit, Durocher let fly with a deriding cry of “How am I doin’, Edna?” It unnerved Rowe and helped the Cardinals beat him in the Series. Somewhere along the way, the bench jockeys of baseball either all died, retired, or shut up for all time. Too bad. The loss of bench jockeys leaves the world of baseball a slightly duller place to be.

Gloves on the ground were common. Gloves with balls in a tree were rare.

(6) Indifference to Opposition. Baseball used to enforce its rule about players not “fraternizing” on the field with players from the other team. Today players disregard that rule as though it were no longer on the books and, who knows, maybe it isn’t. Lance Berkman stands out in my mind as a guy who treats every enemy runner who makes it to first base as though he were a long-lost friend. And who knows again, maybe they are. Lance is a pretty sociable guy.

(7) Pitchers as Pinch Runners. Clubs, especially the minor league clubs with their small rosters, used to use pitchers as pinch runners in late innings. I guess that baseball finally figured out that it wasn’t worth the risk to a pitcher’s arm or general welfare to put him out there under those circumstances of potential harm, doing something he ordinarily doesn’t do very often.

(8) Players (especially visiting team players) Often Began Day Games with Dirty Uniforms from the Night Before. We have better, faster washer dryers today and a little more support help on uniform maintenance.

(9) You used to be able to see the major spots on the field where the fielders spit their tobacco juices. Less chawing has led to a cleaner look in most ballparks today.

(10) Night Spot Team Brawls. Teams like the Yankees of the 1950s or even the Mets of the 1980s are getting into fewer club arrests for drunk and disorderly behavior arrests in night clubs these days.  I’m not sure if this means that today’s players are more problem-free than their predecessors or that today’s players are simply more discrete in the ways they choose to stir up trouble as a form of entertainment.

Either way, it’s a different ballgame today. In baseball and in life.

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8 Responses to “Eagle Memories: The Way We Were.”

  1. anthony cavender Says:

    Bill: This doesn’t apply to sandlot baseball, but a big development was the introduction of batting helmets. Facing a hard throwing, very erratic pitcher, wearing only a cotton baseball cap, must have been a solemn experience. However, most of the players were military veterans, and that may have made a difference.

  2. Tal Smith Says:

    Bill,

    Great column.

    The game would be far better if we re-established some of these customs – particularly infield chatter and infield practice.

    Over the last couple years, I have urged our development staff to reinstitute pepper games. It’s a good agility drill and helps develop quick hands and quick reactions.

    Tal

  3. john civitello Says:

    great article bill. i wish i was old enough to remember watching pepper games.. but i remember seeing old clips off a circle of players (i think the gas house gang) that would do a bunch of cool tricks with the ball.. flip it under their legs, around their backs, etc… do you know what i’m talking about?

  4. Greg Lucas Says:

    I think the glove coming off the field became a rule around 1950. One story has a player (Nellie Fox, I think) doubling off his own glove. Of course, during the sandlot days players used the share gloves, too.

    The “infield chatter” thing was never huge in professional ball like it was in Little League and other youth leagues when I was young. BUT, the use of it was discouraged by the time by son was playing. It was deemed “unsportsmanlike” no matter what was being said. Of course he played in the era when “everyone gets a trophy”and “there are no losers”. I have never understood that since real life certainly doesn’t work like that. Where better to learn than on the innocent field of play?

  5. anthony cavender Says:

    The “home movies” taken at big league ball parks in the 40’s and 50’s and later shown on television (they may have had a role in the Ken Burns documentary) show gloves being left on the field as they teams changed sides.

  6. larryjoe" longball" miggins Says:

    In our pepper games you had to work your way to get to hit, with the guy at the right taking over after the group fielded ten clean grounders. A boot and you went down to the (Left) end and started the count over. A fly out and the batter was gone too. Great Article as I can remember my dad saying,”Boot, down to the end”

  7. David Munger Says:

    Tal and Larry touched on something, most kids don’t know what PEPPER
    is. Let alone the old NO PEPPER GAMES sign that used to hang on the backstop.

  8. James Anderson Says:

    I had completely forgotten about the infield chatter which was as much a part of the game as the fans yelling from the grandstands. There was a general type of chatter that most everyone copied and then there were those that invented their own unique type of chatter. It was twofold in it’s supposed effect. Your either constantly yelling to pump up the confidence of your pitcher or your yelling at the batter to shake him up. One common line was to yell loudly to your pitcher to lay one right down the middle of the plate because this guy can’t hit. It was actually meant for the batter to get him upset to mess up his timing or confidence at the plate.
    The other was the intimidation factor by the catcher who would tell the batter that the next pitch was coming right at your head. And, sure enough, the next pitch came in high and hard and you ended up laying flat on your back at the plate. What did the umpire do? Nothing. It was part of the game.
    If you got hit by the pitcher, you took it like a man and jogged to first base without complaining. If anyone ever got upset at being thrown at or hit by the pitcher, he was considered not tough enough to be playing this game.

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