by Larry Ham
Harmon Killebrew died a couple of weeks ago, and it got me thinking about how much baseball has changed in the last four decades.
For those of you too young to remember, Harmon Killebrew was an outstanding hitter for the Washington nationals and Minnesota Twins in the fifties and sixties. He was known for a powerful home run swing, and it is assumed by most experts that it is his image that adorns the official logo of Major League Baseball. But he was much more than a prodigious home run hitter. He was also a true gentleman who treated teammates, the media, and the fans with great respect and kindness. That’s why his death reminded me that Major League Baseball has changed, and although there are some real gentlemen still in the game, we rarely see the type of person Harmon Killebrew represented.
I was fortunate to grow up in what I consider to be the last “golden age” of baseball. The players of the sixties still wore flannel uniforms. They rarely had their names printed on the back of their shirts so you knew them by their face and by their number. And most importantly, with the exception of an occasional blockbuster trade, you could count on your favorite player to be on your favorite team for most of their career. Free agency changed all that.
Before free agency came along in 1975, players were legally bound to one team by what was known as the “reserve clause”. Players could demand to be traded but they couldn’t choose where they played, and the rich teams in the big media centers were no more likely to land a superstar than anyone else. When Andy Messersmith, a pitcher for the Dodgers, challenged the reserve clause in court, he won the right to be an unrestricted free agent, and baseball as we knew it was finished.
It’s a fine line to walk between the good of the game and a person’s right to work where they choose but, in the case of baseball, we can see 36 years later that free agency has had a negative effect on the overall product called major league baseball. Small market teams cannot afford to keep their best young players because they can’t pay the huge salaries the players will ultimately demand, so they end up trading star players for “prospects”. This would have never happened before free agency. Harmon Killebrew is a perfect example. He was a superstar in his prime and played in one of the smallest markets in baseball, Minnesota. If he were playing today, he would be a Yankee, or a Red Sox, or a Met, and Minnesota fans would be bemoaning their fate, just as fans in Kansas City and Oakland and other small markets do today.
When I was a kid, my favorite team was the Angels and my favorite player was Jim Fregosi, and I still vividly remember my first major league game, when the Angels played the Tigers at Dodger Stadium (Anaheim Stadium had not yet been completed). What a thrill it was to see my favorite player in person! And what a thrill it was to come back the next season and see him play again. These days, you better go see your favorite player now, because he might be gone by next year.
I still enjoy baseball. I’ve been a Dodger fan for the past 45 years so I hate the Giants and suffered permanent psychological harm when they won it all last season. But the game is different. The players are pampered millionaires. They charge a fee to sign an autograph at a card show. They change teams at the drop of a hat in order to make a few more bucks. Like Andre Ethier of the Dodgers, they flip the bird to photographers and act aloof to most fans. That’s why I miss players like Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Stan Musial and, of course, Harmon Killebrew. The game is the same – 90 feet between the bases and sixty and a half feet from the mound to home plate, but it’s different. At least the players are.