Celebrating Baseball’s Centennial

Unsurprisingly, Babe Ruth was voted the game’s greatest player at baseball’s centennial. (via Library of Congress)

If you have been paying close attention, you may have noticed baseball is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the sport’s first professional team – the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. Claims of baseball “firsts” often wither away if you look too closely, but the Cincinnati story holds up well enough to allow a bit of celebrating. Throughout this season, all major league players are wearing a special uniform patch, and the Reds are planning several events to mark the anniversary.

It might seem odd that MLB is honoring what was essentially a barnstorming team, a team that has no real connection to the existing business. The start of the National League in 1876 seems much more appropriate, both in terms of its solid historical footing and its firmer place in the genealogy. But, honestly, who doesn’t love a party?

If you want to find a bigger celebration, you could go back 50 years, to professional baseball’s “centennial.” Unlike the subtle nodding going on today, in 1969, baseball pulled out all the stops, at least partly because the sport was going through a bit of a rough patch.

How rough?

“Baseball reminds me of a guy with an ice pick in his inner ear,” wrote Arnold Hano in SPORT magazine in 1968. “He walks like a punch-drunk pug. Any minute you expect him to fall on his face. And when baseball finally does fall, do not weep. Just throw some dirt over the body.”

The problems? Run scoring was at its lowest level in decades, attendance was its lowest since World War II, and many teams were either moving or threatening to move. The most frustrating thing for many people was that baseball seemed to be either in denial or unwilling to act. (Ahem.)

So it was somewhat surprising when baseball did act, at the December 1968 Winter Meetings, when teams agreed to lower the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches and shrink the strike zone at the top and bottom. (The players were not consulted, so it was all rather simple.)

The owners also fired commissioner William Eckert, and on February 4 named NL attorney Bowie Kuhn the interim commissioner. Kuhn promised to be a man of action, a man who would tackle baseball’s problems head on.

The first public mention of the centennial came in March of 1968. Commissioner Eckert announced that baseball would spend $500,000 on the promotion, including a televised midseason celebration. The 1969 All-Star game was awarded to Washington, just seven years after the city had last hosted, with the hope the festivities would attract very important people. Kuhn inherited these plans and took them on with vigor.

Baseball created many tangible artifacts to mark the season. They commissioned a logo, worn by every player, which is still in use 50 years later.

Baseball also commissioned an official anniversary book and a record album (actor Jimmy Stewart narrated Side 1). There were commemorative posters, commemorative coins, and even an official decanter.

The US Postal Service issued a first-class stamp.

For the first time, baseball would name an official All-Time Team and, to make things a bit more relevant to modern fans, an All-Time “living” team. The two teams would be announced at a July 21 banquet the night before the All-Star game. Importantly, the fans would play a role in the selection process.

There were effectively three steps:

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  • Each big league city was invited to choose an all-time team for its club. Detroit fans chose an all-time Tiger team, Boston fans chose an all-time Red Sox team, etc. Each of these select teams was submitted to the Baseball Writers Association of America as “nominees” for the all-time major league teams. The local balloting ended May 31, and the local teams were announced a few weeks later.
  • The Sporting News also printed a ballot and urged their readers to send in their choices for the national team, so presumably those choices also weighed somehow. (None of this was precisely explained because people weren’t so persnickety back then.)
  • A group of writers and broadcasters considered all of the local teams, plus any Hall of Famer who was not otherwise nominated, and selected three or four finalists for each position (for both the all-time team and the living team). The finalists were named in mid-July before the banquet.
  • The July 21 celebration played out like the Oscars, with presenters announcing the winners. The winners, or a designated relative, said a few words and accepted a trophy.

If this sounds rather simple, I am here to report that it was not.

While this was easy enough for long-standing one-city teams like the Tigers and Red Sox, the major leagues had moved eight franchises and moved eight others in the past 16 years. What should the fans in all these new cities do? MLB decided it would let each team do whatever the hell it wanted.

Here is what they did.

The Red Sox, White Sox, Indians, Tigers, Yankees, Braves, Cubs, Reds, Dodgers, Phillies, and Pirates (all longstanding franchises), as well as the eight-year-old Angels, simply chose their all-time franchise team.

The Twins and Orioles only considered players since their relocation from Washington and St. Louis, respectively.

The Giants chose two teams: one for their 75 years in New York and a second for their 11 years in San Francisco.

The Mets also chose two teams: one for the Brooklyn Dodgers and one for the New York Giants. (Choo Choo Coleman was out of luck.)

The Senators chose one team but considered players from both the earlier Senators (1901-1960), who had left for Minnesota, and the new Senators who were in the ninth seasons. At the event, the selected team consisted completely of players from the first Senators.

The Cardinals chose one team but included both their own long history and the entirety of the St. Louis Browns, who had left for Baltimore 16 years earlier.

The Royals, Expos, Padres, Astros, and Athletics declined to pick their own teams and instead chose teams from all of the major leagues.

The Pilots, faced with all these choices, chose not to participate.

Again, there was no Twitter to allow us to complain about all of this. (“Hey, what about the Philadelphia Athletics? No one can vote for any of them!”) We just smiled and lived with it.

You might be wondering about the mechanics of the voting. Wonder no more! Blank ballots were placed in big city newspapers, and they were also available at the ballpark. This was a completely analog operation – a person had to write names on blank lines and then put the ballot in the mail (or place it in a box at the park). This image is a national ballot – local ballots were mailed to the team office.

(The Sporting News)

Baseball’s marketing wasn’t as effective 50 years ago, and only a handful of teams managed to collect as many 10,000 ballots. The Yankees, who had their ballot printed in the Daily News, got 18,898. The Minnesota Twins only managed 650 voters. Nevertheless, Ted Uhlaender took his place as a center field nominee alongside Willie Mays and Tris Speaker.

With these local nominees, plus all the national ballots from Sporting News readers, the experts put together their list of finalists.

(There is reason to suspect the writers didn’t really use the local nominees. Despite overwhelming support for Sandy Koufax as the people’s choice for left-handed pitcher, the writers ultimately chose Lefty Grove.)

Kuhn had tried to get one of the three major networks to cover the July 21 event but struck out, settling for a highlight reel to be shown prior to the next day’s scheduled All-Star Game.

President Nixon had signed on to attend the gala and to hand out the final two awards (for greatest player and greatest living player). As it happened, on Sunday, July 20, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, rudely hogging the spotlight from baseball. Nixon ultimately cancelled his appearance, having been advised to be available for the tense events of Monday (the lift-off from the moon and the docking of Apollo 11’s lunar and command modules). He stayed in the White House, watching TV with the rest of the world. His pinch-hitter was Frank Borman, the hero of Apollo 8 the previous December.

There were 2200 people in attendance at the Sheraton Park Hotel, including most of the living finalists, 34 of 37 living Hall of Famers, many current stars (in town for the game), heroes of past All-Star Games, and executives from all major league teams.

There was a two-tiered dais for 120, and there were tables for each of the teams, the commissioner’s office, the Hall of Fame, and corporate sponsors. Kuhn invited all members of Congress, the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, and state governors, and many of them came. Two future presidents – congressmen Gerald Ford and George Bush – were in the room.

Curt Gowdy was the host, and the two official escorts, accompanying all of the guest presenters, were Bob Gibson and Denny McLain. Celebrity presenters included Alan King, Satchel Paige, Cardinal Cooke, Robert Merrill, Vinegar Bend Mizell, David Merrick and George Plimpton. With space heroes on everyone’s mind, Borman received the loudest ovation of the night.

Each presenter was responsible for one position. A short film clip reviewing the finalists for the position was played, and then the presenter gave the awards to the all-time living player for that position and then the all-time player. The winners, who did not know in advance, came up on stage to get their award and say a few words.

You can view all of the local teams, the finalists and the winners at this link.

There were three members of the all-time team who were alive – Pie Traynor, Joe DiMaggio and Lefty Grove – and they naturally made the “living” team as well. All the living players were present except Ted Williams, who was in town but decided at the last minute not to go. His wife accepted his award. “You know his sentiments toward formal occasions.”

Babe Ruth’s widow took home Babe’s trophies for greatest right fielder and greatest player. DiMaggio was named the greatest living player, an honor he trumpeted for the remaining 30 years of his life. (Mays, the actual greatest living player, was named as one of the living outfielders, the only active player so honored.)

The next day, Nixon, trying to make up for his snub, held a reception at the White House for the All-Star teams and all of the stars who had attended the banquet. (Williams even showed up.) Nixon impressed the reporters by knowing all the players and asking them very specific questions. Heavy rains caused that night’s All-Star Game to be postponed until Wednesday afternoon. This meant Nixon again had to skip – something about heading to the Pacific to meet the returning astronauts.

Baseball received universal praise for all of this pomp and circumstance. “Remember long ago,” wrote Sports Illustrated, “last winter, when Madison Avenue buried the game deep in Forest Lawn? Well, stop digging, men. After 100 years of play and two decades of decay, baseball appears to be born again.”

Kuhn, the interim commissioner, got a seven-year contract just a few days after these events and stuck around for 15 years. This turned out to be his peak – in 1969 he was the commissioner he wanted to be, a benign grandfather, presiding over the game with an arm around your shoulder. He was a perfect fit for a world in which owners called the shots. Once the players union began to flex its muscles, Kuhn would prove to be over his head.

But for the moment, the storm had been weathered. Thanks to a few rules changes and a season-long celebration of the game, baseball suddenly had the wind at its back.

Mark Armour was the founder and long-time director of SABR's Baseball Biography Project and the author or co-author of several books on a variety of baseball subjects. He lives with his family in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
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5 years ago

I think there was some sort of poll in 1950 to name the greatest player of all time. It may have been a baseball writers poll, although I am not sure. In any case, the choice then was not Babe Ruth. It was Ty Cobb. Apparently, in 1931, in a poll of “experts” it was also Cobb. (http://baseballguru.com/bburgess/analysisbburgess11.html)

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

I was a pedantic reader of the The Sporting News in the late ’60’s and remember them having a rather large role in promoting the centennial. Kuhn and Nixon both reached their peaks in ’69. At least Nixon hit the road to San Clemente quickly. Kuhn prolonged his suffering in the public eye for 15 ignominious years. I guess the only real mystery here is if not Choo Choo Coleman for the Mets, did Bol Belinsky at least make the roster of his team, the Angels?

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago
Reply to  Mark Armour

Oh well. Mamie Van Doren’s boyfriend never got the credit he deserved.