For me personally, the 1970s saw some of the greatest baseball this country has ever seen. Two teams will go down in the pantheon of teams as some of the greatest of all-time. A rivalry born in the Bronx and Brooklyn is reborn in LA. Free agency began, Astro-Turf ruled, and some of the greatest October nights ever seen were witnessed by the world. For after this decade, baseball began to fade from the nation’s conscience. It would no longer be the same as it ever was in a world with more than three TV channels. It’s as if baseball reached its peak in this decade.
Being born in the 1960s gives you a unique perspective on a lot of things. You are old enough to remember the Beatles, a black and white TV world, and a much simpler life. When 1970 started, the Beatles were breaking up, Nixon was President, we had just put a man on the moon, and I still dreamed of playing second base for either the Baltimore Orioles or the Chicago Cubs. Ten years later the world was a much different place. The US was in a funk, John Lennon would be assassinated, cable TV was being installed everywhere, President Carter had scolded the American public on TV for being in a “malaise” and cynical, and baseball players now were free to go to the highest bidder…but Astro-Turf was still there – in fact, it was almost everywhere.
As for the 1970s making a case to be “The Golden Age of Baseball”, it all starts with stars. In the 1980s, David Stern and the NBA began marketing the league around its stars: Magic, Larry, and Michael (notice I had only had to say one name). Baseball had stars out the wazoo in the 1970s: Pete Rose, Vida Blue, Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, Johnny Bench, Willie Stargell, and the star of all stars – Reggie Jackson. People forget before Michael Jordan won 6 titles in 8 years that Reggie Jackson won 5 World Series in 7 years.
What 1970s baseball also had were some great teams. The Baltimore Orioles began the decade by winning with pitching and defense. As a kid I wanted to play for either the Cubs or the Orioles. No one could play defense like Brooks Robinson and the Orioles would be the last team to have four twenty game winners on one staff in a season – let alone in the entire league for a season. The four man rotation was nearing its end. The A’s would win three championships in a row. The Reds and Yankees both would win back to back while the Pirates would bookend their series victories in ’71 and ’79.
Rollie Fingers and writer Jerome Holtzman reshaped the game with the save. Rollie did so on the mound for the A’s while Jerome did so with his typewriter by creating the save statistic (which in my mind is the most over-rated stat in all of sports) . Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all time career home run mark and then soon called it a day a couple years later. I got to see Willie Mays in his last season play on a hot summer night in Busch Stadium.
If baseball was anything in the 1970s, it was a sport of extremes. A team’s offense depended on either speed or power. There was little in between. The playing surface dictated it. Astro-Turf began in the 60s in Houston and by the end of the 70s, half the teams in the National League had it.
Free agency had its roots with Curt Flood in the 1960s and it was fully born with Andy Messersmith in the 1970s. And in 1976, he became the first true free agent. The game would never be the same. Players would no longer play their entire careers for one team. They were now independent commodities in the business that had become baseball. In fact, having won three rings, A’s owner Charlie Finley began selling his players for money – some successfully, some not.
An argument can be made that what made the 1970s a “golden age” in the seventies would destroy it in the 1980s. The DH created two different brands of baseball. Astro-Turf created careers for the speedy and ground ball hitters while destroying the knees of so many others including the freak of an athlete, Andre Dawson.
In the end, the decade that had created such excitement destroyed the game. But what is undeniable were its stars and its teams. The 72-74 A’s were the greatest team I have ever seen. They had it all – the pitching of Vida Blue and Catfish Hunter, Reggie, the wizardry of Bert Campeneris, Joe Rudi, the man from nowhere, Gene Tenace, and former and future Cubs, Ken Holtzman and Manny Trillo. One could make the case for the Big Red Machine of 1975 and 1976, but I would probably rank them third behind the 27 Yankees and the 1972 A’s. The Reds’ pitching was just not that great. Don’t get me wrong – I loved Johnny Bench (the greatest catcher of all time), Tony Perez (somebody had to drive Joe and Pete in), and a man who should be in the hall despite all of Joe Morgan’s objections – Dave Concepcion.
Here’s the kicker for why this decade is the golden age. Despite Astro-Turf, cookie cooker stadiums, the DH, and free agency, its all about the players and the product on the field. Despte when, what on, and where it was it played, the players and teams of the 1970s were some of the greatest of all time.
For Further Reading
Golden Age of Baseball: The 1920s