George Kell ought to know about baseball glory and the odd turns of the game. In 1949, he beat out Ted Williams for the American League batting title by the absurdly thin margin of .3429 to .3427, thus preventing the "Splendid Splinter" from becoming the only man to win three triple crowns.
Monday night, Kell will be among 16 Hall of Famers and a total of 63 former major-league players reliving the past in the Cracker Jack Old Timers Classic at RFK Stadium.
Kell, a TV broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers for 24 years, has seen baseball become, in part, a game of huge egoes and grossly inflated salaries. One of several old-timers asked by The Washington Post to talk about changes in the game since they have played, Kell said baseball could use some more old-fashioned, starry-eyed hero-worshipping.
"It worries me that we don't have the heroes that we once had," Kell said in a telephone interview. "My children and grandchildren look up to and admire these professional athletes, who are, unfortunately, destroying the hold they have on young people.
"But the stories about the drug use is ruining this chance. Baseball has a very strange hold over the country and baseball has earned it. But our young people have become disillusioned."
Hank Aaron, the game's all-time home run leader who wants to be its commissioner, thinks he sees a way to help turn the disillusionment back into idolatry and end some of the recent problems that have hurt the game's image. "The players aren't busy enough," Aaron said. "They've got to keep themselves from getting involved in drugs by doing social activities, getting involved in the community.
"They need someone to help them. We all have skeletons in our closet, but these guys need to be rehabilitated. They need professional help."
Allie Reynolds, who pitched two no-hitters in 1951 for the Yankees, is now president of Newbark Drilling Fluids in Oklahoma City. He saw, first-hand, baseball's newest problem when a member of the Oklahoma City 89ers, of which he's a stockholder, underwent treatment for drug abuse. "I'm surprised they'd jeopardize their careers. It takes a lot of discipline to play the game, but these kids are not really mature sometimes," Reynolds said.
Ron Santo, the former Cubs third baseman who retired in 1974 with a .277 lifetime batting average, also is amazed at the high incidence of drug abuse in baseball. "It's completely different now than before. When I played, people went out and had a few beers, but I never saw any drug-related situations. Honestly, I never went to a party which had grass or coke. I don't know when nor why it got started. I would want to have complete control at the plate."
Besides the drug- and alcohol-abuse cases, baseball has changed in other subtle and not-so-subtle ways, according to many of the old-timers.
Former Brooklyn Dodger Carl Erskine, who struck out 14 Yankees in the third game of the 1953 World Series and now is the president of a bank in his hometown of Anderson, Ind., said, "The emphasis on running speed has caused the game to be threatened. The geometry of the game has always been perfect. A good catcher could throw out a runner if the pitcher only had a decent move. Today, some base runners can steal at any time because of their speed. There is no defense for that."
Bill Dickey, who had a .313 lifetime average, is fascinated by the balls in use now. "The ball is livelier, better now. It travels farther. When I played (1928-1946), it wouldn't go as far. We had more fun, though. We didn't make much money, but we did have fun."
Many old-timers agreed with Dickey that the seeming lack of enthusiasm among modern players is a major change. "I don't think the players enjoy playing as much," said Warren Spahn, the most successful left-hander in history with 363 victories. "I can tell by the way they play."
"The players are more individualistic rather than team performers," said Johnny Antonelli, who won the second game of the 1954 World Series for the New York Giants. "I was at an old-timers' game in San Francisco and the Giants lost, 13-4. The players came in and acted like World Series winners. After a game that we'd lost, we'd sit there and think about it until (Manager) Leo Durocher told us to go. We used to examine our consciences."
Bobby Shantz, the 1952 American League MVP with the Philadelphia Athletics, believes the change in attitude stems from the long-term contracts. "They're all making so much money today that it has made their attitudes different. When they get hurt today, they go on the disabled list and don't have to worry about their averages because they have five-year contracts. If we got hurt, we got the needle and played."
Bob Lemon, part of the greatest pitching staff in history (Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Early Wynn, and Lemon, plus Mike Garcia), is now a West Coast scout for the Yankees. He said the advent of the jet age has caused major changes in baseball. "We used to travel by train and had more camaraderie," Lemon said. "Now, they're flying all hours of the night to get from city to city and don't spend as much time together."
"Players don't have loyalty to their teams," said Wilmer (Vinegar Bend) Mizell, former Pirate, Cardinal and congressman who is now an assistant secretary of agriculture for governmental and public affairs. "Now, a player plays for four or five different teams. Before, a Williams or DiMaggio played with the same team for years."
And yet, said Dickey, the more things change, the more they remain the same. "Just different athletes," said the 76-year-old, who played alongside Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio, and caught Hall of Famers Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez. "Baseball is always the same."