Baseball in the 1950s and Hometown Hero Charlie Maxwell

PAST TIMES IN PAW PAW: A HISTORY of BASEBALL IN OUR HOMETOWN

    Charles Richard Maxwell was born in 1927.  After attending Lawton High School, Charlie played baseball for Western Michigan University.  But WWII intervened and Charlie was drafted into the United States Army. He returned home in 1947 and spent two years in the minor leagues.  In 1950, Charlie was signed by the Boston Red Sox.  He did not see much action because he was left field backup for baseball legend Ted Williams.
    The end of World War II brought unprecedented growth and prosperity to the United States.  The standard of living rose sharply by 28 percent in the 1950s.  The Baby Boom reflected America’s optimism about the future, and Major League Baseball shared this optimism.  But there were also a series of events that were to change the sport forever and would impact the career of Charlie Maxwell.

Unions
    America was experiencing a record wave of strikes as workers tried to enhance their position and solidify gains made during the war.  Robert Murphy, a Boston lawyer thought the time was right for another attempt to “unionize” ball players.  He offered to raise the minimum salary from $4,000 to $7,500, to require that team owners pay one-half a player’s contract if his contract was sold, and to institute arbitration for player and management disputes.  
    The attempt ultimately failed, perhaps partly because Murphy was an irascible individual who was often his own worst enemy.  But, a by-product of his war with baseball was what is still called “Murphy Money” - the decision by management to pay a player for spring training expenses.

New Major League
    From time to time in baseball history, there has been the threat of another league being formed. Mexican multimillionaires, the Pasquel brothers, owned several teams in the Mexican League.  They wanted recognition as a major league, and decided to raid Major League Baseball by offering lucrative salaries to players they knew were underpaid.  
    To thwart this attempt, Happy Chandler, the new commissioner of baseball, announced that any player “jumping” to the Mexican League would be banned from baseball for five years.  The Pasquels’ challenge also came at a time when the major leagues were experiencing a tremendous period of success and prosperity.  The majority of players in baseball just wanted to get back to normal after the war.
    The threat of the Mexican League did force major league baseball management to take preventive action to protect against loss of revenue to another major league. Major League Baseball convened a meeting and the result was “Baseball’s Magna Carta”.  The meeting established a minimum player salary of $5,000, player travel expenses of $500 for a mid-season trade, a full-year’s salary for any player injured during spring training, and set a plan for retirement pay for players, coaches and trainers.

Integration
    The end of the color line in baseball, and the Jackie Robinson story is well known; but Robinson was only one of the first African American ball players to cross the unwritten color line after WWII.  It was hard to justify continued exclusion of African Americans from the Major Leagues after having fought a war for democracy.  Although integration proceeded at a slow pace, the addition of stars from the Negro Leagues brought a new group of fans to the ballpark.         
   In addition, by 1959, many great Latin players had been recruited by Major League Baseball.  In the next two dec-ades, Latin players would emerge as one of the most powerful forces in baseball.
    In 1949, baseball enjoyed record attendance of 20.9 million.  In the 1950s, attendance at ball  games began to drop. Before the war, few homes had a television set.  In 1948, the price of TVs began to drop and ownership grew.  By 1958, 80 percent of households had at least one set.  Baseball was slow to react to this new technology and still regarded radio as the most important means of reaching fans and bringing in extra revenue.

Television
    The major networks, CBS, NBC, and Dumont, needed baseball to fill broadcasting time and paid teams for the right to broadcast home games.  Major advertisers such as Ford, Buick, Chesterfield cigarettes, and several breweries brought the rights for commercials.  There seemed to be no direct link to the decline in attendance and television, but the years when viewership grew also witnessed a dramatic drop in attendance at games.

Suburban Fans
    Another major postwar theme was the drift of population from city centers to the suburbs, fueled by automobile ownership and the huge growth of mass housing in the suburbs.  
    The “Levittowns” that sprang up around major urban areas, helped to draw fans away from where baseball was played.  Ballparks built in the 1900s and 1920s were located in central city cores and supplied little parking space.  To further complicate the problem of location, many of these ballparks were in decaying areas of cities, and suburban fans avoided public transportation in favor of their automobiles.

Rival Sports
    Sports rivals for fan interest such as college football began to boom during these years with the great teams from Notre Dame, Michigan and Alabama. A sport that had once been for college alumni now developed working and middle class audiences.  Activities like golf, tennis, and skiing, once only affordable to the wealthy, were adopted by postwar generations and created alternative interests for leisure activities.

Lack of Competition
    The dominance of the New York baseball teams also contributed to decline in fans interest in baseball.  From 1947 to 1958, Brooklyn won six pennants, the Giants two, and those “damn” Yankees a remarkable 10.  This may have been good for New York, but baseball was facing a major crisis: declining attendance, a lack of competition on the field, too many ballparks in poor locations, and no clear idea of how to exploit television.  
    Since 1903, Major League Baseball had been located in the same eleven cities, and five of those cities housed two teams. Boston and St. Louis, two of the five cities, did not have the population to sustain both teams.  The solution came from the first franchise relocations in 50 years.  
    In 1953, the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee and became the Milwaukee Braves.  Milwaukee was a baseball town and had just built a new ballpark with plenty of parking space.  Their first year, the Braves drew 1.8 million fans and made a profit for their owner, construction millionaire, Lou Perini.
    The success of the Braves broke the logjam.  In 1954, the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles. In 1955, the Philadel-phia Athletics moved to Kansas City and for a time became the Kansas City Athletics before moving on to Oakland, and in 1958, the Brooklyn Dodgers became the Los Angeles Dodgers.  By 1959, attendance at ball games was slowly rising.
    In 1955, Charlie Maxwell came home to Michigan and the Detroit Tigers, where he was to remain for seven years and become one of the Tigers’ power hitters. It began in 1956, when Charlie became the Tigers regular left fielder.  Charlie played 141 games and finished among the American League leaders in most batting categories, with a .534 slugging percentage; .326 batting average; .414 on-base percentage; 28 home runs; 95 RBIs; and a .987 fielding percentage.  
    That year, he received his first nomination to the American League All-Star Team.  He acquired one of his many nicknames, and perhaps the one he is best remembered and still known by today, “Ol’ Paw Paw”.
    In 1957, Charlie had another strong season at bat, but it was his remarkable performance in left field that led to another nomination to the All-Star Team.  In 1956, Charlie had committed four errors in left field.  In 1957, there was only one error in over 300 chances and he led the American League outfielders with a .997 fielding percentage, and his 2.36 range factor in left field was .39 above the average for all other outfielders.  
    Charlie’s batting averages slacked off a little in 1958, and the Tigers made a deal for Larry Doby, one of the first African American baseball players to break the color line. Doby took over Charlie’s spot in 1959, but was unable to perform as the Tigers had hoped. The Tigers traded Doby in May, and Charlie was back on the field.  
    Charlie posted career-highs in 1959 with 31 home runs and 95 RBIs.  He earned another nickname, “Sunday Charlie” because 12 of his 31 homeruns were hit on Sunday afternoons, and on Sunday, May 3, 1959, Charlie hit home runs in four consecutive at-bats during a doubleheader against the Yankees and four of their best pitchers.   
    In 1960, Charlie again led the league outfielders in fielding percentage for the second time with a .996 fielding percentage and committed only one error in over 1,000 innings. In 1961, another slugger, Rocky Colavito took Charlie’s spot in left field.  That year Colivito hit 45 homeruns and 140 RBIs.  Charlie’s role was relegated to pinch hitting.
    But, Charlie was not through yet.  In 1962, the Tigers traded him to the Chicago White Sox. By August, Charlie was batting .352 and had a 13-game hitting streak.  He continued his “Sunday Charlie” tendencies, hitting five of his homeruns on Sundays, and three home runs in one doubleheader in July.  
    Charlie’s career began to fade in 1963 and 1964, and in April of 1964 he was released by the White Sox.  In a 14-season career, Charlie was a .264 hitter with 148 home runs and 532 RBIs, in 1,133 games.  Charlie earned the love of fans everywhere because he always gave his best effort and because he would come out before games to talk to fans in the crowd. Sometimes he would put on a show, clowning around on the field catching balls between his legs or behind his back, and sometimes he would toss a ball to the kids, providing memories that would endure long after the game was forgotten.

Information in this article comes from, “Baseball and American Culture”, written by John P. Rossi, and from Charlie Maxwell’s biography on SABR.org written by Jim Sargent.

    “Past Times in Paw Paw” is being presented by the Paw Paw Historical Commission and Paw Paw District Library at the Carnegie Center in Paw Paw.  The Grand Opening for the exhibit is Sunday, June 9 from 1 to 4 p.m.  Regular viewing hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday thru Friday, beginning June 10.
    On Saturday, June 15,  from 1:30 to 4 p.m., family and friends are invited to come for Cracker Jacks and other surprises, and watch one of the most loved baseball movies at Paw Paw District Library. For more information go to: http://pawpaw.lib.mi.us.

 

The Courier-Leader & Paw Paw Flashes

The Courier-Leader & Paw Paw Flashes
32280 E. Red Arrow Hwy. • P.O. Box 129
Paw Paw, MI 49079
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