What if the eight best ballplayers no older than 25 went on to careers that would average almost 20 years: win nine Most Valuable Player awards, 10 batting titles, 13 stolen base titles and 15 home run titles; and all gain enshrinement in the Hall of Fame? Then Detroit would be getting ready to roll out the Edsel, a letter would require three cents postage, and the best group of young players ever would be about to dominate the peak seasons of a golden age in baseball. It would be 1957.
The era between 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball's color barrier, and 1961, when two expansion teams were added, represented a remarkable planetary alignment in the game. Only then did baseball offer just 400 big league jobs and the opportunity for players of all races to fill them. Baseball may never have been better. More certainly, the game has never featured a better confluence of young stars—not even today.
At the start of the 1957 season Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Eddie Mathews and Luis Aparicio had established themselves as stars. A ninth future Hall of Famer, Don Drysdale, was on the verge of joining them after an impressive 1956 rookie season in which he had a 2.64 ERA over 99 innings. None of them was older than 25.
By 1957, Aaron, Mays, Mantle, Kaline and Mathews had already combined to win four batting titles, lour home run titles and two MVP awards. By contrast, at the outset of the 1994 season, all of the 25-and-under players in the majors have combined for two batting titles, two home run titles and one MVP award.
"It was the greatest era ever seen when it comes to what we call the total superstar," says Detroit Tiger manager Sparky Anderson. "We won't ever see that caliber of play again." The young stars of 1957 "helped change the game," says Boston Red Sox scout Frank Malzone, who was a Red Sox third baseman during that era. "Before them you never heard the word superstar. It was the start of the modem way of playing."
The young stars of 1957 accelerated baseball's transformation from a radio-newspaper game to a television game, from an east-of-the-Mississippi passion to a national passion, and from a sport driven by great teams to one driven by great players—especially home run hitters. The previous year marked the first time there were 1,000 home runs hit in each league. In fact, the 1956 All-Star Game featured seven of the top 13 home run hitters of all time: Aaron, Mays, Mantle, Mathews, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks and Ted Williams. Only Williams was older than 25 at the time.
While early black stars such as Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Monte Irvin got their start in the Negro leagues and were ail al least 26 when they finally broke into the majors, Aaron, Mays, Clemente and Frank Robinson represented the first generation of minorities offered the chance to play an entire career in the majors. All four of those players were 20 when they made it to the National League between 1951 and '56. "It was a Special time that hasn't received enough credit," Frank Robinson says. "We used to say, 'Can you believe we get to play this game and get paid for it?' The game was fun then. You can talk about all the money today, but I wouldn't trade those days for anything."
Mantle and Aaron gave the young stars of 1957 real clout.