Baseball: Better or worse in this era?

I recently had lunch with an old-timer who played in the 1940s, and he said something I’ve heard from other old baseball people before. We were on our way to the restaurant when he remarked that players today couldn’t hold a candle to earlier baseball generations. I didn’t say much because the old-timer’s a nice man, and I didn’t want to argue or disrespect, and I happen to disagree.

Don’t get me wrong, I love baseball history, though I assume players are better than ever today. I assume modern players are stronger, faster, and able to throw harder. I write often on my website about projecting old players to the modern era, and I generally stress the importance of allowing players time to make adjustments. I assume if a long-ago great, even Babe Ruth, was merely dropped into today’s majors via time portal, he might look more out of place than the Bambino did in 1935 ignominiously closing his career with the Boston Braves.

I also assume earlier players had it easier not having to deal with backdoor sliders, tightly condensed schedules, or black competition. I assume coaching is more sophisticated, injury treatment better, and training aids, such as video, greatly more evolved. And, barring any unforeseen catastrophe for Major League Baseball, I assume players will only continue to evolve, that the next generation of ballplayers will be even better than this one.

I’m interested to hear other people’s thoughts, and I’ll keep this short. I think cases could be made for either side, and I’d love to hear them.

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97 Comments on "Baseball: Better or worse in this era?"

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Andy
Admin

My first thought is that there’s a difference between whether the PLAYERS are better or the GAME is better. I don’t think there’s any reasonable argument that the players are better now, meaning more skilled, stronger, faster, etc. The equipment is also far better and consistent than it used to be. But none of that means that the game is necessarily PLAYED better or more entertaining for fans.

brp
Guest
I really wanted to comment on this article because the whole “players were better back then” statement is going to give me an aneurysm some day, but then you already hit the nail on the head. There’s absolutely no question at all that the players are more talented now. Without even going into the total absence of black, Hispanic, and Asian players generations ago, the baseline athletic ability of a player now compared to back then isn’t close. The point about the game itself being more or less entertaining may hold some water, because I can’t figure out how else… Read more »
Insert Name Here
Guest
Like brp, I’m certainly not qualified to comment on the “old days” or “Golden Era” of the game. However, there is a difference between a game being played well and a game being entertaining. The game is certainly more entertaining – home runs here, no-hitters there… but that doesn’t necessarily make the way the players play the game any better. This may be a cliche, but I’d wager that steroids are the #1 cause of the more entertaining league. And THAT is certainly not playing the game any better than it was in the “Golden Era”. Not to mention that… Read more »
richard chester
Guest

Here’s a contrast. In 1950 Bob Feller asked for and got a $20,000 pay cut after a lackluster season in 1949. Stan Musial made a similar request after the 1959 season and got it.

kds
Guest
The “back in the day, my generation was better”, meme has been around for well over a century. There was a pitcher who collapsed on the mound and died a few days later, in 1861. I think he was held up as an example of “they were better back then”, when the first league play started a decade later. The best work I’ve seen on league strength over time was done, iirc, in The Hardball Times Annual a few years ago. They found a gradual, almost continual improvement of the average quality of play throughout history. With expected downturns in… Read more »
Lawrence Azrin
Guest
Agreed; I don’t think human nature has changed that much over the past few hundred years. One of the fundamental tenets of human nature is the “BITGOD syndrome” (back in the good old days),in which the previous generation believe the current generation is simply not as good as they were when they were in their prime. Sports, movies, TV, music, the arts – take your choice, but people usually prefer what they grew up with as their favorites. In the NBJHA, Bill James documents this well, giving examples for almost every decade of MLB’s history. He cites players all the… Read more »
Jason Z
Guest

Of course everything is better today.

Also, consider travel. Today’s big leaguer travels first class
and can cross the country in a matter of hours.

Back in the day, they could look forward to long train rides, or
even worse, bus. BTW no AC.

In addition look at training. Ever see those old spring training
videos where the players are doing jumping jacks. Give me a break.

Finally, it is now truly an international game with the best players
worldwide. Not treated as some restricted country club.

Steven
Guest

Everybody used to play for next year’s contract, and most ballplayers had to find off-season employment. The best athletes used to want to play baseball. I don’t know if the game is better now, but it seems a lot slower, both in the pace of the game, and the speed of the players.

richard chester
Guest
There is no question that today’s players take better care of themselves, both during the season and off. Back in the old days they would spend the off-season hunting, fishing and drinking beer and letting their physical conditons go to pot. Also today’s players have the advantage of protective equipment such as helmets, shin guards, elbow guards, etc. This serves to take away a degree of fear for the batter. Also absent nowadays are most of the brawls which took place. Players fought each other both on and off the field, players fought and punched umpires, they ran into the… Read more »
Steven Page
Guest
I’m56andhaveplayed amateur ice hockey for 30 years. I was in a discussion about the evolution of the hockey last week. When I started playing, a “one skill” guy could play. Now everyone needs to be at least a “three of five’ skill guy. The players are bigger, faster and stronger, and everyone has a shot. Baseball is much the same way. In 1972, you could look at a team picture and tell what position most players filled. The catchers were bulky, the second basemen and shortstops were little guys, the center fielder was often scrawny, and the first baseman looked… Read more »
Graham Womack
Guest

I see Pettini backed up Johnnie LeMaster. Not being able to supplant him seems like it would’ve wreaked some havoc on his psyche.

Hartvig
Guest

” I believe there was an level of intensity that just isn’t there today for the salary and the roster spot.”

You may be right about many American born players. But I suspect that for many foreign born players, in particular the ones that come from the more impoverished Latin American countries would chew thru steel for a chance to play major league baseball. How else can a phenomenon like San Pedro de Macoris be explained?

Jason Z
Guest

Look how the use of the DL has gone up as contracts have increased
in dollars and longevity.

Years ago there is no way a player would go on the DL, lest he lose
his job to the next guy.

Most teams followed the lead of Branch Rickey and built huge Minor League
systems. This made “replacement player” plentiful.

I believe these are some contributing factors to the “hunger” cited above.

The players are bigger, stronger and faster in all sports due to year round
training that is easily pursued due to financial security.

Graham Womack
Guest
I’m a reading a book of oral histories from World War II players interviewed in the early 1970s, and one of these men, Jim Bucher said this: “I don’t see many games these days, so it’s difficult for me to tell whether the quality of baseball is better or worse than in my day. I do think that when I was playing, the competition was much keener. When I started, there were many minor leagues in operation, and they were the source of the major league supply. Every spring you had two or three guys who’d had terrific seasons in… Read more »
Bill Johnson
Guest
A couple of contra arguments to consider: 1) Against the bigger pool of players which is absolutely true, you have the the case that MLB took pretty much all of the best athletes (except black athletes). NBA? Didn’t exist. NFL? No competition. Even Ernie Nevers tried to make it in baseball. And you were spreading those great athletes among just 16 teams. If the NFL money in the late 1940s was comparable to today- Jackie Robinson would have played pro football (maybe). 2) What I call the transitive theory (though strictly speaking I think its an incorrect use of the… Read more »
Andrew
Guest
1. “If the NFL money in the late 1940s was comparable to today- Jackie Robinson would have played pro football (maybe).” Yes, but if MLB money was comparable to today he’d be an idiot not to play baseball. The highest paid players in the NFL are quarterbacks and even they don’t make what a superstar baseball player can, while the positions Robinson would’ve played (likely a DB, RB, or receiver) are paid considerably less due to their vulnerability. In any case, you’re better off playing whatever sport you’re best at. And about your Ruth point – while you’re right about… Read more »
Bill Johnson
Guest
Andrew- re Jackie- idiot or not the fact is that the decline of top african-American athletes choosing baseball today seems real and it doesn’t mean they have necessarily chosen unwisely. I don’t have stats to prove this but my sense is that the failure rate of blue chip athletes in baseball is much higher than for football or basketball. Barring injury (which is a significant concern of course) the washout rate seems much higher in baseball. Why? Perhaps the difference between triple A or double A, let alone HS or college baseball and MLB is greater vs top NCAA programs… Read more »
Jason Z
Guest

I share your passion for triples. I think it is one of the more exciting moments in baseball.

I remember seeing Al Leiter hit a triple at Shea back
in the summer of 01 or 02, not sure.

I can still see the huge smile on his face as he stood on third
base. I will never forget it. That triple meant alot to him.

bstar
Guest
I also am a triples fiend. I saw Deion Sanders hit a triple in person; it was quite a sight to see him burn around the basepaths. I also fondly remember Juan Samuel hitting a left-field triple in Wrigley Field one day for the Phillies in the 80s-that’s pretty amazing considering how small of a porch LF in Wrigley is and the fact that Samuel was a right-handed hitter. Agreed also on the slow-runner triple. Seeing a man not known for his speed chug his way to third and collapse once he makes it there has an exciting and often… Read more »
Jason Z
Guest

I saw Andre Dawson hit a triple for the Marlins at the end of his career. If anyone
remembers that lousy ballpark in Miami Gardens, there was a bizzare spot in left center that was 434 feet from home plate. Dawson hit the ball to that spot, and then “gimped” his way around the bases. Anyone with even average speed would have had an easy inside the park homer. Dawson’s knees were so destroyed by that point he could barely walk, but he made it to third base standing up.

brp
Guest

Babe Ruth is an outlier and was in no way indicative of the “average” ballplayer from the 1920s.

I’m sure he, and Gehrig, and Walter Johnson, and Ty Cobb, and Hornsby, and Honus Wagner, and others could play today. I’m not sure that the guys hitting 8th in the lineups back then could.

Hank G.
Guest
I agree with you about Babe Ruth. Additionally, he gained an enormous amount of playing time as a teenager at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, where they had dozens of organized teams and played nearly year round, although as far as I know, no other alumni of St. Mary’s made the major leagues. After 1925, he did a pretty good job of training in the off season. He would break training right after the season and put on weight, but by January he was putting in a lot of gym time with his personal trainer. His trainer allowed him… Read more »
richard chester
Guest

Thanks for the reference to that NY Times article. I referenced that article on the old BR blog but could not remember where or when I had read it. Do you know of a way to access it?

Hank G.
Guest

is a link to the abstract and you can download it from there. I found it by searching on the NYT site using the keywords, Babe Ruth Supernormal.

Hank G.
Guest

I see that the link was deleted from my post, but you should be able to find it by using the search words I listed.

richard chester
Guest

Thanks for the keyword Hank.

Hank G.
Guest
Also, if you use the same keywords in Google, you can get the original article as published in “The Literary Digest”. I find this subject endlessly fascinating. I don’t think there is any doubt that the average level of play in baseball is much higher than it was 100 years ago. A larger talent pool, the much higher financial incentives, and organized scouting are all arguments toward that. Where I remain somewhat skeptical is the issue of where the outliers of the early 20th century would rank today. We have better nutrition (on average today), but there were people living… Read more »
Doug
Guest

Absolutely agree, birtelcom.

As Andy says, this doesn’t mean the game is more entertaining for the fans. If we could get the crispness of yesterday’s game (i.e. most games under 2.5 hours, nearly all games under 3 hours) with today’s talent level, we’d really have something.

I assume the same is true of every sport. I saw a replay of an NHL game from the 60s (when 99% of the players were Canadian), and the game seemed like it was in slow motion compared to today. Incredible difference.

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest
I believe that we can all make a case for the improvements that we have seen in our lifetimes. And I would agree that the level of athleticism and skill in every physical sport and entertainment has increased dramatically. But pre-WWII? That’s the argument being posed, and there are few people left to make that assessment. And how, we here in the future argue, how could those racist, smoking-in-the-dugout, unconditioned old timers possibly have been better than the 200-million dollar bionic supermen of today? Well, one thing. Nutrition. Not pro-biotic supershakes with yoga Creatine chasers. No. I’m talking about the… Read more »
Jason Z
Guest
As for sex…Babe Ruth would have all night poker sessions with the sportswriters, and about once an hour he would leave the room, and not to spend time alone. One more, one time the Yankees were traveling by train through the night. They went through a small Midwestern town of about 5,000 people at 2AM, and more than that were there to greet the train. An attractive woman holding a baby approached the Babe, he said, unless you want me to put one in the other arm, you had better leave. Nobody was more adored or sexed than the Babe.… Read more »
Hartvig
Guest
Voomo ““In 1948 you could buy spinach that had 158 milligrams of iron per hundred grams. But by 1965 the maximum iron they could find had dropped to 27 milligrams. In 1973 it was averaging 2.2 (that’s from over 150 to less than 3).” I won’t dispute what you say but I have read in what I considered a reasonably reliable source that the original notion that spinach was high in iron was actually caused by a misplaced decimal point and that years later when the error was finally discovered it was sort of unofficially decided not to say a… Read more »
e pluribus munu
Guest

Hartvig, I don’t think Bryson’s your source, but the errant decimal story’s all over the internet and seems to be a tall tale. Check out, for example: http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2011/12/06/3384516.htm
It looks to me as though Voomo’s basic faith in spinach is well founded, though the figures vary enough that perhaps no one theory of its nutritional value is iron-clad.

John Autin
Editor

FWIW, here are some online mentions of the decimal-point error in the iron content of spinach:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spinach#Popeye_and_iron

http://listverse.com/2009/02/25/10-more-fascinating-facts-that-are-wrong/

However, here’s a debunking of the debunking:
http://super-myths.blogspot.com/2010/12/spinach-iron-decimal-point-error-myth.html

(BTW, I appreciated Voomo’s passionate opinion.)

Nash Bruce
Guest

great post Voomo. No time to leave a lengthy reply now, so I’ll just say that I agree 100%.

It is a good reminder that there are not ‘issues’, just one whole. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Can’t get away with (*) up things of greater meaning forever, without the decay starting to show at some point.

Of course there are steroids to replace the lost nutrition…..

Paul E
Guest
Men of merit exist in every generation, but mankind in general prefer the meritorious of their own generation. That being said, of course Jose Bautista is better than Carl Furillo. But, I really doubt Drysdale and Maglie or Gibson would let him get away with that big of a swing without throwing at him. This sport, and all sports, went downhill when players starting disrespecting opponents. Muhammed Ali calling Joe Frazier a gorilla, Reggie Jackson watching homeruns from the batter’s box, White Shoes Johnson doing the “Funky Chicken” in the end zone, basketball players (college and pro)trying to “facialize” with… Read more »
John Autin
Editor

You really think those consequences are unintended, Paul?

Paul E
Guest
JA: The story goes something like food prices were skyrocketing in the early 1970’s. Milhouse didn’t want to be known as the President “who couldn’t feed America”. He approaches agrarian genius, Purdue University professor Earl Butz about what to do to solve the crisis. Butz says something to the effect, “We’ll put everyone on a starch diet and subsidize the living shit out of corn”. Well, here we are, high-fructose corn syrup running through everyone’s veins, fat/lazy video-game-playing, no-starch-burning-underexercised teenagers with sugar levels through the roof. And, I don’t know if you noticed, there’s an awful lot of adults out… Read more »
John Autin
Editor

Oh, no, I didn’t mean to imply that Nixon or Butz intended the consequences of their policy.

Follow the money, though….

Nash Bruce
Guest

“This sport, and all sports, went downhill when players starting disrespecting opponents.”

You mean like Ty Cobb-level behavior?

kds
Guest

In the 1890’s there was only one umpire per game. This was the era of rowdy-ball. Infielders would grab the belts of baserunners if they thought the ump wasn’t looking. Spiking was a constant threat. Brawls were common. Probably the worst offenders were the Baltimore Orioles, led by John McGraw, who would have great influence for decades. Bad behavior goes back long before Ty Cobb.

e pluribus munu
Guest

Gotta show more respect to Skoonj, PE. After all, he really did suffer the consequences of pitchers throwing at batters who dug in, and it cost him the chance to lose a batting title.

I’m not a great fan of hot dogs, but I think they’ve always been with us, just less publicized and televized and glamorized – and as for showing disrespect, think of ’47 and Robinson. And that was part of the sport going uphill!

Paul E
Guest

e p m:

Re 1947, I don’t think that was disrespect of Jackie Robinson – that was outright contempt and overt racism. I’m sure over the next five years they grew to respect his ability, but, I’m certain those racists continued to hate him.

I believe Skoonj finished up in NYC as an elevator mechanic. May have read that in one of the Bill James abstracts. There won’t be too many of today’s ML’ers working after a 10+ year career

Lawrence Azrin
Guest
Up until the late 50s (?), it wasn’t that unusual for “bench jockeys” in dugouts to yell the sort of very personal and specific ethnic/racial insults that today would be totally unacceptable. As for Carl Furillo’s post-baseball career, from Wiki: “After retiring, Furillo left the sport. While writing his landmark 1972 book The Boys of Summer about the 1952 and 1953 pennant-winning teams, author Roger Kahn located Furillo installing elevators at the World Trade Center. During the mid-sixties, he owned and operated a butcher shop in Flushing, Queens. Furillo later worked as a night watchman; he developed leukemia, and died… Read more »
Mike L
Guest
I think it’s reasonable to assume that the overall talent level of the players has improved. One of things that is so remarkable, just over the last couple of generations, is how much more athletic big men have become. Add speed and agility to size and strength and the overall level of play has to improve. But that may not be what we experience as fans, because the game is ultimately comparative, with skill set against skill. If both hitting and pitching improve at the same rate, the next result(s) should be constant over time, even though the pitcher is… Read more »
e pluribus munu
Guest
For many years I’ve felt as Graham feels – obviously the training and skills of today’s players are better – while also agreeing with Andy and others about problems with the contemporary game. But I find some of the contrarian comments here very intriguing – other sports draining the pool for baseball, decreased economic drive, and – who knows – maybe weak spinach, as Voomo says (although I was a devoted spinach-eater in the ’50s, and my only baseball talent was powerfully wielding my short stature to drew walks). Voomo’s comments about natural strength made me think of a related… Read more »
tag
Guest
I think it’s pointless to argue that athletes today aren’t far superior in every sport than they were years ago. What’s interesting about baseball, however, is that it relies less on pure athleticism than perhaps any other sport (outside of bowling or lawn jarts). I love the fact that one of the defining athletes of our time, Michael Jordan, could not hit a baseball. Anyone who watched him suffer through his attempts realized that all the rarefied ability and natural talent which served to make him the greatest basketball player ever was not going to help him line a slider… Read more »
DaveKingman
Guest
Nothing much to add, except for anecdotal evidence…. When I watch old videos from the 1940s and 1950s (e.g. from Ken Burns “Baseball”) I am struck by how sloppy the batting swings are from 2nd-tier players. I can’t believe that batters like that could exist for long in today’s major leagues, especially if they lacked appreciable power or any other redeeming skills. Ted Williams, Mantle and DiMaggio had beautiful swings that I believe could translate into the modern era. But a lot of black-and-white .240 hitters on film look like they had poor lower-body mechanics, bad footwork, hesitation and hitches.… Read more »
Mark in Sydney
Guest
i think that there is another point lurking in here. Back in the day, baseball was The Game, it was an American institution. There were hundreds of leagues, lots and lots of local interest and a worship of the Majors. There were heroes from all walks of life, though predominately the players were working-class (players with a college education, like Harry Hooper, were a minority). Playing in the Majors was a way out of the grind of poverty and back-breaking labor. The game was important to the nation and the players came from everywhere. The more colorful characters were the… Read more »
Fireworks
Guest
If you want to argue that yesterday’s ballplayers were hungrier and more desperate because they were still pretty blue collar, or that the way the game was played was better, that’s one thing, but it’s laughable to argue that the modern athlete is inferior to yesterday’s athlete (pretty much all “one-dimensional” sporting competitions about strength or speed show that the best efforts of yesteryear–Olympic and world record-setting efforts–are sometimes not good enough even to win a high school or college championship, let alone qualify for one’s nation’s Olympic team). In Babe Ruth’s day, there were 100 million Americans and only… Read more »
e pluribus munu
Guest
Fireworks, These are great issues to think through when talking about the meaning and value of baseball, but they’re certainly not simple ones. I know what you mean about the ’50s (though I was riding the subway and things seemed pretty good); competitive balance and geographical variety are generally good. But the scale of Yankee dominance created a type of morality-play that had its explosive payoffs (why in the world is Maz in the Hall? – why don’t they write musicals about baseball any more?). And while the pre-Flood (antediluvian?) players may seem to have been complicit in their exploitation… Read more »
Fireworks
Guest
I meant the parks are better; no crumbling infrastructure, almost zero disgusting turf, just one multi-purpose park. I don’t mean the silly bells and whistles tacked onto thing to make it an ‘experience’. Anyway, I don’t dislike the earlier eras, I just dislike the “back in the day” argument. Every generation makes it and it’s just specious. It’s just a way of rejecting the present because it isn’t as close to you, doesn’t seem as representative of who you are as these earlier times, and, often includes people whom you didn’t have to bother being part of whatever you and… Read more »
Nash Bruce
Guest
excellent points all, Fireworks, but what if sports fitness back in ‘olden times’ was so micro-managed as today? I definitely mean for all races, for sure. It is a somewhat artificial dynamic, in my opinion. In ‘olden times’, as others have commented, sports was just essentially entertainment. They worked real, i.e, suck, jobs in the offseason. Not like today where athletes train in an environment that almost entirely shuts out real life. Hell, throw the ‘modern day’ player onto a farm! Or a factory. Make him actually work a demanding physical ergonomically negative backbreaking job in the offseason. No sterile… Read more »
Fireworks
Guest
I’m not saying that human beings have evolved physically to any significant degree. Surely the bulk of the advantage modern athletes have over athletes of yesteryear are environmental, the nurture part of the nature/nurture argument. But many people talk about the athletes of yesteryear they invoke a player’s stats as if it’s a given he could put them up in the present, or worse, they say he’d be even better. Cobb is considered to be the best hitter of all time by many people. A good argument can be made in his favor, but my personal inclination is that Cobb… Read more »
bstar
Guest
So in your critique of an imaginary Ty Cobb playing in today’s game, Fireworks, are you saying that if the 1910 version of Cobb was magically transported to today’s game, he would be similar to Ichiro? Because I don’t think that’s what most people mean when they “invoke a player’s stats as if it’s a given he could put them up in the present”. I think they mean, if Ty Cobb had been born 30 years ago and was in the peak of his career today, with the same innate, trancendent talent that we know he possessed in the past,… Read more »
e pluribus munu
Guest
I don’t know, bstar. The issue seems to me the great change in the standards of play and what it would take to adjust to them. Today’s hitters have been trained in the context of greatly improved pitching dynamics at every stage and their neural responses are set for those challenges. I think a Ruth or Williams, who may have had exceptional physical gifts, could probably adjust quickly; someone like Cobb, whose skills benefited from, well, psychotic enhancements, may not have been able to make that adjustment if plunked into 2012 as a 20 year-old adult. (I also think fielding… Read more »
Hank G.
Guest
e pluribus munu said: “I also think fielding expectations would create problems for most oldtime position players.” I think changing equipment and conditions make it very problematical to compare fielding across eras. Gloves have bigger and have changed from being designed to simply protect the hand to greatly aiding catching the ball. Almost all of the outfield walls are padded now, allowing outfielders to approach the wall at greater speed with less worry of injury. I’ve also seen fielder use the padding to climb up the wall with their spikes to take away home runs. The grooming of the field,… Read more »
bstar
Guest
@60, E pluribus, I was arguing against the idea of “plucking” Cobb into 2012 as a 20-year-old. Due to the completely different times and circumstances of the different eras, I don’t think it’s fair to suggest what even might have happened in a case like this. Rather, as I said above, it’s more fun for me to imagine if Cobb had grown up in today’s day and age and was in his prime right now, and base how he would have done with the talent we know he possessed back then. Obviously, if you plunk someone into an era 100… Read more »
Lawrence Azrin
Guest
I don’t why some people think Cobb would’ve been a slap-hitting singles hitter smilar to Ichiro. You’re forgetting that in his era NO ONE hit HRs regularly. In his own time he was one of the taller and bigger batters in MLB, and one of the premier power hitters of the deadball era, equal to or better than Sam Crawford, Joe Jackson, Honus Wagner, and Tris Speaker. He could hit a clean baseball a long long way when he wanted to. Compared to recent players, he’d probably be like Barry Bonds with a higher average but less walks; a 4… Read more »
Jason Z
Guest
Cobb ranked in the AL top ten in homers eleven times. On May 5, 1925 he hit 3 homers, 2 doubles that hit the fence and a single. On May 6, 1925 he hit 2 homers, becoming the first player to hit 5 in 2 games. There is a story that Cobb related to Al Stump in his 1961 autobiography in which he claims to have said before the May 5 game that he was going for homers “today” to prove a point. Ty Cobb was the best of his time because he worked harder than the rest. This philosophy… Read more »
Lawrence Azrin
Guest

Statistical evidence of Ty Cobb’s great power for his era:

SLG: 7 #1 finishes (5 in a row), 16 Top-10 finishes
Total Bases: 6 #1 finishes, 15 Top-10 finishes
2Bs: 3 #1 finishes, 14 Top-10 finishes
3Bs: 4 #1 finishes, 15 Top-10 finishes
HRs: 1 #1 finish, 11 Top-10 finishes
RBI: 4 #1 finishes (3 in a row), 13 Top-10 finishes
Extra base Hits: 3 #1 finishes, 14 Top-10 finishes

In the game mentioned by Jason Z in #63, he hit a ball completely out of Sportman’s Park in St Louis.

Paul E
Guest

For the period 1907 -1919, Cobb’s ISO of .150 was exceeded by only Shoeless Joe Jackson amongst players with 5,000 PA’s. Cobb was followed by Sam Crawford and Tris Speaker…so, yeah, I guess Cobb drove the ball

Fireworks
Guest
The Cobb HR story is specious–it first surfaces at his death, not at the feat. Things we know to be true about Cobb: he was obstinate. Being a power hitter in the deadball era is worthless in this discussion because his power didn’t amplify when they cleaned up the baseballs. Even after guys saw what Ruth was doing, Cobb kept being a singles and gap hitter. You could argue that he was a little old but he really didn’t lose all that much. He just kept being Cobb. I disagree about his comp. He isn’t pre-PEDs Bonds, who was on… Read more »
bstar
Guest
I think you’re really underselling Cobb by a significant margin, so I guess we will just have to disagree on it. Describing Cobb as “Ichiro with power” seems to be really off-base to me. It’s like you’re looking at his stats for 1905 and trying to apply them to today’s game, and a guy with a high batting average but fewer than 10 home runs has to be Ichiro. If Cobb was that big and that fast and that strong in his day, I don’t see how you can make the argument that he would be a slap hitter in… Read more »
John Autin
Editor

Jason @63 — I wouldn’t know what to believe from Al Stump’s Cobb bio. Between Cobb’s unwavering braggadocio, the effects of time on memory, and the copious evidence of Stump’s own unreliability, I wouldn’t take any of it at face value.

Here’s a bit of what I mean about Al Stump:
http://blog.detroitathletic.com/2011/07/31/who-was-ty-cobb-biographer-smeared-his-reputation-leaving-many-to-wonder/

bstar
Guest

Wow, really good link, John.

Shping
Guest

Can’t miss this opportunity to mention one of the greatest movie lines ever from the “Cobb” flick (paraphrasing):

“Mr. Cobb, how well do you think you would hit if you were playing today?”

“Mmmm, about .280 or so.”

“Only .280? But you were an amazing hitter with a liftime avg of .367! How can you say only .280?!?

“Cause i’m f—-ing 80 yrs old, that’s why!”

Classic.

Fireworks
Guest
I didn’t say he’d be a slap hitter. I said he’d be Ichiro with power. I’d think you knock 30-35 points off Cobbs BA and put 30-35 on his slugging, multiply his homers by 2.75 or so for his career, decrease his triples by half at least, and shorten his career, a bit, probably no 4000 hits. Maybe I’d have done well to make Jeter his comp. I used Ichiro because more than anything else people associate Cobb with his BA and I think in that regard he’d be closer to, a peer of, perhaps the slight superior to, Ichiro… Read more »
bstar
Guest

Shping, I’m not much for sports movies but is ‘Cobb’ a pretty decent one?

Shping
Guest

@95 — “Cobb” with Tommy Lee Jones is a very good, bittersweet flick. It’s got some thrill-rides and lots of humor, but is also a dark, intriguing portrait of an entertaining SOB at the end of his life, and his straight man the biographer. Cobb/Tigers fans may feel it is unfair and inaccurate, and maybe it is, but maybe not.

Lawrence Azrin
Guest
“In terms of competition, the 50s were boring as hell. It was subway series after subway series. Least amount of parity of any decade of baseball. The 50s are a decade that were spoken about in dulcet tones when I was a kid, as if it was a special decade in American society. It wasn’t. The baseball was integrating but coincidentally boring as hell, and the rest of America wasn’t integrating all that well at all.” Fireworks, Isn’t it the height of irony that a relatively small group of mainly NYC-based baseball writers has transformed this same era in the… Read more »
Michael Sullivan
Guest
Absolutely, I believe that the immortals could play and be stars today (given appropriate training, etc., not dropped here from a time warp). But as brp says in comment 15, I doubt the guys hitting 8th, or even 7th would play today. And further, what this means is that those players were bringing down the averages, compared to the mid level and back bench players of today. Because of that, the numbers of the all-timers, transplanted to today, would not be nearly so stratospheric. They might well be, and probably would still be all-stars, even hall of famers and all… Read more »
Mike L
Guest

Here’s an interesting note on players from an earlier era. Johnny Evers of Tinker to Evers to Chance, and a Hall of Famer in his own right (although not exactly a deserving one) was 5’9″ and 125 pounds. You wonder if he could have made even a modern minor league team.

Brendan
Guest
I am of the opinion that on average today’s players are better than those of 50 years ago, perhaps much better, but it’s hard to point to objective evidence of this being true. Here’s one possibility. In the 1950s, teams stole an average of 40 or 50 bases per season and did so with approximately a 60% success rate. In the 2000s, teams steal on average about 90 bases per season, at a success rate of 70% or better. Changes in managerial style might account for the greater numbers of steals today, but what of the success rate? If it… Read more »
kds
Guest
And maybe they used the hit-and-run lots more back then. When you put that play on and the batter swings and misses it almost always leads to a CS. We have no way of telling whether it was really a steal attempt or a busted hit-and-run that led to the CS. Even today most data sources don’t tell allow us to separate out the straight steal from the HaR. We always must be very careful in situations where we are assuming that all else is equal, that we have not ignored some unequal variable. I think HaR was more popular… Read more »
Brendan
Guest

Fair point about the hit and run. I hope someone can shed some light on whether it was a more common strategy 50 years ago and what the failure rate was. As you point out, traditional statistical categories don’t quite tell the story.

bstar
Guest
Modern baseball players, except the ones who continue to slide headfirst and risk injury, are also in my opinion far more skilled sliders into the base than even, say, 30 years ago. Basestealers and also baserunners gunning for home plate, from my eye, have mastered the art of finding which side of the base the tag is going to be applied and are attacking from the other side, contorting their bodies to avoid where the fielder’s glove is going to be. I have seen so many great slides already this year that have fooled umpires who still call the out… Read more »
Shping
Guest

I wonder if bringing radar guns back to 1920 would shed any light on these arguments. Just how fast was Walter Johson’s fastball, or the Babe’s bat speed? We’ll never know.

But i’m pretty sure that Plato and Galileo would sound foolish in a classroom today. Hannibal’s army would be annihilated by scud missiles. Michealangelo’s techniques would seem crude and pedestrian. Without time to learn and adjust to modern standards, they would all be “out of their league.”

It’s all relative to “league averages” and the field of competition.

birtelcom
Editor

Robert Adair in his book “The Physics of Baseball” mentions that Walter Johnson was measured in 1914 as having thrown a fastball at 99.7 miles per hour.

Shping
Guest

Thanks Birtelcom. Love that book, but forgot the reference. I should dig it out again, and anyone who’s never read it, definitely should.

birtelcom
Editor
In the 1920s, major league pitchers when they came to bat had a collective OPS of about .500. That means that young, athletic men not selected for their prowess at hitting could manage a .500 OPS off the major league pitchers of the time. Today, NL pitchers bat only at about a .350 OPS. Essentially that suggests that amateur hitters can no longer compete with major league pitching the way they could in the 1920s. The strong implication of that evidence is that major league pitching has gotten better, in the sense that it has gotten much harder for a… Read more »
richard chester
Guest
Within the past year I had compiled a list of differences in the game prior to 1920 and modern times. It has been sitting on my computer all that time and I feel that it might be appropriate to publish it here. Some of the differences persisted beyond 1920. For what it’s worth here it is. Many of the items on the list have already been mentioned in other posts. 1) The ball was dead. 2) Balls in play were infrequently replaced. Balls hit into the stands had to be returned. This resulted in playing with balls that were grass-stained,… Read more »
richard chester
Guest

I don’t know how that smiling face got into the picture at item 8.

Lawrence Azrin
Guest

Richard,

Great summary. Also, roster sizes were smaller before 1912 or so. I think they were 14-16 players around 1901, gradually increasing until they were formally limited to 25 around 1915(?).

I think the qualification for the batting title was less for catchers (half the scheduled games?). In 1914 Cobb win the batting title even though he had only 98 games and 345 AB. Sometimes I’ve seen Eddie Collins listed as the 1914 AL batting leader.

Paul E
Guest
Maybe I’m crazy, but, it probably wasn’t the same game……FCS, they haven’t even been using the same baseball for the last 100 years. Kind of ironic, they call the sport baseball, yet, even the baseball has changed. Honestly, we keep on quoting WAR and Win Shares in an effort to compare players from different era’s, but you’ve got to be kidding if you think a comparison between Ken Griffey , Jr. and Ty Cobb is anything more than an intellectual stunt. What does Mantle do playing at Baker Bowl in the 1930’s? Pure conjecture, no? I’m not a student of… Read more »
Lawrence Azrin
Guest

“…you’ve got to be kidding if you think a comparison between Ken Griffey , Jr. and Ty Cobb is anything more than an intellectualstunt”

Paul E, you’ve just ruined my whole belief system.

And everyone knows Hannibal would have kicked Rommell’s butt…

Paul E
Guest

Obviously, elephant feces can go a long way to turning the tide of battle, however, I’ll take the 3rd Panzer Division over the guys with the spears and bows and arrows…… and creatine over pasteurized milk

Lawrence Azrin
Guest

Give the 3rd Panzar Division spears and bows and arrows and lets see how they do…

Give Tris Speaker or Rabbit Maranville modern gloves and field conditions, and I’m sure they’d do pretty well.

e pluribus munu
Guest
Richard’s list emphasizes discontinuity because it highlights the dead/live ball transition. All of us know to allow for that, and we can observe bridge effects in careers like Cobb’s, Ruth’s, Johnson’s, Alexander’s, etc. But many more and equally profound changes have been ongoing gradually throughout the statistical history of baseball. Baseball’s continuity is in contrast to other sports and to the human world in general, and it brings our discussion well under the current rules of fair blogging – you’re not proposing we change the rules of blogging are you, Paul? As for crossing the Rubicon and crossing the Delaware,… Read more »
Abbott
Guest
I guess there’s two different ways to look at it. Put Ty Cobb in a time machine in 1908 and set the dial for today, and he might play like Coco Crisp. But put Ty Cobb’s mother in a time machine in 1886 and sent the dial for 1990, then you could be looking at Matt Kemp. Same with Bonds. Put him in a time machine in 2001, set the dial for 1927, and you’d be looking at Babe Ruth on steroids. Put put his mother in a time machine in 1964, set the dial for 1890, and you’d just… Read more »
Paul E
Guest
Bonds already had the “Bonds genes” – Aunt Rosie was an Olympic sprinter and daddy was a 9.5 100 yards guy in high school. That’s a pretty good start to “constructing” an athlete. Here’s a topic for another 25-50 entries on this blog: Who is the greatest “athlete” (speed & strength)to play MLB ? a) Bo Jackson b) Bobby Bonds c) Jim Thorpe d) Sam Chapman e) Jackie Jensen f) Ernie Nevers g) that “other” guy
tag
Guest

That’s a great question, and you’d have to include Jackie Robinson in the list. It’s hard to judge when you haven’t seen them all in person, but while I definitely give Thorpe and the others their due, for my money it’s Bo Jackson. I once saw him score from third on a glorified popup. Standing up. Freak of nature doesn’t even begin to describe him.

Lawrence Azrin
Guest

I’d go with either Bo or Jim Thorpe, which reinforces the idea that baseball is not a purely “athletic skills” (speed/strength/endurance) game, but a blend of that and several other skills.

Both Thorpe and Jackson had amazing raw physical skills, but that didn’t help to make them well-rounded players.

If Jensen and Chapman had been born 30-40 years later, do you think they would’ve chosen the NFL over MLB?

tag
Guest

Lawrence, you’re of course correct that raw physical skills do not a great ballplayer make. Anyone who saw Michael Jordan, a man as gifted physically as they come, flail away in the batter’s box, as I mentioned in a different post, can attest to that. But I think the question merely applies to the raw physical skills themselves – specifically, the combination of speed and strength – and I think Bo is the hands-down winner.

tag
Guest

I mean Bo’s Combine 40, if I remember correctly, was only slightly slower than that of Deion, who I would imagine is the fastest guy ever to play MLB. And he was as powerful as Killebrew or Howard or Stanton today. I.e, that’s who I’m going with.

richard chester
Guest

There was a guy named George Case back in the 40s who was really fast but I don’t know if he was faster than Sanders. In 1946 Bill Veeck arranged a 100-yard dash, prior to a game, between Case and Jesse Owens. Owens won.

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Guest

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