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.

97 thoughts on “Baseball: Better or worse in this era?

  1. 1
    Andy says:

    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.

    • 5
      brp says:

      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 anyone could think that the players themselves had more talent.

      I do think the game is better now than it was circa 2000, and about comparable to where we were in the late ’80s-early ’90s of my childhood, but maybe that’s just my appreciation for the sport waxing and waning. Who knows, and I’m certainly not qualified to comment on the quality of the game pre-1980s.

    • 33
      Insert Name Here says:

      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 (and this applies to the NBA, NHL, and NFL as well) too many players (especially on my Red Sox) care more about money, themselves, and their reputations than their team’s performance and their teammates.

      • 34
        richard chester says:

        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.

  2. 2
    kds says:

    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 WW2 and expansion, including FL, PL, contraction of NL in 1900, etc.

    I think some of the fun of the history is that you can always have these sorts of arguments, without easy answers to win them. But if we want to work and look a little deeper there would be answers to many of these questions. “Today’s players lack fundamentals, they can’t even get a bunt down.” Since we now have scorecard information for most games going back to 1918, we may be able to see if the results on sac bunt attempts are worse now then they were decades ago.

    Fun stuff.

    • 25
      Lawrence Azrin says:

      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 way back in the 1890s saying the game isn’t as good as it was in the 1860s, what with these newfangled gloves, catcher’s masks, etc…

      Unlike track and field, baseball as a team game does not allow for one-dimesional measurements. Players can only be compared to each other, not any one absolute unchanging standard. Despite this, I believe that the overall talent of MLB has increased gradually over its entire history (with minor setbacks over expansions and WWII).

      I think that the all-time great players would be almost as great as they were in almost any era, since they are outliers and not typical of their time. What _is_ different is that the weakest regulars from many years ago would probably not be regulars,or maybe even play in MLB at all.

      With the improved training, conditioning, and nutrition of today, it’s difficult to argue that current players are not on-the-whole better athletes today. However, you could make a plausible argument (not that I agree) that they are not as skilled in the “fundamentals” in perfecting their instincts for the game.

      It’s endlessly amusing to me to see the players that I followed in the 70s/80s,such as Jim Rice and Goose Gossage, making their own “BITGOD” arguments for the superiority of the MLB of their generation over current players.

  3. 3
    Jason Z says:

    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.

  4. 4
    Steven says:

    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.

  5. 6
    richard chester says:

    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 stands to attack fans. Sometimes fans would pour onto the field to get a closer look at the fights.
    The thing that irks me the most about today’s games is the length of the games timewise. Continual changing of pitchers, batters stepping in and out of the batter’s box, etc. The way these games drag on makes it difficult to sit through them.

  6. 7
    Steven Page says:

    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 like Frankenstein. Players under six foot were common. Now almost everyone looks like a Greek god. Physically, everyone is better. Mentally, I’m not sure. I do believe players were “hungrier” then, in the days of the $15,500 minimum. I went to school with Joe Pettini, who played a few years for the Giants. Someone once suggested he study more as a back-up plan to baseball, and he told them basically that “Baseball is everything. If I don’t make it I’m going to be digging coal the rest of my life.” I believe there was an level of intensity that just isn’t there today for the salary and the roster spot.

    • 41

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

    • 56
      Hartvig says:

      ” 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?

  7. 8
    Jason Z says:

    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.

    • 42

      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 the minors the year before breathing down your neck trying to get your job. I don’t know how many minor leagues are in operation today, but there aren’t that many. It’s still supply and demand, but there aren’t the replacements. More major league positions have to be filled due to the increase in teams; so I don’t know how they are able to maintain the major league standard. I guess the college draft helps some, but I question whether those boys have enough experience to be the type of big leaguer they’re really looking for.”

      I don’t agree with all of that quote, though I do question if the smaller minor leagues has had an effect on anything or diminished competition.

  8. 9
    Bill Johnson says:

    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 term): Babe Ruth was great. Gehrig overlapped with Ruth and was great. Dimaggio overlapped with Gehrig. Williams and Musial overlapped with Dimag. Mays and Aaron overlapped with Williams and Dimaggio. McCovey and Schmidt with Mays and Aaron and so on.

    The only great leap forward (besides Jackie Robinson) if there was one is arguably Bonds and the steroid era. I am absolutely convinced that Babe Ruth today with his skillsets from the 1920s would absolutely be a mega star today.

    With respect to the Babe specifically I think judgment is also colored by the fact that 98 percent of the film footage of him was after years of over indulgence had made him as rotund as our picture of him is today. But if you go back and look at some of the early footage (and pictures) say from 1920-1921 he was impressive. And the man could run. Look at his triple totals.

    • 14
      Andrew says:

      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 his build earlier in his career and there is evidence he could run (solid defensive metrics and certainly a lot more steals than guys like McGwire, to whom he’s often compared), I just want to point out that his triples totals were more a factor of playing in cavernous parks. There used to be a mile between the right field foul pole and third base (and as a left-handed batter Ruth hit a lot of balls over there), and the average right fielder probably didn’t possess the cannon that’s a requirement to play the position nowadays. Shrinking ballparks and increased arm strength (a by-product of more specialized training) have cut down triples significantly across the lead – the leader among guys who played in the last 50 years is Musial at 19th all time, who barely makes the cut-off (he retired in ’63). To find a guy who played a significant amount of time after 1960 you have to go to Clemente at 27th, and among guys who played a game after 1990 I believe you have to go all the way to George Brett at 70th all time.

      Of course, this could be an argument for baseball being better back in the day: triples are exciting as hell, maybe the most exciting play in a game besides an inside-the-park home run (though you can argue it’s even more exciting when the runner’s thrown out at the plate, at which point it’s a triple).

      • 32
        Bill Johnson says:

        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 and the NBA and NFL.

        How do you know if you can hit a major League curveball until you’ve faced them on a regular basis?

        Then too the number of baseball draft picks who get large bonuses or guaranteed contracts seems much smaller than the number of football/basketball prospects.

        Its easy to say now that Jackie would be a great baseball player in the Big Leagues, but when in college? Who know if he wouldn’t have chosen the NFL or NBA?

      • 47
        Jason Z says:

        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.

        • 48
          bstar says:

          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 funny element to it also.

          • 49
            Jason Z says:

            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.

    • 15
      brp says:

      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.

    • 18
      Hank G. says:

      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 to gain a few pounds a year as he aged which was probably not optimal, and his weight did tend to go to his stomach, which accounts for those films of his later years with the huge gut.

      For what it’s worth, there was an article published in the NY Times in 1921 that claimed the scientists at Columbia University had tested Ruth and claimed that his body was 90% efficient compared to the average human’s 60%, that his eyes were 12% faster than average, that his nerves were steadier than 499 out of 500 persons, and that his quickness and perception was 50% higher than average.

      • 19
        richard chester says:

        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?

        • 26
          Hank G. says:

          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.

          • 28
            Hank G. says:

            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.

          • 29
            richard chester says:

            Thanks for the keyword Hank.

          • 31
            Hank G. says:

            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 on farms back then who probably ate better than most people today. For that matter, Ruth probably had a decent diet at St. Mary’s. I doubt the Catholic brothers running the place were big on desserts or handing out candy.

            Most of us live a much more sedentary life than people did back then. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book “Farmer Boy”, she includes a story that claims that a Native American raced against some horses in a harness race and ran a mile in 2 minutes and 40 seconds! I can’t quite bring myself to believe that, but a lot of the Native American men led extremely active lives and I can believe that there must have been some who would be world class runners today.

            Some of the progress pointed to in track & field has to be discounted by advances in equipment and conditions. I read once (sorry, no cite) that records in sprints took a major advance with the introduction of starting blocks. Modern tracks are far removed from dirt, grass, or cinder tracks of the past. Pole vault records jumped with the introduction of the fiberglass pole. The athletes didn’t get better; the equipment did.

  9. 10
    Doug says:

    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.

  10. 11

    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.
    Not pro-biotic supershakes with yoga Creatine chasers.
    I’m talking about the basic nutritional value of food.

    It has collapsed.
    Our soils have collapsed.
    Our seed stocks have been mutated into bland, ubiquitous, non-nutritive garbage.

    Remember the Popeye cartoon?
    He eats the spinach and BOOM.

    Not a joke.
    Here’s one stat:

    “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). That means you’d have to eat 75 bowls of spinach to get the same amount of iron that one bowl might have given you back in 1948.”

    People WERE stronger back in the day.

    Are athletes better trained, prepared, massaged, rested, sexed, adored, and equipped now? Almost certainly.

    But we’ve poisoned our planet, and the fundamental strength and health of our species has been paying the price for several generations.

    • 12
      Jason Z says:

      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. Than or now.

      As for people being stronger back then, I respectively disagree.

    • 20
      Hartvig says:


      ““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 lot about it because of all the other nutritional benefits derived from eating spinach. Could you tell me your source. I’m 90% certain that mine is Bill Bryson and I’m 90% certain that it’s from his book “A Short History of Nearly Everything” and I think he mentions where he got his information from but I can’t find anything about it in the index and I don’t feel like thumbing thru the whole book to try and find it. I know that I had also seen the idea that the iron content of spinach was not as much as was commonly believed prior to reading Bryson’s book but there was no explanation as to why that was, so either theory could have been the cause.

    • 38
      Nash Bruce says:

      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…..

  11. 13
    Paul E says:

    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 the slam dunk while failing to perfect a 15-foot jumper….

    Re the nutrition thing (thanks Voomo @ #11), I heard a report today that pre-diabetes in adolescents has doubled in the last 10 years. Perhaps this was caused by the R M Nixon-Earl Butz commitment to corn 40 years ago? Certainly, another one of those unintended consequences of policy in America

    • 23
      John Autin says:

      You really think those consequences are unintended, Paul?

      • 24
        Paul E says:

        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 there in the greatest nation on God’s green earth who are overweight, obese, and morbidly obese.
        But, to answer your questions, I don’t think Nixon & Butz decided to create a health care crisis in this nation. There’s a colege textbook out there authored by a History Channel consultant, Steve Gillin, titled “Not What We Wanted to Do”(or something to that effect) and it is basically an analysis of post-WWII legislation that had unintended results. Go figure. I’m still more pissed-off at athletes that potentially have control over their behavior on a ball field than politicians owned by Wall Street or “Big Oil” or the “military – industrial complex”

        • 27
          John Autin says:

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

          Follow the money, though….

    • 37
      Nash Bruce says:

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

      You mean like Ty Cobb-level behavior?

      • 53
        kds says:

        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.

    • 40
      e pluribus munu says:

      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!

      • 68
        Paul E says:

        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

        • 71
          Lawrence Azrin says:

          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 in Stony Creek Mills, Pennsylvania at 66 years of age of an apparent heart attack. Furillo died a very unhappy ex-major league ball player, and he felt baseball completely forgot about him and his accomplishments.”

          The MLB minimum salary was $5,000 in 1946 and was still only $6,000 in 1966.

  12. 16
    Mike L says:

    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 throwing harder and the hitter has faster reflexes. Our perception of the result is not necessarily an up and down judgment of whether the players have actually gotten better, it’s more an aesthetic and statistical relative.

  13. 17
    e pluribus munu says:

    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 aspect. In the early part of the century, most baseball players grew up in rural households, and the level of physical exertion that shaped their bodies – especially those in farming families – was far beyond anything ordinary young people experience now. Another group of players had jobs in factories and mines from very young ages. Not all players had this sort of background, but the diffusion of a type of natural body strength in ballplayers may have been broader than today. If you’ve ever played sports with someone who grew up under that kind of daily regime, you’ll probably recall them as more powerful than they might have appeared.

    I’m sure athletes today tend to stick to high-nutritional diets – I wouldn’t want to argue with Voomo about pro-biotic supershakes vs. postwar spinach, but I do think athletes regulate their diets purposefully with far greater care. But they likely didn’t grow up that way, and eating (or refusing to eat) 1990s spinach as children – or having fewer milk buckets to haul and less wood to chop every morning – may complicate the question of athletic superiority. When it comes to the person underlying the athlete, we may really be comparing apple picking to frozen orange juice.

    I’m still with Graham, but I think we need to look for more reasons for the persistence of “better in the old days” than pure sentiment and senility.

  14. 30
    tag says:

    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 into left field.

    I think this is what people are relying on when they say that the Babe or Teddy Ballgame or the other inner circle greats could have been stars today. They had that one-in-25-million combination of eyesight, reflexes and bat speed that perhaps could translate across generations. I doubt average players from before WWII could even make a Triple A roster today, but maybe because of the unique nature of baseball the immortals would still be raking it.

  15. 35
    DaveKingman says:

    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. Much more so than say, a mid-tier modern player like Darwin Barney or Rey Ordonez.

    I’m also of the mind that yesteryears top players (Mays, Mantle, Feller) could make it today, but that the 2nd and 3rd tier “tail” of lesser players would get cut off at the AA or AAA-level.

  16. 36
    Mark in Sydney says:

    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 equivalent of Hollywood stars, and many of them had character that you can’t find in the current crop. People like Ruth, Cobb, Rube, Hornsby and so on. Not always likeable, but villains are needed if you are going to have a good drama.

    Today, the game has changed. It is no longer the preeminent sport, but one of many. Most of today’s players come out of a college (or from high school) and are, pretty much interchangeable, in terms of colorless personality (Brett Lawrie not withstanding, he appears to be a throwback).

    A better game? I am not so sure. Progress is what it is and there is no way to turn back the clock, nor would I want to. This is baseball as it now is and I like it for that. But a better product? I am not so sure. What chance is there these days of filling Times Square with 20000 fans to listen to the World Series? Not likely…

  17. 39
    Fireworks says:

    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 the white ones could play. Now there are 300 million Americans, and while many of them choose football or basketball, that’s still a much larger pool to pull from, and that’s before you even acknowledge the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Panama, Mexico, Cuba, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.

    I don’t believe that guys were better hitters; you hear about guys with 44 oz bats that only struck out 40 times a year; that tells me pitchers weren’t good at fooling guys.

    I don’t believe the greatest fireballers in history pitched years ago. I’m unconvinced that a guy like Walter Johnson was the fastest ever.

    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.

    The idea that baseball was more American then? That’s a big part of why society is so often and so easily split into red and blue, left and right nowadays. The right champions this wistful nostalgia and uses code words to evoke feelings about how good things were and how good we used to be, except we know what they’re really talking about (at least those of us that voted for the Kenyan muslim socialist and would vote for him again).

    I’ll take my modern ballplayers, with my risk of a player with a poor attitude or lack of ethic, than yesteryear’s ballplayer, who gets ripped off by the owners and feels some sort of obligation to hold himself to some sort of blue collar standard, buying into the myth that he is a worker drone and all that.

    It’s not that I’m a huge fan of pure capitalism, just that that’s our system here and I’d rather have a man endeavor for the good of himself rather than stupidly endeavor for the good of some other man and foolishly think he endeavors for the good of America.

    And so on. The question of whether the game was more entertaining at a prior time, not so easy to answer… but the game is better than ever to me. We’re now at the point where teams evaluate player contribution better than ever and the parks are better than ever.

    Anyway, if you think I got a little too political above (I will admit my comment does not flow well and I am too lacking in yesteryear’s ethic to edit it any more), you have to remember that the “back in the day” argument is pretty much *always* political, often incorporates ideas about race and gender (and sexuality, sexual orientation), and so on.

    • 43
      e pluribus munu says:

      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 under a phantom rule, that type of revised view doesn’t speak to the experience of the time – unlike white players’ complicit acceptance of sports segregation pre-’47, when the quality of the Negro Leagues was well known to all baseball people. You never know what blind spots exist for us today that later generations may see as signs of our ignorance and bad character. (And like so many things, while the passage to labor equity was uplifting, once achieved it has not created a particularly exemplary lesson in social equity.)

      I agree with you on the big question of physical skills and execution: what’s average now would have been exceptional then. (Though as many posters have said, the outlier greats may be another matter – did you ever notice how long Walter Johnson’s arms were? That has nothing to do with era.)

      Where I disagree with you flat out is the ballparks. Wherever I go to see a game now (which I rarely do), my whole being wants to pull the plug on the scoreboard videos and the blaring rock. I love the retro look and architectural innovation, but I want the retro sound: bat and crowd.

      • 51
        Fireworks says:

        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 your buddies were doing. I don’t say that last part because I think anyone was mentioning that specifically.

        I just meant in the end the “back in the day” argument is essentially an argument that the we/us/our of an earlier time is better than the them/they/other of now.

    • 46
      Nash Bruce says:

      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 gym. No offseason conditioning. See how he shows up to spring training.

      Conversely, if Jackie Robinson had had the advantages that today’s athletes have…..the financial safety net to train year round…..


      • 52
        Fireworks says:

        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 in present day would be Ichiro with a bit more power, perhaps not as efficient on the basepaths.

        Certainly, I think Cobb-present would very more not likely as likely even equal Gwynn’s number of batting titles, let alone his record-setting total.

        • 58
          bstar says:

          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, what kind of a player would he be?

          It’s fun to think about what kind of player Cobb would be if he were born 100 years later, but the reality is we really have no idea. But considering Cobb had his first 200-hit year in his age-20 season, I myself wouldn’t place any limits on what he might have accomplished as a present-day ballplayer.

          • 60
            e pluribus munu says:

            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 expectations would create problems for most oldtime position players.)

            More basically, I think what the anti-good old days argument is saying is that the standards of play are higher, and I think that’s unquestionably right in most respects. But the argument could work the other way if you asked how well someone like, say, Cole Hamels, would perform if he were expected to pitch every fourth game and complete all games he pitched well in. I think most contemporary pitchers would blow their arms out unless they learned different ways to pitch under those circumstances. The standards of today’s game have, in that sense, developed in the context of changes in the form of the game. I have a lot of sympathy with the argument that from a meaningful standpoint, some of the best oldtime pitchers were superior because they performed two or three jobs well, pitching a season and a half’s worth of innings and acting as their own relievers most games. (And you only need to go back to the ’60s and early ’70s – or the young Clemens – for that type of oldtimer.)

            You could try the same thought experiment in another way (as some have already suggested), by asking how well, say, a 20 year-old Barry Bonds would adjust and perform if you suddenly plunked him onto a team that traveled without a/c on smokey overnight train-trips, underpaid, with rudimentary training aids and no artificial enhancements other than whiskey, chewing tobacco, and maybe greenies. As with transposing Cobb, I think Barry Bonds growing up in that world would have done fine (though during most of it he’d have found the gate barred); I think an adult Bonds would have found it tough. It’s a difficult thought experiment, but in that case it may come close to asking whether Barry Bonds could have been Willie Mays.

          • 66
            Hank G. says:

            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, especially the infield is so much better now, that fielders can play aggressively, expecting (and getting) a true hop. In the 1960 World Series, well into the modern era (because I was alive then), a crucial play in the 7th game was when a ground ball hit a pebble and bounced into Tony Kubek’s throat, taking him out of the game. That sort of thing almost never happens anymore.

            When artificial turf was popular in the 1970s, the bounce throw to first base became possible. Now, natural fields are groomed so well that infielders do this routinely on grass infields. This allows them to play a little deeper, getting to more balls than they could in the old days.

          • 79
            bstar says:

            @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 years forward or backward, there’s going to be problems.

        • 62
          Lawrence Azrin says:

          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 1/2 tool player (neither had great arms), with great power, great speed, and excellent in the OF. He probably wouldn’t dominate the way he actually did, but he’d be amongst the best players in MLB baseball.

          Cobb excelled at BA, because that was how most observers evaluated batters. If there is more emphasis on getting on base and hitting for power, I think Cobb adapts his game to that.

          • 63
            Jason Z says:

            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
            worked then and works today, no matter your profession.

            Ty Cobb would have utilized contemporary methods and been amongst the best.

          • 64
            Lawrence Azrin says:

            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.

          • 67
            Paul E says:

            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

          • 87
            Fireworks says:

            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 pace to be a smidge short of Mays or Aaron. It isn’t Bonds at all. It’s Ichiro with power. A cross between Boggs every other year and 1987 Boggs.

            Anyway, I wasn’t really *trying* to evaluate Cobb. The point is that people will sometimes say that he’s the greatest hitter ever *and* that the players of yesteryear was better, the game was better, etc. And I disagree because magically-transported Cobb isn’t coming to the present and putting up a career average of .366. He doesn’t put up .340 for his career unless he plays in Coors, or maybe Fenway. He never comes anywhere close to leading the lead in homers, and he never gets anything resembling a steals record. He does not win 11 batting titles, and not merely because it’s harder to lead the league with more teams in it. He does not lead the league in slugging ever most likely. And so on.

            Anyway, having said that I wasn’t trying to evaluate Cobb, there’s a fuller evaluation.

          • 88
            bstar says:

            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 today’s game were he born 100 years later than he was. It seems you are still trying to “transport” the dead-ball era Cobb into today’s game of muscle-bound athletes like some sort of Back to the Future time warp, which is going to lead to some weird conclusions.

          • 89

            If Ichiro reminds me of any older players, it’s George Sisler– both high average hitters with limited power.

            I don’t know who I’d liken Cobb to among contemporary players, but historically, I’d look for a fast player who could hit for average and power. The two guys who come closest to mind who came after him are Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.

          • 91
            John Autin says:

            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:

          • 92
            bstar says:

            Wow, really good link, John.

          • 93
            Shping says:

            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!”


          • 94
            Fireworks says:

            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 and Pujols.

            I didn’t mention Pujols because I don’t think Cobb would be in that class of slugger at all.

            And even though I have comped Cobb several times now, what I was really trying to point out is Cobb in the present wouldn’t cast as long a shadow as Cobb in the past. Not to me, at least.

            There are people that think Cobb was the superior of Ruth, Williams, Mays, Mantle, Aaron, etc., and I don’t think that’s true.

            But then again maybe that’s my bias against Cobb.

            The only guy whose career began before 1920 whom I believe could be transported to the present and (if sufficiently dedicated) craft a really strong argument as best ever is Ruth.

          • 95
            bstar says:

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

          • 96
            Shping says:

            @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.

    • 65
      Lawrence Azrin says:

      “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.”


      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 popular imagination as the true “Golden Age” (roughly 1947-1961) of the entire history of MLB? Talk about revisionist history…

      I tried to make this exact same point in a previous discussion, but you just did it better.

      The only point I would disagree with you is about the “fireballers”; since the hardest throwers in any era are outliers, I’d venture that the likes of Rube Waddell, Walter Johnson, Bob Feller and Lefty Grove threw about as hard as anyone ever.

  18. 44
    Michael Sullivan says:

    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 time greats, but their raw and comparative numbers would not tower over today’s great players, the way they do now.

    • 45
      Mike L says:

      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.

  19. 50
    Brendan says:

    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 is simply that stealing is a strategy that’s being invoked more often today, wouldn’t we expect a lower success rate than in the past?
    My guess is that base runners are faster than in the past and have learned techniques to get a better jump from first base. Aided by better coaching and video study, they are making better decisions about when to steal. All of these things can be seen as an improvement in this aspect of play.
    In the arms race against base stealing, perhaps the pitchers and catchers are throwing harder and more accurately than in the past, but at least for the short term, they’re losing the race.

    • 55
      kds says:

      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 back then, but I really don’t know.

      • 59
        Brendan says:

        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.

    • 57
      bstar says:

      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 because the ball clearly beats the runner to the base. In my opinion, this is one facet of the game where players are better than those in the past (even the recent past).

  20. 54
    Shping says:

    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.

    • 72
      birtelcom says:

      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.

      • 90
        Shping says:

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

  21. 61
    birtelcom says:

    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 normal person to hit off a major league pitcher than it was in the 1920s. And since hitting by real major league hitters in general has not declined, hitters seem to have gotten better too — if pitching has gotten better, and hitters (other than pitchers at bat) have stayed even, then hitters must be getting better too. Bill James has long argued, persuasively to me, that the decline of hitting by pitchers is thus evidence for the increased quality of performance in the majors over the long term.

  22. 69
    richard chester says:

    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, mud-stained, tobacco-juice-stained, scratched, gouged, sand-papered, emery boarded, etc. It wasn’t until 1920 that umpires were instructed to keep a fresh ball in play.
    3) Gloves were ridiculously small compared to today’s. Many great and even not-so-great catches of the modern era would not be made back then.
    4) There were two umpires per game. There were blown calls all over the place.
    5) Fair batted balls that bounced into the stands were home runs.
    6) A ball hit into the stands on the fair side of the foul pole and then hooked foul was a strike.
    7) In the AL batted balls that struck the foul pole and then deflected into the stands on the foul side of the pole were doubles.
    8) Modern drainage systems were non-existent. This resulted in many games that were played on fields that were wet, slippery, muddied and ponded.
    9) There were many pitches that are now banned: the spitter, the emery ball, the shine ball, etc.
    10) A walk-off home run was not a home run if there was a baserunner who scored the winning run on the hit.
    11) Many games were shortened due to darkness, one team or the other had to catch a train, blue law curfews, etc. There were portions of games that were played in semi-darkness.
    12) There were games in which overflow crowds were allowed to stand in the far reaches of the outfield. There were ground-rule doubles (and sometimes triples) all over the place. There were even some games where the crowd stood along the foul lines between the outfield fence and the infield.
    13) Players were able to pull off stunts such as Ty Cobb sharpening his spikes or John McGraw tripping baserunners or holding on to their belts on a tag-up.
    14) There were times when players had to play while being bombarded by soda bottles.
    15) Liberties were taken by official scorers such as giving wins to pitchers who did not deserve them.
    16) There were years in which SFs counted as an at bat and a period in the 1920’s whereby a batter would credited with a SF regardless of to which base a runner advanced.
    17) There were rain-outs that were not made up. This had a profound effect on the 1908 pennant race.
    18) Pitchers had to begin their deliveries with both feet on the rubber.
    19) The qualification for the batting title was 100 GP.
    20) Fields were not well-groomed.

    • 70
      richard chester says:

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

    • 73
      Lawrence Azrin says:


      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.

    • 74
      Paul E says:

      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 military history but do those who profess to know that game try to compare Rommell and Hannibal? Crossing the Rubicon to crossing the Delaware? Just curious….

      • 75
        Lawrence Azrin says:

        “…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…

        • 76
          Paul E says:

          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

          • 78
            Lawrence Azrin says:

            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.

      • 77
        e pluribus munu says:

        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, apparently by Washington’s time they had either invented the u-turn boat or the two-way river crossing. Those guys were playing entirely different games.

  23. 80
    Abbott says:

    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 be looking at Babe Ruth.

    Of course, with Bonds you’d have to give him whatever disease Michael Jackson had to make his skin look white, but you get the picture.

    • 81
      Paul E says:

      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

      • 82
        tag says:

        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.

        • 83
          Lawrence Azrin says:

          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?

          • 85
            tag says:

            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.

        • 84
          tag says:

          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.

          • 86
            richard chester says:

            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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