Back in My Day…

This is an attempt at my first post at High Heat Stats without any baseball stats.  Rather than digging through WAR leaders, I’d like to take a moment to tackle a prejudice that irks me too often in sports arguments.  Yesterday, I read this Sports on Earth piece by Jonathan Bernhardt, which explains why Barry Bonds was the best baseball player ever.  A comment in response to the piece included this gem:

“…to argue that Bonds is better than Mays is, well, simply ignorant, something that I will ascribe to the writer’s youth”.

No, what’s “simply ignorant” is dismissing another’s opinion without any defense of one’s own argument other than an age difference.  Is there a sorrier phrase in the English language than “back in my day…”?

First, I know I should never read comments on any web forum except this one, but Joe Posnanski writes for Sports on Earth and if Joe brought some of his “brilliant readers” to that site, reasoned discourse in the comments section could be more than a pipe dream.  Second, it’s true that Bernhardt’s visage in the article’s header suggests that he may have been born after Bonds shaved this mustache.

Still, the sentiment that young fans don’t appreciate the greatness of players from generations past is far too prevalent and far too trite.  Furthermore, Bernhardt’s analysis is spot-on, from his dismissal of Ruth and Williams on the grounds of quality of competition in a segregated league to his assertion that we know no more about the impact steroids may have had on Bonds’s numbers than we know about amphetamines and the boost they may have given Mays.  To chalk up the stat-backed argument that Bonds was better than Mays to not having seen Mays live is akin to declaring that mayonnaise tasted better before the Berlin Wall fell.

In 1884, when Old Hoss Radbourn had his legendary season, the world record in the mile was 4:16.2. When Babe Ruth retired in 1935, the record was 4:06.2.  When Mays retired in 1973, it was 3.51.1, held by Jim Ryun, an American runner so dominant that he shaved 2.5 seconds off the record and held  it for eight years- longer than any man since Roger Bannister ran the first four-minute mile in 1954.  Track fans must have thought they’d never see another runner as fast as Ryun.

But runners kept evolving.  In 1999, the year before Bonds kicked off the most dominant five-year offensive stretch in integrated baseball history, Hicham El Guerrouj ran the mile in 3:43.13.  That cut almost 3 1/2 percent off of Ryun’s time.  Andres Diaz finished fourth in that race with a time of 3.51.15, a virtual tie with Ryun’s legendary time.

Not all of the progression in the mile record is evolution.  Sneakers have gotten sleeker.  There have probably been improvements to racing shorts and the material tracks are made of.  But technology alone didn’t trim 33 seconds, or about half a lap around a track, from the record over 115 years.  Every generation of humans is a little more fit for our world.  Swimming records fall in droves every olympiad.  Nearly every Tour de France is finished faster than the one before it.  Athletes get bigger, faster, stronger, and more able to turn on a curveball over the inside of the plate.

Aging is cruel.  At 32, I’ve seen some of the early effects- bones breaking a little more easily, unwillingness to accept that Mike Trout was born in the ’90s- but I recognize that I’ve got a long, dismal descent ahead of me and should probably take it easy on the old man clinging to some of the magic of his youth in the comments at Sports On Earth.  Watching Willie Mays hit 450-foot blasts and cover acres of Polo Grounds outfield must have made him feel like anything was possible, like God had sent a divine athlete to perform inspiring feats for his entertainment.  To see Mays’s accomplishments eclipsed by a man so boorish, so joyless, at an age when the old man himself didn’t have the same spring in his step, couldn’t have been easy.  Why not dismiss the possibility that his hero had been eclipsed by claiming that drugs can make Incredible Hulks out of ordinary men or that players were tougher in his day?

I’ve enjoyed watching Albert Pujols hit a baseball like few, if any, players before him have.  Fans younger than I will enjoy watching Mike Trout try to build a case as the best player ever to play the game.  Watching Trout climb walls like Spiderman and steal bases like Superman, they may be loathe to admit that there’s a three-year-old picking up his first glove somewhere who will one day run faster, jump higher, and hit longer home runs than Trout.

Barry Bonds may or may not have been the best baseball player ever.  Mike Trout may or may not one day eclipse him.  But someone will.  Some young writer will tell us how he knows the new guy is the best ever, maybe using metrics not yet invented today. And someone from my generation will make up a reason to dismiss the young player’s talent so as not to challenge the power of the memory of Bonds launching a fastball into McCovey Cove.  Or, if the old man can’t come up with a reason, he’ll chalk it up to the writer’s youth.

Because young people are stupid.

113 thoughts on “Back in My Day…

  1. 1
    Andy says:

    Great post, Bryan. What you say is true not just about baseball, but pretty much all of life. There is always the tendency to think that things were better in days gone by. When it comes to baseball, it’s not hard to find journalism from, say, the 1970s and 1980s that the then-current stars didn’t play the game the way “true” stars from recent decades–Mays, Aaron, Musial, etc–played the game. But, if you go back a little bit, you can find journalism from the 1950s and 1960s saying that THOSE three guys didn’t play the game the right way that previous stars such as Gehrig, Williams, and DiMaggio did. And THOSE guys had the same thing written about THEM. You can find writing about players putting too much emphasis on the home run going all the way back to the 1800s–that’s 120 straight years of the same complaint.

    Another great example is PEDs. When steroids became such a huge issue (yesterday was the 5th anniversary of the Mitchell Report!) a small group of people (who were eventually drowned out) said that ballplayers have been cheating for as long as the game has been around. That’s true. Before steroids & HGH were readily available, players took amphetamines. Before that, players took other things. Players have been doctoring equipment for as long as equipment has been used. We only see today’s crimes as worse because they are new things that are against the rules or the law–but the fact of the matter is that some fraction of players has always pushed beyond what was allowed.

    I believe there’s actually a strong link between this sort of thinking and depression. The belief that things used to be better and generalizing in one’s mind that “everything” today isn’t as good as it used to be, that people aren’t trying as hard or adhering to the same values–these are classic signs of depression. It doesn’t take all that much awareness to realize that standards in society and in people’s minds shift continually and that the core essence of people today is not statistically different from what it was 100 years ago. Those who doubt it need only go to the library and look up literature from 100 years ago–those we now remember so reverently were just as criticized THEN as our stars are today.

    • 3
      deal says:

      Hey you kids get off my lawn!

      Lots o territory here…

      You Know why I am always gonna think Steve Carlton was the greatest pitcher ever – because I was 12 and I had no frame of reference. If I don’t ever seriously consider more data at some point, my opinion will always be that of a 12 yr old.

      I like the angle where Nostaglizing the past leads to depression. No Data here, but random sampling of my world points that way as well. Some people don’t like change – I get that, but progress ain’t gonna wait just -cause folks don’t like it.

      Heard recently that as part of evolution – the animals that learned to Adapt to change survived not the biggest strongest or smartest. And to bring this back to baseball – teams that learn to adapt are the ones that prosper. For years the Phillies had bad teams, part of the reason was refusing to integrate. More recently teams that have warmed to Moneyball type thinking have had more success.

    • 4
      brp says:

      Good stuff. I always think of this quote when I hear any sort of BITGOD-type argument:

      “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

      Which is from Socrates. I think actually I picked that up from another commenter on the BBref blog, or here.

      • 17
        Lawrence Azrin says:

        Socrates never could hit the curveball. He thought that it was an underhanded trick and should be illegal.

        You should’ve seen Homer play centerfield, though; he really could cover a lot of ground.

        • 22

          I remember Homer playing right. Didn’t get into the game until the 7th because Strawberry was the only ringer who didn’t fall victim to some strange malady.

          • 27
            Nick Pain says:

            I thought it would have been more appropriate for Boggs to have been hypnotized into being a chicken and Canseco to become grotesquely swollen.

          • 47
            Jason Z says:

            Go to Wikipedia and read the entry about this episode, “Homer at the Bat”. It is quite funny
            and very interesting.

            Nick Pain,

            Your comment about Canseco is what sparked me to read more about it.

            In the Wikipedia article, they say that originally Canseco was slated to wake up
            in bed with Krabappel. Sadly for us, he
            and his wife objected. He was a jerk in
            other ways too. Just thought this was funny.

    • 7

      Thanks, Andy. I didn’t touch on the PED argument because I’m getting sick of it, but I agree with your every word.

      As to your point about depression, technology moves faster with every generation, and distorts social norms as it moves. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to be 80 right now and to admit that technology has vastly improved so many aspects of life, when your grandkids never look up from their iPhones and drivers cut you off because their NAV systems told them to. Whether that’s depression or not, it must be easier to retreat to the pleasant memories of your own youth and know that everything was better then.

    • 25
      Jason Z says:


      A very though provoking first post.

      The Good old days. Funny. Everything
      about our standard of living is infinitely
      better today. Who wants to come over
      and play Atari after school??

      The thing about the good old days is we
      never learn. The same problems facing
      this country one hundred plus years ago
      invoke the same responses today.

      Allow me to illustrate in regards to immigration.

      This was written in 1912 by Jeremiah Jenks and W. Jett Lauck,

      “Many persons who have spoken and written in favor of restriction of immigration, have laid great stress upon the evils to society arising from immigration. They have claimed that disease, pauperism, crime and vice have been greatly increased through the incoming of the immigrants. Perhaps no other phase of the question has aroused so keen feeling, and yet perhaps on no other phase of the question has there been so little accurate information.”

      The same thing is said today by many.

  2. 2
    Baltimorechop says:

    Not baseball related, but this always nips at me a bit on movies (as does the exact opposite mindset, that only new movies are worth watching).

    Whenever I see a list of best movies that contains only a handful of films from 1990 onward, I don’t fully trust it. Likewise, if I see someone’s list and it only contains 80s onward, I don’t trust it.

    It’s curious that often we hold it against older ball players that they played pre-integration, or pre-20th century and discount them accordingly. In films, it’s almost always applied as a credit that they didn’t have as good of cameras available or sound at all. My rambling two cents.

    • 5

      Chop, I agree about the movie thing. I like the American Film Institute lists, and I tend to prefer old movies, but I always thought AFI waited too long to declare a new movie “great” and loaded their lists with films from the ’40s (which tend to be great) and ’50s (which are often overrated) while ignoring the great films of the ’90s and ’00s.

      To your last point, I don’t think it’s right to bunch all players from pre-integration and “discount them accordingly”. I do think we should acknowledge that the talent pool was less deep pre-’47 and that it was easier to dominate. WAR and other stats that compare players to their peers will overrate those who put up huge numbers relative to their peers without adjusting for the evolution of a replacement player/average player. Babe Ruth may very well be the best player who ever played, but I’m less impressed with his 11-WAR seasons than I am with Bonds’s.

      • 11
        Baltimorechop says:

        I finished both version of the AFI top 100 a few years ago (between the two it’s only like 116 or so films). I’m working on the top 100 of They Shoot Movies, don’t they? (I think i’m 5 or 6 away) But it is pretty insanely skewed toward the old. They have a top 1000, and the decade most represented is the 60s, which baffles me.

        To be fair to the site, their rankings are based on critics’ lists (even long dead critics, and very old lists) so that causes the skew toward the old. In my opinion, they should probably throw out old lists. That’d be like taking a poll of who’s the best Baseball player and taking votes from people who died in 1900. If you weren’t around to see anyone past Delahanty/Connor/Brouthers/Nichols, how could you know they were better than Mays/Bonds/Maddux etc.

    • 13
      Jason Z says:

      So thought provoking.

      For now in regards to “best film” lists.

      Last Year, Britian’s Sight and Sound magazine
      published the ten year list of best movies

      Supplanting Citizen Kane which ruled the top
      spot for 50 years was Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

      I bring this up because of your comment about
      recent films not getting the credit they deserve.
      I agree. When Vertigo was released it received little
      critical acclaim. It was only the seventh highest
      grossing film of the year.

      But today it is considered the best film ever.

      • 16

        I’d call that a lesser ’50s film supplanting a better ’40s film, but I’m probably so programmed to respect “Citizen Kane” that I can’t be objective. When “Rushmore” is in the AFI’s top 25, either the AFI has figured out how to rate new movies or it’s 2038 and “Rushmore” is 40 years old.

      • 18
        Baltimorechop says:

        Though Vertigo wasn’t initially respected, critics were apparently quicker to recognize a great film back then. In the 1962 Sight & Sound poll (the first where Vertigo was eligible) they selected a film from 1960 as the second best film of all time. That’s something I don’t believe we’ll ever see again out of sight & sound.

        The current list has no movie newer than 1968. In 2002, they had Godfather, parts 1 & 2 (taken together); which means the newest film that’s ever appeared on the list is from 1974.

        I’ve always preferred Rear Window, myself.

        • 21
          Jason Z says:

          Citizen Kane is amazing. I too have never been a big
          fan of Vertigo.

          Rear Window is great for several reasons. Grace Kelly
          and the woman who works out in her bra and panties across the courtyard are two of them.

          Seriously, I agree with you about Rear Window.

          I haven’t seen every Hitchcock but I would rate the following above (pun intended) Vertigo.

          North by Northwest
          The Man Who Knew too Much
          The Birds
          Shadow of a Doubt
          The Rope
          The Wrong Man
          Strangers on a Train
          Lifeboat (1944) (little known but awesome)
          The 39 Steps

          • 23

            If these are in order, you’re certainly right in your placement of North by Northwest. I might put Notorious second.

          • 24
            Baltimorechop says:

            I’ve seen about 20 Hitchcock, I’d put the following above Vertigo:

            Rear Window
            North by Northwest
            To Catch a Thief (it just thoroughly charmed me)
            The Rope
            Strangers on a Train
            The Lady Vanishes

            I do like Vertigo better than The Birds, Psycho and Notorious. I love Lifeboat.

          • 26
            Jason Z says:


            Ashamed to say I have never gotten through
            Notorious. I know I know…

            Not in order, but I do like North by Northwest
            best of all. Otherwise slide The Birds down and move Lifeboat way up. The rest are about right.

            When it comes to Hitchcock though we are splitting hairs trying to rank these.

            Now I know how they felt in NYC back in the 50’s re. Mickey Mantle v. Willie Mays.

            Thanks for The Lady Vanishes BC. That makes
            the list. I forgot that one.

          • 34
            Voomo Zanzibar says:

            “High Anxiety” is #1

          • 35
            Mike L says:

            Try “The Third Man”. Great music, terrific locations, Orson Welles, Joesph Cotton, etc.

  3. 6
    Mike L says:

    Being older that virtually everyone who participates here, I think that it’s dangerous to make comparisons across eras. There’s absolutely no question in my mind that people are larger, stronger, and faster than they were thirty, or sixty, or ninety years ago. But baseball isn’t the equivalent of running against a clock; it’s the pitting of one person’s set of skills against another, and in that way entirely contextual. The modern player is more a physical marvel, but he’s also aided by sophisticated medical techniques and improved equipment. We just don’t know how a Mays or a Mantle would perform today. My argument isn’t that Mays is better than Bonds. It’s that I can’t say with certainty one way or another. The argument I would have with the purely stat driven fans, referencing modern analysis based on metrics that are back-tested, but may not have reflected consensus at the the time, is that the absolute certainty they have that can, in it’s own way, also be as self-determining as me saying “Hey, I saw the Mick…”
    By the way. I met Jim Ryan at a track meet a few years ago. He’s a big guy- still very fit although obviously heavier. He’s a retired Congressman who now has a faith-based running camp.

    • 8

      As we get older, is most running faith-based?

      I agree with most of what you said here, Mike, but I’ll take issue with one thing. Today’s metrics may not perfectly evaluate players from generations ago, but I think they consistently overrate players from lesser eras. I’m not sure if, and to what extent, the ’60s are a lesser era (I believe there’s been some evolution and a deepening of the talent pool with internationalization and specialization of pitching roles), but I’m certain that the average player in the pre-integration era was less talented than the average player today, which means the best players, while maybe as great as the best players today, had an easier time putting up huge replacement-level-based numbers. Go back to the 1800s and this effect is multiplied, as players represented a much smaller, more localized population and most of them had winter jobs, not winter training regimens.

      • 9
        Mike L says:

        Brian, I agree completely that the average player’s skills have substantially increased.
        And as for faith-based running, Ryan still looks like he can tear one off. BTW, I ran the Fifth Avenue Mile. There was a 51 year old who ran a 4:37. And a 78 year old who ran a 6:24.

      • 97
        Brent says:

        It’s a size thing. When you look at the size of Cobb, Wagner, Johnson, Ruth, Mathewson, what you will see is guys who were, by today’s standards, normal sized guys. But when the average player was 5’9″ 160 pounds, they were giants. And they dominated the smaller guys around them physically. I don’t think there is any doubt about that.

        Rabbit Maranville and Johnny Evers are in the HOF (whether they deserve to be is another argument). One was 5’5″, the other weighed about 120 pounds. I don’t think there is any way either one ever sniffs the field today, let alone play at a high level.

  4. 10
    John Autin says:

    Bryan, could you clarify your mention of “evolution” and the statement that “Every generation of humans is a little more fit for our world”?

    I assume you’re not talking about the general theory of evolution and natural selection, since that process would be quite unlikely to produce measurable change in the physical ability of elite athletes within the span of 100 years.

    Also, don’t we have a tacit agreement never again to mention the Tour de France?,30063/

    At any rate, the TdF seems problematic as evidence of your thesis. 🙂

    • 14

      This is the point I was afraid to defend, John (evolution, not TdF). I think there is an element of natural selection to the evolution of athletes. More of the advances in timed events probably comes from access to better nutrition, better pre-natal/early childhood care, and more people devoting more time to improving. But if we can evolve to walk upright in tens of thousands of years and gain/lose body hair in reaction to our surroundings in hundreds, why couldn’t elite athletes gain the 1-2% more strength/flexibility it might require to set them apart from their predecessors in 50 to 100 years?

      Barry Bonds’s father was one of the 300 or so best baseball players of all time. I would guess that Bobby Bonds was attracted to physically fit women and that Barry’s mother’s genes improved the gene pool. If every generation of athletes marries and reproduces with other athletic people, doesn’t it follow that the elite athletes in each subsequent generation will be even more athletic than their parents?

      It seems as though Robert Fogel backs this up with his theory of technophysio evolution. When advantageous physical attributes are nurtured through both reprodcution and technology, the process of evolution happens far more quickly. This is why humans are several inches taller, on average, than we were in 1850.

      • 20
        Jason Z says:

        You bet we are bigger. Go to an old stadium and sit in the seats.

        I recently went to a football game at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. They have a new stadium on campus. The seats were huge.

        The best way I can put it is by saying that I am 6ft. 235lbs.

        Not once did I have any leg contact with those next to me.

        Zip, zero, zilch. Nada.

        • 44
          Insert Name Here says:

          As a contrary example, I am about 6’2” and 240 lbs and have gone to Fenway Park many times, and the grandstands are impossible for me to sit in without bumping the seat in front of me with my knees. It’s also been said that if they were replaced with properly-sized seats, then the aisles would be too thin for legal regulations, or the ballpark’s capacity (currently 37,402, or 27th of 30 in MLB) would become even smaller.

          Oh, and Fenway Park was built exactly 100 years ago.

      • 39
        Brendan Bingham says:

        For every Barry Bonds who has exceeded the MLB accomplishments of his father, there are several guys named Dale Berra, Hal Trosky Jr, and names we don’t know because they never made it to professional ball.

        • 73
          Andy says:

          This is exactly right. I actually did a study on fathers and sons and felt that the data showed that sons in MLB are, on average, not quite as good as their fathers, and that was before factoring in sons who never made it (such as the kids of Mattingly & Griffey Jr)

          • 74

            Not as good, Andy, or not as successful playing a generation later? I’m not trying to say that Dale Berra was as talented as Yogi, but isn’t there a chance that David Bell was as talented as Buddy but couldn’t stand out against stronger competition?

          • 86
            Brendan Bingham says:

            Andy, this is a topic that interests me. If your father/son work is posted (or otherwise published), please direct me to it. Thanks.

      • 42
        Mike Felber says:

        This is not evolution in the literal sense. 1st there is no consistent breeding of only athletes, things get watered down. Next, evolution takes a lot longer than 100 years: there must be a strong selective pressure for a favored group to breed & survive, advantageous mutations need time to come up & take root, & incremental changed take much time.

        you could argue the opposite, that technology & civilization have allowed most all to breed, regardless of fitness.

        Though there are more folks to find the best from. And sometimes many more can be of the group/class to compete, like Latino & Japanese

        The height difference is completely due to better nutrition. Why many immigrant kids dwarf their parents.

        Again, things like the strength & flexibility gains are due to improved training, nutrition, & a bigger pool. There is no difference in the genes/average person in a short time.

        • 55

          I can accept that natural selection doesn’t play into this, but technophysio evolution seems to have the same effect. People, particularly elite athletes, are more fit to do what they do now than they were in past generations. Expansion of the pool explains the improvement of the average/replacement level player, but not necessarily the evolution of the best players.

    • 15

      …and while I’m happy to never write about the Tour de France again, there’s a table way down in this article showing the progression of the overall speed of the Tour, which, if I’m reading it correctly, is finished in less than 2/3 the time it took a century ago. If your point is that cycling speed are more a factor of technology and, ahem, other advantages, point taken, but I’d bet that the legs powering those bikes are stronger than they used to be, drugs or no drugs.

    • 37
      RJ says:

      John, seeing as you’re clearly an Onion fan, did you catch this one?,30131/

  5. 12
    Atlcrackerfan says:

    I think @3 is on point regarding age, memories and nostalgia. Sports in general (and baseball in particular) lend themselves to memories that grow more glowing (and fuzzily accurate) with the passing of time. Most of us 1st went to baseball game as a kid, and our heros, whose exploits seem greater with each passing year, remain our standard for excellence.
    We can opine, and do frequently is seems, on the demographic differences in athletes over the years, the affects of PEDs and other substances, the impact of expansion on The Game, but most of us have a fondness for our childhood heros which defies statistical rationalization.

  6. 19
    Jason Z says:

    As to comparing player’s across era’s, it is exceedingly difficult. In
    fact we have a more recent issue in this regard that I have yet to see
    mentioned, but first…

    Babe Ruth. It is ridiculous to compare the overall quality of play today
    to what existed before Jackie Robinson who leads directly to Ichiro and
    picks up a melting pot of international greats along the way that has enriched
    the game beyond description.

    Travel, equipment, training, coaching, knowledge, strength, speed, size,
    the field and wealth underscore many of the changes. There are numerous
    other reasons why trying to compare across time is tough.

    In regards to Ruth, I view him as a special case for two reason’s. One is that he changed the game offensively. He was the first and dominated to
    an extreme.

    Secondly, the man was destined to make the HOF as a pitcher. This would be
    true had he never picked up a bat.

    In his first full season, 1915 age 20, Ruth went 18-8. He started 28 games
    and completed 16 with 1 shutout. His ERA was 2.44 which in that pitching rich
    time, translated to an ERA+ of 114. At the plate Ruth came to bat 92 times.
    He got 29 hits. This included 10 doubles, 1 triple, and 4 homers. The 4 homers in 92 AB was impressive. The league leader had 7. He batted .315
    with an OPS+ of 188.

    In 1916 the Bosox started Ruth 40 times. He rewarded them with 23-12, 9 shutouts and 23 complete games. He pitched 323.2 innings with an ERA of 1.75. ERA+ of 158.

    1917 was more of the same. He won one more game. Completed 35 of 40 starts
    and pitched three more innings than 1916.

    In 1918 the Red Sox, no longer able to ignore Ruth’s bat on his off days, moved him into the OF when he wasn’t pitching. He would only start 34 games
    in 18 and 19, yet completed 30 and posted a W-L of 22-12 with an ERA+ for
    those two seasons that was still 10% better than league average.

    All this on the mound, while really focusing as a hitter.

    In 1919 his 29 HR lead the league. Three others tied for second
    with 10. Including HOF’ers Frank (Home Run) Baker, and George Sisler.

    After the season he is sold the Yankees and the rest is history.

    I think the great players of any era could play today. Not sure that they
    would be as great though.

    I think the biggest difference is the other players. I think the talent
    level is much much deeper today. Obviously.

    As for the issue that I touched on earlier.

    IMO the best athletes know longer play baseball. At least in America.

    The level of African American’s playing baseball has declined from
    27% of rosters at its peak in 1975, to 8.05% last year.

    What this all means is that we have yet to see the game operating at an
    all inclusive level at maximum efficiency.

    We have less African American’s, yet we have many more foreigners.

    Which strengthens the game more??

    Not sure, but I would guess if we had somewhere around 20% African American
    participation, the game would be stronger. It would have to be.

    And yet the players appearance has changed markedly since 1975. They no longer need those pesky, time consuming off-season jobs. They can train
    year round. Everyone is just bigger and stronger. Remember when a homerun
    to the opposite field was a special occurrence 35 years ago??

    The first Yankee game I ever attended was peopled at SS by Fred “chicken” Stanley.

    Since then, Robin Yount, Alan Trammell, Cal Ripken, Barry Larkin, Arod,
    Jeter, Miguel Tejada, Nomah, Troy Tulowitski and Jimmy Rollins.

    Derek Jeter is 6ft. 3in. for gosh sakes.

    Moral is that so much has changed. As a kid, I never could have imagined
    the offensive evolution at SS. In 1979 I was so impressed with Doug Flynn
    getting 61 RBI’s at SS for the Mets.

    Comparing players from different times is fun.

    I do think that Babe Ruth’s top shelf excellence in both pitching and
    hitting is what separates him from every other player in baseball history.

    No one has come close to what Ruth accomplished in any era.

    It’s why even though he played at a time when the talent pool was sorely lacking, he is IMO the best ever.

  7. 28
    no statistician but says:

    Thank God most of my points have already been made, so I can just list them:

    1) It is impossible to compare players between eras as far apart as those of Bonds, Mays, and Ruth.

    2) What all three players had in common was that they met the best competition available and performed so far above it that they are recognized as elite players, Ruth without peer in his times, Mays with only Mantle, who spiked higher but fell off sooner, Bonds who maintained a high level, (probably artificially and to the detriment of his reputation and legacy, but that’s off the table for discussion) unlike his contemporary challengers, Griffey, Rodriguez, and Philinyourfavorite.

    3) The word you’re searching for, Bryan, is Environment, not Evolution.

    4) Analogies aren’t logic, they’re illustration. The analogy here between mile record breakers and baseball players, I think, doesn’t really illustrate what it is supposed to, when one considers the historical and social factors involved in the evolution of track and field running. I. like Mike L above, am old enough to remember quite clearly the breaking of the 4-minute mile by Roger Bannister in 1954. The event was filmed and shown on our 10-inch TV screens countless times. Bannister, like most track and field athletes prior to the 1960s, was an amateur, a medical student who ran in his spare time, and who was determine to break the 4-minute mile bugaboo that was then part of popular superstition. He had the help of other runners to pace him in this deliberate attempt, but he was still just a medical student on a mission. By Jim Ryan’s time the better track and field athletes were amateur in name only, devoting their lives to their events; runners were wearing Reeboks, not Converse All Stars; a science of running was developing; and running had caught the imagination of young people so that far more people were participating in it both competitively and for fitness. Through the 1970s and 1980s professionalism gradually came to be accepted as the norm in all sports beyond the school or college level, impacting in ways too complex to enumerate, but no doubt pushing the efforts and numbers. I don’t see this social and historical series of developments supporting the argument you are trying to make. Feel free to disagree.

    5) North by Northwest, Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt—definitely better than Vertigo, so how can Vertigo be the best film ever? Citizen Kane is a great film, but there are many others as great: I recommend The Third Man, Wings of Desire, Sunrise, My Night at Maud’s, La Dolce Vita, etc. etc. Nothing by Hitchcock, actually, although he is my favorite director and is certainly the director who, thus far, has produced the largest body of lasting films.

    • 56

      nsb, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that I disagree with a lot of this. Environments change with time and place, but not necessarily in one direction. Evolution is, if not linear, at least always changing in the same direction). Many factors related to changes/inconsistencies in environment (ballpark size, differences in rules between leagues, etc.) are measurable and adjusted for in WAR and other “+” stats. The gradual increase in athletic ability over time is immeasurable and is the primary reason we can’t accurately compare players across eras in terms of talent.

      In #4, are you suggesting that runners have shaved an eighth of a mile off the mile time in 120 years because they’re trying harder than they used to? If the world record holder in 1884 trained from a young age, went to a top college, and was paid to run, would he have run 12% faster? Certainly training and level of effort are part of this conversation, but they can’t explain such a drastic change.

      I’m very glad you included “Sunrise” among your movie recommendations.

      • 60
        e pluribus munu says:

        Bryan, While I agree with many of your points, I think you are misusing the concept of natural selection. As I understand natural selection, the dynamics concerns the interaction of members of an ever-mutating species with the natural environment in which they live, and the ways in which mutations may result in species members whose traits improve their adaptation to the environment for purposes of gene transmission. I don’t think that’s likely to have anything to do with changes in competition in ever-changing designed environments over a century. I think that training techniques and the child-sports focus, equipment improvements, generally rising nutrition, the advent of sports medicine, and particularly an ever-widening internationalization and growing reward structure of sports competition that vastly increases the participant pool, can adequately account for the changes we’ve seen in sports like track and cycling, without dragging Darwin in and provoking the theologically minded.

        As for unnatural selection, I’ve always been partial to “Les enfants du paradis.”

        • 62
          no statistician but says:

          “Les enfants du paradis”, an excellent film, all the better for the nearly impossible conditions under which it was made, one of the etc. of my comment above. There really isn’t a WAR for greatness in cinema, and until some stats guy develops it we can all have our opinions. With film (literature, music, art) the important thing in judging is to distinguish between what pleases and what stands on merit. One of my own favorite films is The Ipcress File, a young Michael Caine playing a smart-aleck spy in a Len Deighton story, sort of an anti-Bond. Trying this minute to rank it, however, I can’t even conceive of it being in the top 2000, maybe not in the top 5000. To me it’s eternally entertaining, but it’s all surface, no depth.

          Conclusion? Where else but HHS can some old windbag go on about subject matter completely off the point?

          • 71
            bstar says:

            I heard Michael Caine say on a morning TV show a few years ago that he’s never, ever had a director ask for a second take. That’s some serious chops, folks.

      • 68
        BryanM says:

        Bryan ; I would like to make a couple of points, from the perspective of one of the oldest posters (i believe) on this site ( full discosure: I saw Enos Slaughter play ,and no, he wasn’t better than Mike Trout)
        1) It is impossible to conclusively demonstrate that players from one era were better or worse than those of another, so while it is annoying to be vicariously the subject of an ad hominem argument; “he can’t understand; he never saw Willie play”, it is also somewhat sad to read the old ” runners and swimmers are getting faster, so ballplayers must be getting better ” line again. As the side discussion about films shows, there is no consensus that movies are getting better, and there is no serious reason to suppose there is a selection pressure in baseball that is making that sport better either , if you will grant me a pass on better stadium lighting, better groundskeeping,and other exogenous factors.
        2) As epm says @60, the concept of evolution under natural selection is being misused here. It is one of the greatest discoveries of the human mind , but is very often misunderstood; for one thing, it is directionless – your statement above that eveolution is always changing in the same direction is just wrong ( A good current read on the subject is “Evolution for Everyone, by David Sloan Wilson) a there is no tendency towards “better” in nature – only a suite of organisms, slowly, over multiple generations, changing, and being changed by, each other and their environment. For another, the selection pressures apply only to those traits which affect the organism’s ability to produce offspring ; no part of the movement in the record times for the mile is,or can be, due to evolution. there are more factors than training and level of effort , of course, equipment, nutrition , medicine ,etc.
        3) a somewhat similar concept which IS pertinent here, is competition. Athletes in timed events compete, not only with each other , but with those who have gone before — a tremendous part of the appeal of Usain Bolt, and the Olympic games ability to sell television packages for billions on his back, is the interest of the spectators in seeing a potential world record. In team sports, competitive pressures are improving training methods, nutrition, player selection, roster composition etc. in order to lead to more team wins and hence more dollars There is no doubt, for example that the move to the five man rotation is a technical advance driven by competitive (not evolutionary) pressures, and that five-man rotation teams are “better” than four man rotation teams. For an individual player in that matrix, the competition is only with contemporaries; to say that today’s pitchers are not as good as Denny Mclain because they dont pitch 336 innings would be as egregious an error as to say the opposite.

        • 75

          Ok, Darwin’s, out, but I’m not letting go of Fogel. We’re getting taller, we’re getting stronger, we’re getting faster. Whatever the reasons behind this, it’s harder to make it in professional baseball today.

          I will admit, though, in response to you, to MikeD at 63, and to Timmy Pea at 69, that age discrimination in the reverse direction is at least as unacceptable, and if I’m veering in the direction of disrespecting everything and everyone who came before because of a belief that athletes are getting better, I apologize. I have great respect for my elders, in life, in sports, and in art.

          I’ve beaten more than one dead horse in this comment thread, but I’d like to throw in one more note about the movie analogy. I believe art and athletics evolve in very different ways. Art is entirely subjective, and where there is consensus around value in art, it typically involves innovation or influence. Citizen Kane was an undeniably great film because it spawned so many imitators. Robert Johnson was a great musician, whether one likes his music or not, because he added so much to the language of the guitar. Subsequent filmmakers and musicians *must* expand on earlier points of reference to avoid being seen as derivative. Oasis made decent music, but never received a ton of critical praise because they sounded like the Beatles, and they didn’t do anything all that much better than the Beatles.

          Athletics, with a few exceptions, are judged objectively. Wins and losses, time to complete a race, ratio of success in reaching base or hitting a receiver or draining three pointers… A great three-point shooter doesn’t have to shoot with one hand to be better than a previous three-point “innovator”; he only has to make more baskets and we’ll know he was better. Until we factor in relative defensive pressure, which is where the discussion in this thread starts.

          As such, it’s natural to see top movie lists dominated by older films, released when there was more new ground to make and less to imitate. That doesn’t make today’s or yesterday’s films any better or worse; it only makes consensus about modern films’ greatness harder to achieve.

          • 84
            BryanM says:

            Bryan, It would be a shame if the side issue of Darwin were to deflect attention from the very important issues you raised in your original post; namely the effect of competition and the passage of time on overall performance – in baseball, and by extension other areas of life.
            In human affairs, nostalgia will always be in style, for the excellent reason that being young is way better than being old (trust me on this) and the old know it. Couple this with the evolved tendency of humans to forget past pain, which accounts for women having more than one child, and the temptation for the elderly to genuinely imagine their youth as a golden age is very strong.
            On the other hand , a byproduct of the world’s becoming richer and more connected is undeniably for people to become larger and stronger; whether, as you assert, this makes it harder to make it in professional baseball today is uncertain – if “harder” means “statistically less likely, the probability was always vanishingly small – it’s certainly harder than it was in 1942 or 1962, not sure about 1952.
            The competitive pressure on baseball players has varied over time as it was variously believed that hitting for average, speed, clutch hitting as measured by RBI, or today, probably OPS ,was the key stat that led to winning baseball. All other things being equal, it is not unreasonable to suppose that constant competition for rewards over time leads to improved average performance, through innovation in technique, and retention of those techniques that work; in that sense, I think we would all grant that today’s ballplayers start off with a better concept of how to play the game than those of 50 years ago; whether they are “better” is largely, i suspect , a matter of semantics.
            To use a chess analogy, a good modern junior player knows by heart methods to refute the favorite moves of world champion Capablanca (1921-27). If we imagine a contest between the old master,knowing what he did , and a very good modern player , equipped with modern knowledge, the very good modern player might well win. but that is anachronistic thinking – Capa was probably the most talented player of all time, and two
            Many things continue to get better — IMHO, the very best Law/Police TV series ever is the BBCs “SILK” just completed its second season in the UK.
            As a good friend of mine used to say, before his Alzheimer’s , “life is good
            and getting better- nostalgia is for wimps”

  8. 29
    Doug says:

    Changes in ice hockey in the past 50 years are perhapos illustrative of pre-integration and post-integration baseball.

    45 years ago there were six NHL teams and 98% of players were Canadian. Today, there are 30 teams but only 55% of players are Canadian. Ocasionally ESPN will show NHL games from the 50s and 60s -they look like they’re playing in slow motion. Just a completely different game. Presunably, with integration and more players from different countries, a similar change has occurred in the level of play in baseball.

  9. 32

    This was really great. (I just read it now, been a little distracted today.) Very nice job.

  10. 33
    John Autin says:

    I still don’t understand why Peter Weir is not a superstar director. The 10 Weir films that I’ve seen are all very well done and diversely interesting:

    – Picnic at Hanging Rock
    – The Last Wave
    – Gallipoli
    – The Year of Living Dangerously
    – Witness
    – The Mosquito Coast
    – Dead Poets Society
    – Fearless
    – The Truman Show
    – Master and Commander

    • 38
      no statistician but says:


      Your remark about Peter Weir made me curious. David Thomson, who has been called “probably the greatest living film critic and historian,” writes this about Weir in his landmark “New Biographical Dictionary of Film” (Fourth Edition): “Weir has an uncommon and beguiling aptitude for atmosphere of menace and mystery . . . (b)ut how pedestrian he becomes when he tries to explain these pregnant moods. The first part of Picnic at Hanging Rock is exquisite . . . the Indonesia disclosed in The Year of Living Dangerously is fascinating; and the Amish community in Witness cries out to take over the picture.

      “But plots get preference, and the films become clumsy and conventional . . .” Thomson goes on to damn with faint praise some later films, then he says this: “So who was prepared for The Truman Show, which I rate as one of the great American movies, magically balanced between farce and dread, a unique exploration . . ..”

      I’m not a big fan of Weir’s myself, having seen only three of his attempts, Witness being an OK thriller, Dead Poet’s Society not a bad film but based on a hackneyed story about a supposedly unconventional teacher and some poor, abused rich kids—hence to me virtually unwatchable. The Truman Show is indeed something else, and I think Thomson rates it correctly as one of the great movies. WAR of at least 11.0, so of course it failed to be nominated for an Oscar, won that year by a piece of libelous idiocy denigrating the character of the greatest dramatist in western culture. (I know you can’t libel a dead man, but Shakespeare lives.)

      Your comment that Weir’s films are “very well done and diversely interesting” is right on target with the general consensus of the other critics I’ve consulted, making his rather small body of work one that will probably grow in reputation with time—or so I think.

  11. 36
    RJ says:

    Great read Bryan. Although everyone knows mayo tasted better during the Cold War.

  12. 40
    Brendan Bingham says:

    Great article, Bryan.

    Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. It too has been changed by modern technology. Before bb-ref and retrosheet, we could all BS about the games and players of our youth, not necessarily out of willful deceit, but because memory is selective and there was no easy way to fact-check. When I discovered retrosheet, the first thing I did was look up the first game I attended as a child (Sept 1967). The boxscore confirmed my memory of the home run and stolen base, but I had forgotten the names of half the players, as well as the three errors and the lightning-fast playing time of 1 hr 51 min.

    • 43
      PP says:

      Back in my day I used to look forward to the Sunday sports page to see the averages, HRs and RBIs. And at the start of each year buying that red book of all player career stats (Baseball Register?). That was something.

      • 48
        Richard Chester says:

        And back in my day I received a copy of the first “Baseball Encyclopedia” in 1951 as a bar-mitzvah gift from my parents. It was co-edited by NY Daily News reporter Hy Turkin. It had records of every ML player although not in the same detail as later encyclopedias. It also had lists of career leaders in various categories, something I had never before seen. Needless to say I spent quite a bit of time reading it.

      • 51
        bstar says:

        Back in my day I’d live on the box scores and league leaders from the daily newspaper. That was the 70s. During the 80s I’d graduated to The Sporting News (they were the only weekly publication that had stats for every player in every pro sports league). I also read Sports Illustrated, but I was a little too young to appreciate the writing and thought The Sporting News had far more content. They gave you a breakdown of every team in every division, what was going good and bad, a view of the minor leagues. The Sporting News was far ahead of its time and has never received any accolades for what it was and what it offered, back in my day.

        • 52
          PP says:

          I forgot about The Sporting News. Also, I lived in Italy in 90-91 and the only way to get scores and standings was in USA Today, which wasn’t much, except a friend had a buddy in the States send him copies of The National a week at a time. We’d devour those.

  13. 41
    MikeD says:

    We’re dismissing Ted Williams for what reason?

    • 46
      Jason Z says:

      Nobody should ever dismiss the splendid splinter.

      Having just followed Richard’s suggestion to google
      “Babe Ruth supernormal”, I can recall that Ted Williams’
      eyesight was something around the order of 20/10.

      Which explains why he was a great fighter pilot
      serving in two wars.

      An attribute that far above normal, combined with
      his singular focus and motivation to be the best
      hitter ever, insures that Ted Williams would be
      the cream of the crop in any generation.

      Imagine a modern day Ted Williams with his motivation,
      understanding of the strike zone and willingness to walk,
      along with the financial security to train year round.

      Combine this with the better equipment, video to study
      pitchers, easier travel, proper nutrition and medical

      Ted Williams is one of the best in any generation at
      whatever he decides to do.

      Let’ recount…

      1. One of the greatest hitters ever.
      2. One of this countries great fighter pilots.
      3. One of the best sport fisherman ever.

      Ted Williams was the type of person destined to
      succeed wildly at whatever he wanted to do.

      This type of greatness extends across decades and
      even centuries.

    • 50
      bstar says:

      We’re not dismissing Ted Williams. That author did. As for the reason why, it has to do with him playing half his career in “pre-integration”. Yes, that’s me rolling my eyes with you.

      This wasn’t really the point of Bryan’s well-written piece (or maybe it was, I don’t know), but to me you can’t call Barry Bonds the best ever without a thorough discussion of how he was never, ever compared to Babe Ruth until his head size doubled. And this comes from a guy who would just as soon bury his head in the sand about the whole steroid issue, but I just can’t do it with Barry Lamar. No one confused Barry Bonds with Babe Ruth until the year 2000, certainly not before. He was always faster than Ruth, but never bigger and stronger. Not until things changed for him physically. You can’t just leave that out and call taking amphetamines the same as taking the Cream and the Clear. That’s just way too lazy for me.

      • 58

        bstar, I appreciate this argument. We didn’t talk about Bonds in the ’90s the way we talked about Ruth, and I think that’s exactly what drove him to… let’s say “bulk up” in the first place. Isn’t it possible that we just weren’t paying attention? Before things got crazy in 2000, Bonds had run off 12 straight seasons of 6+ WAR. He’d won three MVP awards and maybe deserved more. He’d hit 40 or more homers three times and 33 or more nine times. Throw in speed (450+ steals to that point) and great outfield defense and with the evolution argument, Bonds may already have been a better player than Ruth.

        • 64
          RJ says:

          I recall this essentially being the narrative presented in Ken Burns’ baseball: the attention paid to McGwire and Sosa in 1998, in comparison to the relatively muted fanfare accompanying Bonds’ ascencion to, nay creation of, the 400-400 club, was what drove Bonds to “bulk up” in the first place. I remember this being accompianied by a particularly effective zoom on Bonds’ simmering visage.

          • 66
            MikeD says:

            Related, I believe talent is the greatest key to a player’s success, but the inner drive, the personality of the player is also a huge piece. If the talent isn’t there, no amount of drive can overcome that, but I do think certain players just squeeze out every bit of their ability, while others squander it.

            My opinion has changed on this over the years. I used to fall more heavily on the talent-is-everything side, meaning a player was almost destined to be successful because of his genetic gifts. Someone like Bonds is tremendously gifted. He is also driven by a chip-on-his-shoulder, indeed that simmering rage that he channeled to make himself better. 100 years from now, the game will be better than today, continuing to improve on the margins, but I have no doubt if peak Barry Bonds was transported to the future, he’d be the best, or among the top few in the game.

            Ty Cobb was a talented player. I have no doubt if 20-year-old Cobb was transported to today’s game, after a transition, he would be a tremendous player. The skill to play was there, but that seething rage pushed him. He had to be better than everyone else. He just had to be. Pete Rose obviously possessed quite a bit of skill to play baseball, but I don’t think he was every viewed as the most gifted on the field. Bonds has far, far more talent. Yet he was driven by something, and I’m sure if he played in 1890, 1990, 2090, he’d be one fine player. A HOF player. He would make sure of that.

            This type of note probably doesn’t fit on a stats oriented site most of the time, but I have developed a much greater appreciation of what makes a player, and a great player, and it does transcend just ability. The player needs that to start, but what he does from there is not set in stone.

          • 67
            RJ says:

            @ 66 Mike D So you’re saying Hanley Ramirez isn’t a great player? 🙂

          • 81
            MikeD says:

            RJ, he does possess great skills. 🙂

        • 72
          bstar says:

          Bryan @ 58, I’m not convinced you’ve actually looked at the numbers. Are you saying that Barry Bonds “flew under the radar” in the ’90s? No way. We all knew how great he was. His combination of speed, power, and defense was unmatched in the game. Everyone knew he was one of the greatest, but I don’t think many people were thinking Barry Bonds was the greatest player ever as the ’90s ended. Here’s the all-time leaders in WAR after age 34(Bonds after 1999):

          1. Babe Ruth 139.0(yes that’s his pitching WAR also)
          2. Rogers Hornsby 117.8
          3. Willie Mays 116.1
          4. Ty Cobb 115.6
          5. Hank Aaron 107.4
          6. Alex Rodriguez 105.7
          7. Lou Gehrig 104.6
          8. Barry Bonds 100.5
          9. Tris Speaker 100.0
          10. Stan Musial 99.8
          10. Mickey Mantle 99.8

          Babe Ruth is ahead of everybody (if you don’t want to include his pitcher WAR, he’s at 119.9. But since that pitching actually happened, I see no justification for not including it.) Bonds is in the top 10 but not really standing out amongst the all-time greats. This is the Barry Bonds I will choose to remember. If you compare the two, how can you make the conclusion that Bonds at this point, “may already have been a better player than Ruth”? How can you say that when taking their actual production into consideration? Ruth’s career production is over 38% higher at this point.

          • 76

            bstar, I’m not convinced you actually read my original post 🙂

            The argument for Bonds over Ruth through age 34 (which I’m not making; only asking that it isn’t dismissed) lies in the evolution of the average player. Ruth and the other six you name were more valuable in the context of their competition, but that doesn’t necessarily make them better. Rodriguez’s inclusion on your list suggests that Bonds needs his post-34 seasons to stand out among contemporaries. Like it or not, those seasons happened.

          • 77
            bstar says:

            Those Bonds seasons happened with the most fantastic amount of chemical enhancement possible. Barry wasn’t just on ‘roids, he was on cutting-edge, top-of-the-line, designer steroids. Or maybe you can find other names of guys who, in their age 35-39 seasons…

            -increased their batting runs from a career avg. of 42 Rbat/yr to an avg. of 94 in the next five years. That’s a 124% increase.

            -increased their OPS+ from a career avg. of 163 to an age 35-39 avg. of 241. That’s a 48% increase.

            -Increased their HR from a career avg. of 32/yr to a 35-39 avg. of 52/yr. That’s a 63% increase.

            There’s so much more. I don’t know if steroids made Barry faster, but everyone on the planet knows they made him bigger and stronger. Without these seasons, as my original point states, no one is going to be comparing Barry Bonds to Babe Ruth.

            And exactly how far are you going to take this “bigger, faster, stronger” thing? You just suggested above that Dale Friggin Berra was probably better than his father because Dale was born 30 years after Yogi. Dale Berra produced 4.2 career WAR, Bryan.

          • 78
            John Autin says:

            bstar @77 — I think your final paragraph badly misrepresents Bryan’s comment @74 about Dale and Yogi Berra. His statement, “I’m not trying to say that Dale Berra was as talented as Yogi,” just couldn’t be any clearer.

            It’s a shame that you ended that way, because (a) people tend to remember the last things most, and (b) you could just as easily have formed a strong critique of what Bryan actually said.

          • 79
            Jason Z says:

            Once Bonds had his ten seasons, it was common knowledge to expect him to end up in Cooperstown if he stayed healthy and maintained
            his pace.

            What nobody expected however, was that Bond’s
            was going to beat Aaron.

            Bonds entered his age 30 season with 259 homers.

            Nobody for saw over 500 more.

            By comparison, Ken Griffey Jr. entered his age
            30 season with 398 homers.

          • 80
            bstar says:

            JA, you’re right. I got Dale-Yogi confused with David-Buddy Bell. My larger point re: the final paragraph still stands. This “bigger, faster, stronger” thing is becoming more of a stretch every time it gets re-mentioned.

            And I don’t believe my final paragraph invalidates anything I said above it just because it was the last paragraph of my comment.

    • 57

      I wouldn’t dismiss Williams from a best-player-ever conversation on the basis of integration, though I might discount some of his replacement-level-based stats on that basis. I might dismiss him because of his defense, which was both anecdotally and empirically (-13.2 dWAR [ok, “empirically” may be a little strong]) subpar. Williams will always have a case as the best hitter ever, though I’d speculate that he’d never have hit .400 against today’s pitching, even in today’s ballparks.

      • 63
        MikeD says:

        There are some things I agree with in Bernhardt’s article, although there is much I don’t agree with. None of it has anything to do with the age of Bernhardt. Haven’t a clue how old he is since I didn’t look at his picture when I originally read his piece. Those who are young dismissing that who are older are no better than those who are old dismissing those who are young. Both groups can have powerful prejudices. I’m more interested in the argument than I am the age of the writer.

        I do question his dismissal of Williams for the reason he stated. Like you, I’m more comfortable not selecting Williams as the greatest player ever because of likely shortcomings in his overall game when defense is included, but I believe there’s a very good case to be made that he is the greatest hitter ever and that alone means I wouldn’t have dismissed him from the discussion.

        As for who is the greatest, before Bonds’ PED years and the funny-ball hitting era of the 1990s, I had Bonds as one of the twenty greatest players ever. I can’t, however, divorce that era from his accomplishments. I don’t know much it contributed, anymore than I know how much Williams benefited from his times. I still have Bonds as one of the twenty greatest ever, and indeed he moved up on my list.

        Greatest ever? I still go with Mays.

  14. 53
    Timmy Pea says:

    There is a reason our founders put age requirements on all our federal executive and legislative offices. It’s because young people are stupid and prone to emotional outbursts. Just kidding, but it would only go to reason that someone with more experience in life probably would see things more wisely. IQ points being the same, someone living through life’s ups and downs probably would be, well, wiser?

  15. 69
    Timmy Pea says:

    Well Bryan, let me give you a little fatherly advice (wink), many a young man has made his fortune or career by quietly suffering an old fool. Many more by showing the older man respect and learning what he has to teach.

  16. 70
    Timmy Pea says:

    I also don’t like the “back in my day” type.

    • 95
      Jason Z says:

      “back in my day we walked to school in the snow. Uphill. Both Ways.”

      • 100
        Timmy Pea says:

        Jason the worst “back in my day” guys are NFL announcers. I think Phil Simms is a good example. Ken “Hawk” Harrelson is sort of that way but he kind of becomes a running joke that he himself is in on. A lot of football announcers still have that competitive juice running through their veins.

  17. 82
    Mike L says:

    I think we are overgeneralizing a bit. There’s very little doubt that the average generation of players is larger and stronger than that of 100 years ago. But I doubt this has much to do with evolution–far more can be ascribed, as would be true with any animal, to a more optimal environment. It would astonish me if the stars of a previous era wouldn’t have been stars in this era. Same is true with filmaking; yes it’s true that modern filmmakers have both the advantage of better technology and the landmark work of those who came before. But, if you want to see a small movie that shows off John Ford’s gift for light, photography and character, try “My Darling Clementine.” We don’t have to compare him to anyone, his talent stands on its own. My 16 year old daughter is in love with the Bach B Minor Mass (about 1750). Genius; musical, artistic, mathematical, lyrical, athletic, is not time-bound.

    • 83
      bstar says:

      My Darling Clementine-a personal favorite! Most people remember Walter Brennan as the aged, toohtless old coot from countless later roles in westerns or from The Real McCoys, but he’s downright scary evil in My Darling Clementine. I still think this is John Ford’s masterpiece.

      I feel a strong connection to any of those movies filmed in Monument Valley; it’s like there’s a piece of me out there in that actually-quite-small 5 square mile area that John Ford made look so immense.

      • 94
        Jason Z says:

        Watched John Ford’s The Informer this weekend. Starred Victor Mclaglen who won the 1935 Academy Award for best actor.

        This movie also showed John Ford’s gift for light, or lack of it.

    • 91
      Timmy Pea says:

      If you were able to successfully clone Ted Williams today with the idea you were going to raise this child to be a great ball player, in 2034 you would have a great ball player. You use every modern advancement along with your knowledge of the past and Teddy II will be a great player. Pioneers are first but rarely perfect.

  18. 85
    John Autin says:

    I just think it’s impossible to make any reasonable comparison of “talent” between Babe Ruth and any other player, certainly any modern player. There are just too many variables in play. Just touching on one of those:

    Ruth’s approach at the plate was obviously revolutionary: uppercutting, swinging hard and not minding the strikeouts (he whiffed almost 60% more often than the league average, and ranked 1st or 2nd in the AL 12 times). Yet it took many years for Ruth’s approach to fully catch on, which helped him stay far above average in slugging throughout his career.

    During his offensive prime, 1919-34, Ruth’s HR% was 6.7 times that of all other players combined. Even in his last 4 full years, 1931-34, Ruth’s HR% was almost 5 times the league average. In 1933, Ruth’s 34 HRs were 2nd in MLB, and only 6 others hit 20 or more.

    During Bonds’s 15-year HR peak, 1990-2004, his HR% was almost the same as Ruth’s peak (6.73% Bonds, 7.06% Ruth) — but Bonds’s rate was only 2.6 times the league rate.

    Now, I don’t mean to ascribe all of Ruth’s success to his unique approach; I think he would have been quite successful with a traditional approach. But to the extent that his approach added value, I think that Ruth deserves full credit for those advantages, as reflected in his OPS+ and offensive WAR — when we compare him to his contemporaries.

    But when trying to compare Ruth’s *talent* across eras, it’s less clear how to weight that edge. It’s never easy to find a revolutionary approach, but it was a lot easier for Ruth in 1919, when the modern majors were still in infancy, than it is now.

    P.S. This is the same angle Bryan touched on @84 @75 re: comparing modern films to those “released when there was more new ground to make.”

    • 92
      Timmy Pea says:

      In Ruth’s time, especially early on defense was not as good as it is today. Simply putting the ball in play was much different then.

  19. 87
    e pluribus munu says:

    John, Your points remind me of a conversation that comes up periodically on HHS about Brooks Robinson: he’s sometimes mentioned as a candidate for best third baseman ever, or second to Schmidt, or . . . but enhanced stats place him considerably lower. Are those who rate Robinson so highly succumbing to the nostalgia effect?

    The thing about Robinson was that he was in some respects both the first [insert footnote of choice on Clete Boyer] and the best defensively effective acrobatic third baseman: he played the position in a substantially new way for a position that had not been viewed as a showcase for athleticism, and he came to be an asset as a hitter. People had not pictured third basemen in this way, but it provided a new model that players like Nettles, Schmidt, Bell, Santo, and others built on, adding better – sometimes far better – hitting.

    I think nostalgists who rate Robinson too high may be wrong in some respects – overvaluing defense being the most obvious – but aside from the illigitimate “back in my day” distortion, they may be adding the “it’s never easy to find a revolutionary approach” factor, which would be legitimate in some ranking frameworks.

    By the way, I think that this argument leads in a direction opposite Bryan’s @75 when applied to Robinson, who played when MLB was 80+ years along.

    And even more tangentially – I think disagreeing with Andy@1, though I may be midreading him – I think PEDs irreparably damaged the integrity of baseball’s statistical record, and we will always have to be aware of this when doing cross-era comparisons like these. I see amphetamines and similar drugs as one spectrum, and HGH and steroids as a very different one. While there are shared aspects, I think the differences are qualitative and dramatic on both performance and ethical grounds. I’m not interested in passing ethical judgments, but when judging performance, I think it’s an error to treat PEDs as the ’90s version of greenies.

    • 88
      John Autin says:

      epm, that’s a good follow-up.

      But I think that, while Brooksie may well have played the position more athletically than anyone up to that point (I don’t know), the fact of being a “defense-first” 3B was only revolutionary in regard to recent MLB history.

      From 1901-40, there were 490 qualified batter-seasons with OPS+ 140 or better — but only 24 of those (5%) were by third sackers. It was considered a defense-first position, even in the live-ball era: The only qualified year with 140+ OPS+ by a 3B in the ’20s was by Jimmie Foxx, in his first full year and last at the position. The ’30s saw 3 such years, one of those by Mel Ott, who was just filling in at the spot.

      Then, in the last 20 years of the pre-expansion era, there were 26 such years by 3Bs, a much more proportionate 12% of the total.

      On the issue of PEDs vs. other enhancements, I’m still up in the air. Here’s one thing that I’ve never seen explained about the PED era: If something like half of the hitters were using, and an equal proportion of pitchers, and if the effects of the drugs were significant, the individual stats of that era should be much more stratified than those of the periods just before and just after. Are they? I haven’t seen it shown.

      • 89
        e pluribus munu says:

        I’ve never thougt about the defense-first third sacker issue this way, JA. I can see it now that you point it out. In Robinson’s case, I really was referring to the style of play. I remember how impossible it seemed, and then I remember feeling even more astonished watching Nettles making similar plays just a few years later. It was something like Bryan’s example (per BryanM@68) of mile times – astonishing record setters like Ryun set a new bar, and that helped make it possible for his successors to clear it. (Apart from the teeth-gnashing mix in that metaphor, it also doesn’t really apply to Robinson, since his defense hasn’t been surpassed among third basemen.)

        Very interesting take on PEDs. Your idea that talent differentials should have been enhanced by PEDs seems to assume that enhancements occurred among the more naturally talented players. If we assume that most PED users were more marginal players who needed the edge to survive, we’d expect talent compression. I expect the actual case was a mix.

        • 90
          John Autin says:

          epm, I see your point about “talent compression” occurring if “most PED users were more marginal players who needed the edge to survive.” But if there were any evidence of that, the topic would have withered long ago.

          I have no real clue how PED use was distributed along talent lines, but I’d guess that if it was skewed in any direction, it was skewed towards the more talented players.

          This is grossly simplified, but I think PED use is mainly motivated by jealousy and greed, and I think those forces generally tend to increase with the more one has.

          • 98
            e pluribus munu says:

            Maybe you’re right, JA. I’ve always found jealousy and greed conveniently at hand without the burdens of talent or wealth, but perhaps I’m just an overachiever.

  20. 93
    Mike Felber says:

    But just making & staying in MLB is a huge motivation, & those trying to do so have more at stake, + much greed & jealousy is involved. So many accounts of guys coming back throwing much harder, gaining much bulk & hitting for more power & BBs-at the last there is no reason to assume it tended to be stars more often, who already had a measure of glory.

    When comparing greats, one can choose either to try to analyze straight up, head to head, if each party was reincarnated. Or give each the same advantages of training & other preconditions to maximize talent. The former is a more pure who was better in actuality comparison, though obviously the modern guys have many advantages. Even taking away illegal ones like PEDs.

    And while sports & pure physical abilities have progressed much-though the genes are the same range-baseball is unusual in that those things help, but are not the only & deterministic factors. And hand eye coordination is huge, & you cannot get the same great advantages from modern training as, say, muscle building.

    Historian Bill Jenkinson has very thoroughly researched the greatest distance power hitters ever. He has Ruth clearly 1st, then Foxx barely edges out Mantle, Howard barely over Allen, Big Mac w/’roids, Stargell Jackson Killebrew McCovey Gibson (could have been higher), Williams #14…And Bonds below that, even with PEDs never hit a 500′ blast.

    There are some raw physical skills pitching speed included, that have a limited amount modern technology can assist. But that Ruth could do that with his huge less efficient bats is astonishing.

    • 106
      bstar says:

      That’s some cool info on the distance kings. You don’t happen to have a link for that, do you?

      • 112
        Mike Felber says:

        Sure man, here it is!

        Meticulouly researched, he also compares the greatest speed & throwing arms ever. Can you guess who he comes up with? The man also wrote “The Year Babe rith Hit 104 Home Runs”.

        • 113
          bstar says:

          Great read, Mike F., thanks for the link. You’re right…it would be hard to be more meticulous in one’s research than Mr. Jenkinson was.

  21. 96
    Jason Z says:

    I think the minor leaguer who wants to fulfill his
    dream and possibly make life altering money, is just
    as likely to do PED as the established star.

    Just as likely as the aging vet or young kid trying
    to stay in the show.

    Here is a quote from Jim Bouton that sums this up to a degree…

    “Most players saw amphetamines as harmless. But the professional athlete does a lot of things to his body that they don’t think of as harmful.”

  22. 99
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Now you listen here whippersnapper. As reported on this very site, Norm Cash went to bat with a table leg once, and we have it on good evidence–well rumor anyway–that two by fours were sometimes used. OK, pure fabrication, but still. Also, players were often forced to insert humongous clumps of chewing tobacco into their mouths during games, which could not have helped anything, including their visits to the dentist and their post-game socializing.

    Seriously though, if I could pick one player I’d like to see play for a season, other than Fidrych, it would be Mays. Of course, that’s a completely different question than “who was the greatest”.

  23. 101
    Jim Bouldin says:

    I do agree with Bryan O that players have almost certainly gotten better over time, generally, and I think as he stated in one of the comments, that it’s also important to distinguise between, the mean player ability, and that of those at the top end. There could be a number of things going on here.

    The dropping of the race barrier and inclusion of Latino and East Asian players is an obvious factor; pretty clearly, if you include a whole new set of people, especially those with potentially different genetic and cultural origins, you run the good chance of improving the mean skill level, and I don’t think too many people think that hasn’t in fact been what has happened. Who can argue that Mays, Aaron, Henderson, Pujols, Ichiro etc etc aren’t among the greatest players ever?

    There has also been a greatly increased number of teams, and hence players and games played, so you can readily get more records falling and other indicators of high-end performance over time by that factor alone. This has been accompanied by the continual growth of the population at large, so the mean talent value as a function of this process would not necessarily drop as the number of teams/games rises. The expansion of the player source pool, and league sizes, have occurred roughly simultaneously (1947 to present) so it’s hard to easily separate the effects of each.

    There’s also been an enormous change in the incentive system of course (i.e. salaries), due to free agency, although that was a relatively defineable event (mid-1970s) and so maybe more easily evaluated, I don’t know.

    As for the cited article arguing who’s to say that PEDs are any more advantageous than amphetamines, that is 100% nonsense. There’s no comparison between the two types of drugs. One permanently affects a human’s muscle mass, aerobic capacity, recovery and healing time and so forth, which directly affect athletic performance. The other doesn’t. The use of PEDs must be factored in to these discussions, no question.

    As an aside, biological evolution doesn’t have to be directional to qualify as such. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be caused by selection forces at all–it can be due entirely to random events, falling under the categories of random drift, neutral theory and such. Also, mutation rates are not typically what limits the process, except on very long time scales.

    • 102
      Ed says:

      Speaking of PEDs….on his website Bill James wrote something that I found quite shocking. I’ll quote him so there can be no mistake about what he wrote:

      “At least three players who were almost certainly steroid users have already been elected to the Hall of Fame.”

      What???? That’s a really strong statement for him to make. Looking through the names of people elected to the HOF in the past 10 years, I have no idea who he could be talking about. Does he have some sort of inside information that he’s basing this on? Anyone seen him mention this before?

      • 103
        John Autin says:

        No idea whom Bill James is talking about there, Ed. But since he’s not willing to let his statement be evaluated, it’s almost certainly not worth guessing about. An argument that proceeds from “secret knowledge” is an affront to reason.

      • 104
        bstar says:

        He probably knows more about who did and who didn’t than we do. Did he specifically say he was referring to steroid-era players, Ed?

        • 107
          Ed says:

          Thanks John and Bstar. It will be interesting to see if any of his readers follow-up with him and press him to provide more details. And you’re right Bstar, he didn’t mention that they were steroid era players, so it’s possible that he’s talking about players from other eras.

          • 109
            Ed says:

            James was asked a follow-up question regarding his comment about 3 PEDs users already being in the HOF. This is his response:

            “There are three players (that I was thinking of) who have strong characteristics associated with steroid use, in all three cases supported by other evidence.”

            Way too cryptic of a response for my taste. If you know something, either name names or don’t say anything at all. I think John (#103) has it right.

          • 111
            bstar says:

            I found the first quote on his site and to me he does strongly imply that they are from the steroid era and are NOT power hitters who looked massive. I could come up with three guesses but that would be fantastically hypocritical of me. You’re right, Ed, too cryptic of a response to really bother with.

    • 105
      Mike Felber says:

      Very astute post Mr. Bouldin. I would just say that it is EPO & that class of drugs which effect aerobic capacity, not steroids, but they do plenty. Just increasing bat speed so you can wait to identify a pitch, & of course add power, is a big advantage.

      It has been a long time since I majored in Anthropology. What do you mean by neutral theory? And that “mutation rates do not typically limit the process”. What do you mean there, that there are faster ways to have a whole population change,without selective enviornmental forces? Because genetic drift & other factors are going to be exceedingly slow to non-existent if not done over a small population-where the random traits can influence the whole population so much faster. As when there are mutations in a tiny, isolated population.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      • 108
        Jim Bouldin says:

        Yes, good point about the EPO Mike–that is (or was) the PED of choice for endurance athletes, most notably cyclists, not likely to be used in baseball, and not a steroid.

        The neutral theory, roughly, is the idea that a large fraction of naturally occurring genetic variation at the molecular level, in many species, is +/- neutral, imparting no selective advantage or disadvantage. A corollary is that random events are often responsible for evolutionary change. It does not exclude the idea that selection can also be very important however.

        I completely agree with your statement on the importance of genetic drift in leading to evolution. It’s most important in small populations, where “population” is defined by the degree of inter-breeding amongst individuals. But such populations can be frequent in nature, depending on the species, so the effect is potentially important in leading to speciation, and hence evolution as Darwin envisioned it.

        The comment about mutation rates was just to say that it’s selection (natural or artificial) on *existing* genetic variation that produces, by far, the fastest rates of evolutionary change in the short term (and in proportion to the amount thereof). Indeed, Darwin used artificial selection (animal breeding) to illustrate his point about the potential power of *natural* selection in evolution. The agent of selection differs in the two cases, but not the basic concept and process.

        Part of this whole thing really gets to how you define evolution. Some of the population geneticists of the early 20th C broadened it to be essentially “changes in gene frequencies over time”, a definition which leads directly to emphases on drift and neutral mutations etc.

        At least that’s my interpretation of things.

  24. 110
    Paul E says:

    Men of merit exist in every generation, but, men in general seem to prefer the meritorious of their own generation…..

    I am 55 years old and when I was a child middle infielders couldn’t hit to save their lives. There were exceptions (Fregosi, McAuliffe, Petrocelli, and Morgan come to mind), but not a lot of others. That “defense up the middle” mantra was really taken to heart – much to the detriment of the game’s qulaity (IMO)

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