A Couple of Little Things

March 10, 2018

Let me start out small and easy, in preparation for a larger and more difficult argument I’m trying to put together: in researching this bigger argument, I came to realize how much the maintenance of big-league infields has improved over our lifetimes, without our paying the slightest attention to any of these improvements. And since our lifetimes are a fraction of the years big-league ball has been played, groundskeeping probably has improved by even greater leaps and bounds in the century before any of us saw our first big-league game. The prevailing logic has been, of course, that these grounds-keeping improvements happen in every big-league ballpark, more or less simultaneously, so there’s no individual or team advantage to them.  If all players and teams improve about the same amount at the same time, how or why would we even notice it?

My larger, more difficult argument concerns other types of improvements that we take for granted: like this one about inventions and discoveries and innovations and practices in one small area of grounds-keeping, nobody pays attention to any of these new developments, but they happen all the time.  When was the last time you heard a groundskeeper discussing some new dirt-smoothing machine his crew had gotten, or the increased number of assistants he was able to hire this year, or the upgrade in professionalism or training of his staff members? Even if you did hear a groundskeeper being interviewed (I never have), he was probably discussing recent developments, over the course of months or years rather than decades or centuries, and it certainly wasn’t someone who spoke for all MLB groundskeepers, so the scope of any such discussion was bound to be very tightly focused on the here and now.

In the SABR-bio of Les Rohr, an extremely minor pitcher with the 1960s Mets (fewer than 25 career IP), http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/7ed496e5 , one such development in infield maintenance was mentioned in passing, and if I hadn’t been coincidentally thinking about infield maintenance as I read the bio, and how it’s been improving unnoticed over time, I probably wouldn’t have paid it any mind. 

Rohr lost a heart-breaker, very early in the 1968 season, in the bottom of the 24th inning on a play that  influenced the frequency with which the infield must be dragged in an extra-inning game: the Astros beat the Mets 1-0 in that famous 24-inning game, the sole run scoring off a bad-hop grounder. "The bad hop on that play led to a change where ground crews would drag the infield every seven innings, regardless of how long the game lasted," says the SABR-bio author, my friend Jon Springer, a diligent and wily researcher.  (Jon, btw, just published Once Upon a Team, a book on the 1884 Wilmington Quicksteps, possibly the worst team ever to play professional baseball. Mostly Jon writes about the Mets, but if you’ve ever wondered about "The Only Nolan," other than Gary or Arenado or Ryan, his new book is the place to go.) This 24-inning contest has taken on almost legendary status in Mets’ history.

This monstrous game has stuck in my memory for half a century by now, though I’m sure I didn’t stay up past 2 AM on a schoolnight to hear its conclusion:  I remember it because the newly-acquired Tommie Agee was batting .313 when I went to bed but by the time I woke up, he was batting .192, having gone 0-for-10 in the process of starting a nightmarish season-long slump. (I still wake up in a cold sweat sometimes, thinking "Oh, my God! I’m a full-time leadoff hitter batting below .180 in mid-August!") But I never heard before about the game causing any change in how often the infield must be dragged. I’m pretty sure the grounds crew comes out even more frequently nowadays than every seven innings in marathon games, and I’m even surer that the whole concept of dragging the infield, even once, during the game had to have been invented at some point. (Certainly the mechanics of some gigantic sweeping machine designed to manicure the infield quickly between innings is a late development.) There have been incremental improvements in the upkeep of the infield dirt throughout baseball history, and every one of these improvements has done something to reduce bad hops.

Why is the reduction of bad hops important? Well, it’s not necessarily earth-shattering in and of itself, but what it does is to raise the level of play by increasing competition, which is the larger subject I’ve been thinking about (and which I’ll explain in my next piece).  Let’s go back several steps before April 15, 1968. Let’s go back to the 1960 World Series, which turned on a bad hop off Forbes Field’s poorly maintained infield, causing an otherwise easy-out groundball to strike Yankee shortstop Tony Kubek in the throat, sending Kubek to the hospital and sending the Pirates to a ticker-tape parade. There were plenty of other famous, dramatic, historic moments in this game, but it seems to me that this bad-hop grounder gets lost in the welter of key moments, not least because "bad hops are just a part of the game."

That’s how I was taught, anyway. Pebbles in the infield dirt, even in the 7th game of the World Series, were a normal part of baseball. It was just one of those bad breaks. Certainly it was an everyday phenomenon on the infields I played on growing up, making the Forbes Field infield seem meticulously cared for in comparison, because it was. Pebbles, stones, rocks, puddles, clumps of unmowable grass, all just a part of life—I’ll bet I’ve played in ballgames where there wasn’t an inning that went by where some groundball didn’t take a crazy hop that bedeviled some luckless infielder. Probably half my hits growing up owed something to the wretched state of the playing field.  And the condition of boyhood fields was much worse earlier. From the SABR-bio of 1900s-era shortstop Al Bridwell (about whom, more later): "A shortage of level ground in Portsmouth meant games were often played on dry riverbeds. A flash flood interrupted one game, forcing the players and umpire to swim to shore." Just part of the game.

But in my lifetime, crazy hops, pebbles in the infield dirt, easy 4-3s suddenly scored as infield singles became drastically reduced on the major league level. A little bit of it was due to that obscure rule change after April 15th 1968, but most of it was due to other changes occurring equally unnoticed at other random points over the years: before the concept of regularly dragging the infield at all during the game was introduced, groundskeepers might have raked or swept the infield dirt on a daily, or perhaps weekly, basis before games. I’m sure there were long periods when any infield maintenance was performed by the players themselves, before "grounds-keeping" was a thing.

By the way, one of the causes for the unconscionably long time I’ve spent writing this picayune article is my getting sidetracked down several rabbit-holes, including the oddities of that April 15th game in 1968. It was played, of course, in the Astrodome, the 8th Wonder of the World, and no little deal was made at the time of the innovation of Astroturf, which was supposed to eliminate bad hops entirely. It didn’t, of course— it introduced a new kind of bad hops, those caused by seams in the carpeting or other modern substitutes for dirt, grass, and pebbles. I wonder what exactly the grounds crew was supposed to be dragging in the Astrodome infield, and what caused that ball to hop over or under Mets shortstop Al Weis’s normally reliable glove in that 24th inning. But Astroturf, and its later iterations, certainly reduced the overall total of bad hops considerably.

A different rabbit-hole was Les Rohr, whom I vaguely remember as a hot-shot Mets pitching prospect,  a former #2 overall pick in the first amateur draft (#1 was trivia-answer Rick Monday).  According to Springer, Rohr’s career was ruined by that 24-inning game: the lefty had thrown batting practice earlier, pretty much wearing out his arm for the day, and was not supposed to throw any more pitches, but when you’ve used up Tom Seaver (10 shutout innings) and six relievers (11 shutout innings), you gotta find someone to go out there and pitch the bottom of the 22nd, so Rohr was it. His elbow swelled up after the game, and his career was finished as a result.

Tantalizingly, Rohr’s previous MLB appearance was the penultimate game of the 1967 season, facing Don Drysdale and the still-league-champion Dodgers. Rohr had beaten the Dodgers in his big league debut earlier that month, but in this game, he pitched an even shinier gem, beating them 5-0, giving up six singles and striking out seven. His next game was the 24-inning job in Houston where he blew out his arm. His best and worst moments in baseball, in other words, occurred in consecutive games, separated by the 1967-68 off-season.

The last rabbit-hole I want to dig my way out of here is the way baseball-reference.com refers to "DR" (Days of Rest, the number of days off since a pitcher’s previous appearance). For a pitcher’s first appearance of the season, bbref.com designates it as "99," meaning he hasn’t pitched since last season, which seems to me a kinda obvious stat. Yes, yes, we understand that baseball-reference can’t be tracking down every appearance in spring training to derive an accurate figure for a pitcher’s first regular season appearance, but why do we want to know a player’s last appearance anyway? To gauge whether he’s starting on short rest or regular rest or long rest, or whatever, of course, for which "99" is information as useful as tits on a runway model. I’d much prefer a "—" or a blank space to appear there, if tracking down his last Spring Training game is impracticable. It’s of even less use in post-season stats, which also start the clock at "99," when there is an obvious (and far more meaningful) alternative: the number of games that have elapsed since a pitcher’s last regular-season game. I was looking at Ron Guidry’s post-season record (yet another rabbit hole) where I found his first post-season starts designated as "99," meaning that it had been a long time since his previous post-season start, which gets filed under "D-uh?" If it were up to me, I’d just start the post-season clock with his final regular-season appearance.

Anyway, how do improvements in infield maintenance affect the level of MLB competition? Well, I’ll ask you to imagine a time when your typical major league infield was maintained at just about the standards of the field you first played baseball on: pebbles, puddles, flash floods, etc. Let’s go back to the first games that can arguably be described as MLB, just after the Civil War, when every hop was a potential bad hop, and when potential was achieved several times per game. A grounder taking a predictable path into an infielder’s glove was probably the exception, not the rule, but that was just a condition of the game and (important to my larger thesis) equal for both teams. As long as such improvements as better-maintained infields affect both sides equally, nobody is going to notice how much the game itself improves by better competition, which comes out as "luck" factors are eliminated in favor of "skill" factors.

If groundballs slowly evolve from haphazard events that have a high likelihood of putting the batter on base to almost automatic sure-thing outs, we are going to change our expectations of infielders’ skills.  You always want skilled fielders, of course, but in the 1860s, whether you’ve got Ozzie Smith or Kate Smith playing shortstop, there are still going to be a lot of groundballs that don’t get handled cleanly. By the 1960s, though, infields are maintained well enough that a Tony Kubek- or Al Weis-type mishap has become a relative rarity, and by 2010, when grounds-keeping, unnoticed by most observers, has become an art-form, and bad hops have become less frequent every season, it makes a huge difference which Smith is playing shortstop for your team.  Every play has become a skill play by the 21st century, and luck plays have almost disappeared.

This small illustration of the disappearance of random events in MLB shows how athletic ability, and skill in general, is at a premium today, and will be at a higher premium tomorrow. Ozzie is going to win the shortstop job over Kate every single time today, whereas maybe Kate would have beaten Ozzie out one time in a hundred in 1960, and three or four times in 1860, when fielding was subject to many, many more random factors than it is today.

I’m being hyperbolic here, in an attempt to be funny, but my point is serious:  if you have many, many more bad hops in an 1860 contest, then sometimes a less-skilled fielder will seem comparable to a more-skilled fielder. Occasionally, lesser athletes will get playing time over better athletes.

Why? Because we make poor choices when we lack enough reliable data and rely instead on random factors in making our decisions. Even now, our best thinkers will occasionally screw up by going with their gut instincts. A few weeks ago, Bill was asked (2/22/2018 "Hey Bill") if the Dodgers really did have an inordinate number of Rookies-of-the-Year who had disappointing careers. His first response was to say that Yes, he felt that they did, but then he did some research and found that, No, the Dodgers had a perfectly normal number of disappointing ROTYs. I, too, felt instinctively the answer was an obvious "Yes," and I suspect many of you did, too—it just turned out not to be so. That’s fine, and all to Bill’s credit, but what jumped out at me was the reason most of us had that misperception: the best Dodger ROTY careers were Jackie Robinson’s, Frank Howard’s, and Mike Piazza’s, but the ones who broke in between 1965 and 1982, including the four straight from 1979-82, had mostly lackluster careers.  Speaking only for myself here, I certainly had the thought, a dumb one as it happens, that the Dodgers seemed to turn out ROTYs with disappointing careers as often as KFC turns out greasy chicken. The only way I got this notion into my head, as many of you got it into yours, was the exceptionally high incidence of ROTYs in that brief period of time, with the two HoFers, Robinson and Piazza, occurring outside of that period. It was just that streak of four straight ROTYs who all had disappointing careers, that made such an impression on us—just dumb luck, really, and contrary to the truth. When something occurs with unusual frequency in a short period of time, even if by blind chance, it’s going to seem causal to us.

The analogy would be to some unlucky rookie infielder, let’s call him Ted Sizeless, who gets a lot of bad-hop grounders early or critically in his career—you’re not going to conclude "Wow, this guy is very unlucky the last few games, let’s clean up those pebbles, hey" but rather "This guy sucks, let’s move him to an easier position," especially if you have no access to actual data about streakiness, random distributions, and such stuff. Sizeless (maybe I should have called him Steve Sux?) might not have even made the team his rookie season, given a streak of unlucky hops in spring training. Or maybe he would have been shifted to left field where his bat will make him a part-time player. Even the smartest of us sometimes get convinced that we’ve seen something real when it’s just bad luck that we’re observing. Without Bill’s research, I would have gone to my grave insisting Dodger ROTYs bite.

One more quick Dodger-related example of the phenomenon I’m trying to describe: I’ve often commented on Sandy Koufax’s outsized fame, considering his modest 165 career wins total. (And please remember that I consider myself his biggest fan.)  Without going into all the strong reasons for Koufax’s reputation as an Inner-Circle Hall of Famer, it seems to me that his reputation gets a boost it doesn’t quite deserve because we had just started giving out Cy Young Awards. If we had been giving out CYAs for fifty or sixty years by Koufax’s time, other pitchers—Roberts, Spahn, Feller, Hubbell, Grove, Alexander, Johnson, Mathewson, even CY himself—might have won three or four (or more) of them, and we wouldn’t have been as blown away by Koufax as we were.

He was good, but he was also lucky. When he’d won his third CYA, in 1966, only eleven CYAs had been awarded and no one else had ever won more than one, making his achievement seem practically super-human. After 1966, Roger Clemens won 7 CYAs, and Randy Johnson 5, while Steve Carlton and Greg Maddux have out-CYAed Koufax by one, and Martinez, Seaver, Palmer, Kershaw, and Scherzer have matched him. (Kershaw and Scherzer aren’t quite done yet, of course.) Nine others have won two apiece since 1966. Each league began awarding separate CYAs in 1967, so Koufax did win his awards against a broader field, and his early retirement suggests he might have won some more CYAs with better health, but his CYA record, fixed in my memory, still wasn’t quite as other-worldly as it would have been in a wider historical context. If he had won three awards in a context where others had won multiple awards and others would go on to win them, that might take a little shine off his glory, but because he won multiple CYAs at the one moment when no one else had, he seems maybe a little more dominating than he actually was.

In any event, luck does play its part in how we form our impressions of players, but less and less so over time. Bad hops, which I’m using as a kind of shorthand for "bad luck," get rarer as infield grounds-keeping improves, and they’re only one tiny example of the kind of improvement in major league play I’m talking about. Let me give you one more tiny example, tangentially related to bad hops, before I get to my larger argument: like grounds-keeping, scouting has gotten better (for every team): more systematic, more extensive, better staffed, better coordinated—just flat-out better. Mostly, MLB has learned from its shortcomings and its mistakes in scouting.

I was reading THE GLORY OF THEIR TIMES recently, and one of the things that really jumped out at me was the haphazard way most of the old-time players described their entrance into professional ball, or their promotion to the big leagues.  Al Bridwell, the Ozzie Smith of the 1900s, tells a story that’s typical of several of the players in that book: when he was in the minor leagues in 1904, he says (p. 120),

"the owner of the Cincinnati Reds dropped by to watch a game, interested in buying our third baseman, Bill Friel. As it happened that day, Bill didn’t have a very good day, but I had a crackerjack of one. So instead of buying him, he bought me. And that’s how I got to the Big Leagues.

"You see, the way it was then it was pretty much an accident whether you got into professional ball at all, and if you did, there was still a lot of luck involved in getting up to the Big Leagues. Now they have scouts who watch a man for weeks to see what he can really do, but back then there were no scouts or anything like that." 

"Now," of course, is the 1960s, when Bridwell was interviewed, but real, thorough scouting didn’t just pop up overnight—it had evolved slowly over the previous sixty years, and I’m pretty sure it has gotten much more sophisticated  and professional and accurate in the fifty years after Bridwell was interviewed. What this means, of course, is that we have a higher quality of player at the lowest levels of professional ball. By systematically weeding out the part that luck plays in who gets an entry-level contract and who doesn’t, we’ve upped the level of competition, with an exponential effect on the deserving players getting promoted and the undeserving ones getting released,  raising the quality of play throughout baseball.

Pebbles and lucky breaks are two almost entirely separate areas in which baseball has improved steadily and significantly since 1860. I say "almost entirely separate" because there is a small causal relationship between the two: more extensive scouting means young players are less likely to get rejected based on one or two muffed grounders caused by a poorly maintained field, and better maintained fields means that scouts can judge fielders’ talents more accurately. But I didn’t choose these two small areas of improvement because they’re connected. I chose them because they were handy: any two areas will likely have some causal relationship, and my larger thesis explores what happens if a dozen or a hundred such small areas of improvement ALL have a relationship to each other.

That thesis argues that baseball will improve in a big way, in a gigantic way, from year to year, although we will be unable to see hardly any of this massive improvement in the game because it will be happening all throughout baseball at the same time. Not precisely equally, of course: some teams will surge ahead, others will fall behind, from year to year, while the overall game grows more competitive on a constant basis. I’ll illustrate some of these other small, tiny, seemingly insignificant, picayune areas of improvement in my next piece.


COMMENTS (30 Comments, most recent shown first)

I might need to apologize: my intent was not to shift the conversation to "would Ty Cobb be bigger today or even be Ty Cobb-like today?"

My intent was this: in 1918 the difference between the top 5 percent of the talent and the median talent was much, much (much) wider than it is today. Much wider than it was in 1998 and much wider than it was in 1978 and 1968. As the game has evolved, the talent has become spread more evenly.

Clearly, if that's true, Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner and The Peach would dominate much more than Stan Musial, Warren Spahn, Robin Yount, and Ken Griffey Jr. Ruth, as great as he was, is overrated using relative statistics, because the talent he was playing against was much weaker than you'd see in the American League in 1963, for example.

Setting aside advances in medicine, training, etc., I meant to bring up my opinion (and it's only mine) that it seems weird to me that many historians think nothing of rating several pre-1920s players as the best at their position. See Wagner, Johnson, Cobb, Hornsby, Ruth, even Gehrig.

How is that possible? Well, IMO it "appears" that way methodologically because the numbers are going to show Ruth et al as far superior to the bums they often played with and against. Frank Robinson didn't play with a lot of bums.

Thank you for the discussion.

Oh, and I I am not implying that the author or anyone HERE is claiming the deadball era guys are the best all-time. The article simply spurred this idea that I've been writing about lately.


10:59 PM Mar 13th
Marc Schneider
The problem is that, while the quality of play is undoubtedly improving, it doesn't necessarily mean it's more entertaining. Arguably, fewer errors make the game less interesting because ground balls are now almost sure outs. Bad hops may have created more tension. Great plays are so routine now that it's taken some of the excitement out of them. And the professionalization of the game has, I think, to some degree led to longer games and slower pace-of-play. Fewer complete games because it's harder for pitchers to go through a line up 3 times. I don't think things like this are necessarily better for the game although they probably do improve the quality.
3:42 PM Mar 13th
Steven: the reason the commenters are getting ahead of you is that your thesis, as articulated in the last paragraph of your piece, is manifestly, obviously, even trivially, true. I have nothing but confidence in your ability to turn it into an interesting article anyway, and await it with bated breath.​
11:37 AM Mar 13th
A couple of things about Jwilt's post:
First of all, don't let it make you feel left out if you're not on "Reader Posts." Speaking as one of the most active people there (OK, the most active), you're not missing that much. :-)


Come on over, you'll probably love it.
But don't feel like you're missing out if you're only on here. You're fine.

About orthopedic medicine basically not existing until the 1970s:
Jwilt, I've got to say, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It's just about like saying that major league baseball basically didn't exist until the 1970's. As you say, there have been huge gains since then, but, as I understand, there have been huge gains all the time, including since the 1990's and since the 2000's.

I started reading the sports pages immediately upon starting to follow baseball, in the late '50's, and every few days or every couple of weeks we'd get a mini-mini course in orthopedics about what was being or what might be done for whatever new injury there was. Also, at that same time, when friends or relatives or stray acquaintances had some mishap and showed up wearing a cast or walking on crutches, that meant they'd had some orthopedic treatment. And I see that the main orthopedic hospital in these parts, the Hospital for Special Surgery, has existed for, well, as luck would have it for the sake of my above analogy, just about exactly as long as pro baseball. (A little longer.)

Maybe you mean that the main specialized kinds of orthopedic treatment for baseball injuries began at that time, and I guess that would be about right. But hey, let's call it right. :-)
9:10 PM Mar 12th
Steven Goldleaf
Smbakeresq--which Pedro Martinez commentary? I might need to take a look at that.
6:38 PM Mar 12th
We've had long threads on the Readers Posts side along these lines. There's always significant pushback, of the form "well, if Ty Cobb were born in 2000 he'd weigh 225 and be built like a linebacker and he'd still end up as Ty Cobb."

But what that line of thinking misses is the whole selection process. That as late as the 1950s the Senators didn't have a AAA team. It was the Ruth era before teams had anything like even a partial minor league system. It was at least into the 50s when some guys would just stay in the PCL rather than be a part time Major Leaguer. The selection and winnowing down process is just massively more advanced today than 50 years ago, and just as much or more from the 50 or 100 years prior. You could have been the best athlete ever, but if you were born in Oklahoma Territory in 1880 it's near certain no one would ever find out.

Along these same lines, orthopaedic medicine basically didn't exist until the 1970s, and there have been huge leaps in the past 20-30 years. I have a friend who tore up his knee in about 1988. Fully open surgery, in a cast/immobilizer for months. Has never been quite the same. When I tore an ACL in 1998 I was walking on it a week or so later, playing softball six months later. My sister had ACL surgery a few years ago and she was more-or-less back to normal in less than six months and she didn't even go all-in on rehab. Multiply that by a million athletes. If you tore any ligament in 1960 your career was probably over. Now 40% (?) of MLB pitchers have had their UCL replaced. It might not be too outrageous to suggest that the max-effort pitching strategies of today are only possible because of Dr. Jobe. Prior to Tommy John you had to pace and be somewhat careful because you only got one UCL. Now you get two or three.

I think that the 1927 Yankees wouldn't be among the better teams in the Japanese Leagues today. If you plucked them out of history and deposited them into today, of course.
11:32 AM Mar 12th
Bill made a point about the little things in his Pedro Martinez commentary, that each little thing, when added together, has a far greater effect than you would expect.

I am a golfer, and it was stated years ago that the greatest invention in golf over the years was the lawnmower. It is, courses that are public today are in better shape then most if not all tournament courses years ago.

I see a post about height and weight from the dead ball era, but its irrelevant. Its a common mistake in those types of posts across time, any of those players today wouldn't be that size, they would also benefit from better everything, mostly better access to food and nutrition. A major impetus for the school lunch program was a large percentage of the population being rejected for military service due to malnutrition issues. Those things are greatly reduced today, and the population as a whole is bigger, since 1960 the average make is an inch taller and 25 pounds heavier.
10:49 AM Mar 12th
The White Sox groundskeeper, Roger Bossard, gets interviewed on WSCR a couple of times a year. He even has a nickname: The Sodfather. Apparently most parks now use a drainage system that he invented and patented. And he has the true sign of fame: a Wikipedia page.


He's the only groundskeeper I could name, though.

9:50 AM Mar 12th
The height and weight of the top 10 non-pitchers (by plate appearances) of a rather famous Dead Ball era team:

6'2" 182
6'1" 200
5'9" 125
5'5" 155
6'0" 160
5'9" 158
5'9" 172
5'7" 165
5'8" 168
5' 11" 165

Only the catcher and first baseman are of a size that we would expect to be able to play in today's game (even the catcher is a little light in the breeches). Of course the best two players on that team (who are in the HOF) are the two smallest. But the point is that of course players who were physical specimens, like Wagner, Ruth, Cobb, Mathewson, Johnson dominated their less athletic peers. (I realize that using height and weight as a stand-in for athleticism is not exactly precise, but even in baseball a good big player is usually going to beat a good small player)
9:28 AM Mar 12th
Marc Schneider
Steve's comment about things improving without notice (ie, groundsekeeping) applies to things outside baseball as well. When I was a kid and people prepared to take a long car trip, they always took the car in to have the belts and other stuff under the hood checked. No one does that today (at least I don't) because cars are so much more reliable (and I assume don't have all the belts that they once did). No one ever noticed it happening but it just did. Another example (not exactly an improvement but a change) is when teams started putting in hitting backgrounds. For years, pitchers would have a huge advantage especially in day games and with big crowds because hitters had trouble picking up the ball against the white shirts in the crowd. Arguably, this had something to do with Koufax getting the 15 strikeouts in 1063 WS game 1, with his overhand delivery coming out of the background in Yankee Stadium. (And, in those days, much of the crowd was businessmen coming from work wearing white shirts.) That's no longer an issue. This is one reason why I don't get bent out of shape about records and PEDs. Records are always contextual. Just look at football; offensive records, such as passing yardage and TD passes are heavily inflated due to rules changes. It's not as extreme in baseball, but clearly changes in the ball, parks, bats, strike zones, etc. have had a lot of impact on records. Did Barry Bonds have any more of an advantage using PEDs than Babe Ruth did with livelier balls, etc.?

9:27 AM Mar 12th
Steven Goldleaf
You guys are way ahead of me. This is where my next column is going....
7:53 AM Mar 12th
Well, I as trying to be polite by choosing 1940...

I understand the comparison vs. peers method. However, it's clear that as late as into the 1940s there were players in the major leagues who were well below the norm of MLB talent. Hell, into the 1920s there were people being asked to play pro ball after coming to the game as a spectator. Or being "discovered" based on the fact that they had a glove and/or some catching equipment. The difference between Ruth and the league was going to be wide, because Ruth was very good and maybe 60 percent of the league was filler. Today, we don't have "filler" the same way. Haven't had that poor level of competition since the 1960s maybe?

Ruth, Cobb, Big Train etc. are artificially propped up on these pedestals because for much of their careers they played against junior varsity competition. Willie Mays didn't have that advantage, nor did Mike Schmidt or Joe Morgan or Bryce Harper.
9:05 PM Mar 11th
1940 hell. I've seen film of an early '50s World Series, and the players were staggering all over the field (because they weren't athletic, not—I hope—because they were drunk or anything). And this was the Yankees and, I assume, the Dodgers, the two best teams in baseball. No, it's obvious that the athleticism, the coordination, and obviously the size, speed, and strength of all players in all sports have only gotten better every year.

What you're protesting about there, though, dan, ignores the "how did they compare with the OTHER players of their time" argument, which is what most of us are obviously using when we call anybody from a hundred years ago the equal of anybody now. I firmly think that the ONLY way we can even consider anybody from back then to be in the same UNIVERSE as anybody from today is to compare them to their competition at the time. Otherwise, it all becomes meaningless.

The physical discrepancy between then and now is even worse in basketball and football, of course, not to mention track and swimming, skating, and probably all the non-U.S. sports that I have very little knowledge about.

8:45 PM Mar 11th
I think it's preposterous that many people presume that the greatest shortstop of all-time, the greatest first baseman of all-time, the greatest second baseman of all-time, and at least one (possibly as many as two) of the greatest outfielders of all-time, all played before 1930. Many historians also rank a deadball era pitcher as the best ever too.

The improvement in quality of play is perhaps the most underappreciated aspect of the game. I speak not only of the raw talent-level of play (clearly Austin Jackson would be a superstar in 1918 baseball, setting all sorts of records), but also the RELATIVE level of play. The vast improvements in the game, based on physical size, speed, talent, as well as equipment and training methods, renders players from prior to 1940 as suspect at best when compared to the athletes playing since integration, expansion, introduction of year-round training, surgeries, etc.

It just doesn't seem possible (in fact to me it seems comical) that Honus Wagner, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson (or Lefty Grove) get placed on all-time team lists, when we have tools to show us that they clearly don't compare to players of later generations.

8:29 PM Mar 11th
watching soccer from England on TV I notice a big difference in the quality of the fields between now and then.
Every once in a while I will watch an FA Cup game from some small stadium in England and the pitch is how I remember them all being some 290 or even 10 years ago, big worn spaces in front of each goal bare patches around the field, and reruns of old games show the same things.
Fields everywhere, where money is no object, are much much better today
1:00 AM Mar 11th
When you first mentioned about infield conditions affecting competitiveness and quality of play I couldn't imagine where you were going, but as you explained it, I realized it's the same as what I've experienced -- in tennis. I'm an OK athlete but a mediocre tennis player. Almost all the people I play with are better. BUT, if the court is in bad shape, or, best of all, if it's terribly windy, that levels the playing field, because the usual aspects of technique and form are mostly out the window. I think it's pretty much exactly the same as what you're saying about infields.

It's not that the poor tennis court conditions make the game random or anything like that, just that they minimize the importance of the specific skills of the game, and leave it more up to (I guess) general athleticism. Catching bad hops in the infield would seem to be the same, recognizing of course that even the greatest athleticism would still fail on a lot of bad hops.
9:53 PM Mar 10th
For a lot of these guys, a career in baseball could've been in the minors, too; there were a lot more jobs in Organized Baseball.

But I believe a lot of guys who could've been stars never got out of the mine, or the farm, or the mill, or the jail cell, just by circumstance or luck or fate or whatever you want to call it.

You can't prove a negative. But nearly all of these players talk about someone in their hometown, or in the minors, or somewhere else who was better than anybody but for some reason never missed a chance to impress or had to get married or got consumption.

7:26 PM Mar 10th
Steven Goldleaf
wilbur--apparently, shthar thinks it can be emphasized enough.

I agree with you. I gave that one example because Bridwell addresses the importance of luck directly, but there are many other similar stories in GLORY OF THEIR TIMES. And I'm sure luck will always play some role, but it was almost comical the huge role it played early on in baseball's history, not only in scouting but especially so there. If you played well when the scout was in the stands, you got signed, and if you had a poor day, or were sick or injured (or tried to field a few balls that bounced off pebbles), you found something else to do for a career.
4:34 PM Mar 10th
Steven Goldleaf
guyarrigoni--I actually mentioned George Toma in my article last year on Bill Wakefield, who worked on Toma's grounds crew as a boy assistant on the KC As, but i hadn't heard of him before Bill W. mentioned him to me as a famous grounds keeper. I've been a Mets fan for fifty years, and I know the name of the heads groundskeeper (or knew it), and a Sox fan the past ten years (no idea who keeps Fenway looking sprightly), etc. but it's not as if I know a lot about what they do, how they do it, how this year differs from last year from a grounds crew's perspective. I just see "Hey, the old park looks nice this year" or "Gosh, that must take a lot of back breaking effort" and let it go at that, as I believe most fans do. A ton of work, innovation, learning, ingenuity goes into this one teeny-tiny part of MLB every year, and we ignore it almost completely. Which gets to shthar's point: yes, I've barely scratched the surface of this one small point, and there are many, many other areas much more directly relevant to MLB than this in which improvement is constant, and makes for a more skillful contest on the field.
4:24 PM Mar 10th
Sorry. Make that a pre-1930s player.
3:23 PM Mar 10th
The haphazard manner by which nearly all players got into pro ball and then the majors cannot be emphasized enough. Read the bio of a 1930s player and it's clear how much luck had to do with it. Even the superstars like Cobb or Wagner could've as easily ended up never discovered at all
3:22 PM Mar 10th
This is the small?


3:09 PM Mar 10th
I wonder...once those of us who saw Koufax play (only on TV, in my case) are mostly dead, will his reputation diminish?
2:44 PM Mar 10th
great Ted Talks on athletic 'improvement' which is really due to technology advancements: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_epstein_are_athletes_really_getting_faster_better_st​ronger

Good examples are Jesse Owens ran 100 meters on cinders without a starting block. Swimming records improvements seem to be almost exclusively due to tech changes in pool design, wave reduction, swimming suit material, etc.

As for baseball, technology changes have greatly changed the game: yes, grounds keeping has vastly improved; gloves have gotten larger; medical knowledge has allowed players to recover from injuries (how many have had Tommy John surgery?); data keeping and analysis effects baseball in many ways; padding on fences, helmets, guards and other gear has reduced injuries ..... there are many more tech changes. I would be curious to see if these tech changes could be quantified and ranked on their effects on baseball .....
1:30 PM Mar 10th
Which brings up another little publicity bubble on groundskeeping, other than the Toma one mentioned below. When the Padres sold, in the 90's the new ownership made a point that they were going to do something about that infield, which used to be a petri dish for errors-- and they did. And wasn't there something similar though not as high profile when China Basin was built?

There is in existence somewhere a very brief clip of Mathewson throwing a pitch or two in the Polo Grounds-- and the infield looks like a cross between a trash heap and Verdun battlefield...
1:09 PM Mar 10th
Perhaps it's worth mentioning in passing that the play generally regarded as Ozzie Smith's greatest was the result of a bad hop.
12:15 PM Mar 10th
Oops, shouldn't trust my own memory like that. 1924 Series. Game 7. Bottom of the 12th. Tie game. Runner on 2nd. Earl McNeely's grounder hits a pebble—or for some reason, anyway, takes a bad hop over Freddy Lindstrom's head. Winning run scores.
11:19 AM Mar 10th
One more pebble/bad hop that we all should have heard of, even if we never saw it on TV: final batter (I believe) of the 1925 World Series.
11:11 AM Mar 10th
I beg to differ on never hearing/seeing/pattering-my-lawnkeeping-after-a groundskeeper.... George Toma and his family of groundskeepers were icons in the 1960s on, even crossing sports to fix superbowl fields...
10:07 AM Mar 10th

This is a thought-provoking piece. Well done. I had always assumed that the quality of play was improving over time, but always under the assumption that the number of players available was increasing over time, and athletes become bigger, faster, and stronger. I never really thought about the selection process. It's a big factor.
8:57 AM Mar 10th
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