The Better League, 5

June 11, 2022
                                                            The Better League, 5

Population Versus Expansion

 

            In 1960, before the first expansion, each major league team represented or was drawn from a population of about 12 million people. 

            This article does not address the relative strength of the American League versus the National, but rather, the relative strength of the major leagues as a whole over time.  After the first expansion, in 1961-1962, it was commonly said that this had "diluted" the quality of play.   Reporters said in 1962—yes, I am old enough to remember this—observers would say that the major leagues now consisted of 16 teams full of major league players mixed with 4 teams worth of minor league players.   Actually, they would continue to say this for many years after that—that expansion had diluted the quality of the product, so major league teams were not as strong as they were years ago, before all them minor league players were added to the majors. 

            To assume that the number of fully qualified major league players does not vary over time is of course silly, and to assume that the number of fully qualified major leaguers varies proportional to the population is fraught with problems.  There are, after all, nations of many millions of people which don’t produce any major league players at all, because people there just don’t play baseball.  You can’t assume that the number of players within a population is even remotely the same in all countries, nor can you safely assume that it is remotely the same in different decades. 

            But the argument that expansion diluted the quality of play in the major leagues must be true to some extent, so we need to try to model the problem and estimate what that effect might be, as best we can. 

            In 1876 the population of the United States was about 45,500,000, more or less.  There were eight teams that we now recognize as major leagues teams, rightly or wrongly, so that is a ratio of about 5.7 million people for each team.   In 2021 the population was about 333,000,000 and there were 30 teams, so that is a ratio of about 11 million people for each team. 

            These numbers have to be modified, however, for at least three things:

1)      Segregation, which limited the number of potential athletes from which each team was drawn,

2)     World War II, which severely limited the number of available athletes for a period of time, and

3)     International Scouting, which has drawn into the major leagues now a very large number of players from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Thailand and Zimbabwe.  None from Zimbabwe?   We’ll get there. 

 

So this is what I did, to modify the raw population numbers to create a more realistic estimate of the relevant population.

1)     Segregation.  For each season prior to 1947, I multiplied the actual population by .70, assuming that 30% of the eligible population of the best athletes was banned from what was then regarded as Major League Baseball.   That’s a conservative assumption.  After 1947, I increased that number (.70) by .01 each year until 1949, by .02 in each year from 1950 through 1959, and by .01 each year after 1960 until the number was 1.00.  This creates a pattern of integration essentially consistent with the research reported here in the article BL3.   The number reaches 1.00 (100%) in 1966.

 

2)      World War II.  World War II, of course, took away most of the eligible population of baseball players, leaving the leagues to be staffed by whoever was left.   I estimated the percentage that was left as:

90% in 1942

70% in 1943

50% in 1944

30% in 1945

50% in 1946

70% in 1947

90% in 1948 and

100% in 1949

           

The population of available athletes did not immediately snap back to 100% after World War II because, of course, a great many young men who would otherwise have become major league athletes had been killed or disabled in the war, or had had their development years, ages 18 to 22, completely taken away from them. 

 

3)      I marked the beginning of international scouting at 1950, which is about when we began to have significant numbers of international players in the majors, although of course there had been some earlier.  

To represent this in the chart, I multiplied the available population by 1.0032, and then multiplied that number each year by 1.0032.  That is saying that the influence of international scouting has been growing at a rate of about one-third of one percent per season, so that by 2021 international scouting had increased the pool of potential players by 26%.   That’s a really conservative number, but again. . .better to make too small an adjustment than too large. 

 

      Using these assumptions, the effects of the expansions beginning in 1961 were not fully overcome until 2007.   There were repeated expansions—1969, 1977, 1993 and 1998.  Each expansion diluted the talent a little bit more, thus setting back the time when the effects of expansion would be fully overcome.   

In 1876, then, the population of the US was about 45,547,000 (you get different figures from different sources).  However, since black players were not included in the game (with a very few exceptions), I count this as an effective population of 31,883,000.  There were 8 teams in the NL, which makes a ratio of 3,985,000 potential athletes for each team.   Of course, we could reduce this number by eliminating the women folk and the children and aged, but since these adjustments would be essentially the same for each season, they would have little impact on the conclusions. 

 

Year

Population

Effective Population

Teams

Ratio

1876

45547

31883

8

3985

1877

46708

32695

6

5449

1878

47868

33508

6

5585

1879

49029

34320

8

4290

 

 How do we add this to our chart, which is based around .500?  

I divided the "ratio" in the chart above by the same plus 6678; in other words, the effective winning percentage for the National League in 1876, based on the size of the population from which the teams were drawn, would be .374, since (3985/ (3985 + 6678)) = .374.   6678 was the number I used because that number makes the chart center at .500.  Adding that to the chart:

 

Year

Population

Effective Population

Teams

Ratio

Winning Pct

1876

45547

31883

8

3985

.374

1877

46708

32695

6

5449

.449

1878

47868

33508

6

5585

.455

1879

49029

34320

8

4290

.391

 

            New leagues forming in the 1880s drove this equivalent winning percentage way down, as low as .171 in 1884, the lowest it has ever been.  In 1884 each team was drawn from an effective population of not much more than a million people. 

 

Year

Population

Effective Population

Teams

Ratio

Winning Pct

1880

50189

35132

8

4392

.397

1881

51459

36021

8

4503

.403

1882

52729

36910

14

2636

.283

1883

53999

37800

16

2362

.261

1884

55269

38689

28

1382

.171

1885

56540

39578

16

2474

.270

1886

57810

40467

16

2529

.275

1887

59080

41356

16

2585

.279

1888

60350

42245

16

2640

.283

1889

61620

43134

16

2696

.288

 

      The Player’s Revolt in 1890, leading to the formation of a third league, gave us the second-lowest number ever in 1890, but the consolidation into one 12-team league made the ratio of population to teams much higher, thus presumably making the league much stronger.   Not just "presumably"; there is no doubt that the quality of play in the majors was improving, although the population ratio alone would not say that it was better in 1899 than in 1879:

 

Year

Population

Effective Population

Teams

Ratio

Winning Pct

1890

62890

44023

24

1834

.215

1891

64222

44956

16

2810

.296

1892

65554

45888

12

3824

.364

1893

66887

46821

12

3902

.369

1894

68219

47753

12

3979

.373

1895

69551

48686

12

4057

.378

1896

70883

49618

12

4135

.382

1897

72215

50551

12

4213

.387

1898

73548

51483

12

4290

.391

1899

74880

52416

12

4368

.395

 

    

          The National League shucked off four teams in 1890s, creating the strongest league ever at that time for the 1900 season.  In 1901 the American League formed, dividing the talent between the two leagues, and dropping the presumptive skill level back to the .330s:

 

Year

Population

Effective Population

Teams

Ratio

Winning Pct

1900

76212

53348

8

6669

.500

1901

77814

54470

16

3404

.338

1902

79415

55591

16

3474

.342

1903

81017

56712

16

3544

.347

1904

82618

57833

16

3615

.351

1905

84220

58954

16

3685

.356

1906

85822

60075

16

3755

.360

1907

87423

61196

16

3825

.364

1908

89025

62317

16

3895

.368

1909

90626

63438

16

3965

.373

 

          From 1901 to 1960 the ratio of population to teams grew steadily, as the population of the US more than doubled in those years, while the number of teams stayed at 16.   There were two exceptions to that, the first of which was the Federal League, 1914-1915:

 

Year

Population

Effective Population

Teams

Ratio

Winning  Pct

1910

92228

64560

16

4035

.377

1911

93607

65525

16

4095

.380

1912

94987

66491

16

4156

.384

1913

96366

67456

16

4216

.387

1914

97745

68422

24

2851

.299

1915

99125

69387

24

2891

.302

1916

100504

70353

16

4397

.397

1917

101883

71318

16

4457

.400

1918

103262

72284

16

4518

.404

1919

104642

73249

16

4578

.407

 

          By 1929 the presumptive winning percentage based on population was up to .443:

 

Year

Population

Effective Population

Teams

Ratio

Winning  Pct

1920

106021

74215

16

4638

.410

1921

107721

75405

16

4713

.414

1922

109421

76595

16

4787

.418

1923

111122

77785

16

4862

.421

1924

112822

78975

16

4936

.425

1925

114522

80165

16

5010

.429

1926

116222

81356

16

5085

.432

1927

117922

82546

16

5159

.436

1928

119623

83736

16

5233

.439

1929

121323

84926

16

5308

.443

 

          And by 1939 it was up to .479, the highest it had ever been except for the 1900 season, when there were only eight teams:

 

Year

Population

Effective Population

Teams

Ratio

Winning  Pct

1930

123023

86116

16

5382

.446

1931

124937

87456

16

5466

.450

1932

126851

88796

16

5550

.454

1933

128765

90136

16

5633

.458

1934

130679

91476

16

5717

.461

1935

132594

92815

16

5801

.465

1936

134508

94155

16

5885

.468

1937

136422

95495

16

5968

.472

1938

138336

96835

16

6052

.475

1939

140250

98175

16

6136

.479

 

          And then the 1940s were wild.   By 1945 the presumptive quality of baseball (based on the population ratio) had dropped to its lowest point since 1890.   By 1949, aided a little bit by early integration, the presumptive quality had climbed over .500 for the first time ever.  It has never dropped under .500 since then:

 

Year

Population

Effective Population

Teams

Ratio

Winning  Pct

1940

142164

99515

16

6220

.482

1941

143828

100680

16

6292

.485

1942

145492

91660

16

5729

.462

1943

147156

72106

16

4507

.403

1944

148820

52087

16

3255

.328

1945

150484

31602

16

1975

.228

1946

152148

53252

16

3328

.333

1947

153812

76445

16

4778

.417

1948

155476

100748

16

6297

.485

1949

157140

114712

16

7170

.518

 

          By 1959, with large-scale, normalized integration, the quality of the leagues had reached a dizzying level:

 

Year

Population

Effective Population

Teams

Ratio

Winning  Pct

1950

158804

119484

16

7468

.528

1951

162721

126099

16

7881

.541

1952

166639

132912

16

8307

.554

1953

170556

139927

16

8745

.567

1954

174473

147145

16

9197

.579

1955

178391

154567

16

9660

.591

1956

182308

162195

16

10137

.603

1957

186225

170031

16

10627

.614

1958

190142

178077

16

11130

.625

1959

194060

186335

16

11646

.636

 

          What we are saying here is that, based simply on the size of the American Population and the introduction of black players and international players into the game, we would conclude that a major league team from 1959 would beat the bejeebers out of a team from 1939. 

          By 1969, however, the major leagues had expanded by 50% in 9 years.  This diluted the product, and set backward significantly the overall quality of play:

 

Year

Population

Effective Population

Teams

Ratio

Winning  Pct

1960

197977

192755

16

12047

.643

1961

198578

196022

18

10890

.620

1962

199178

199320

20

9966

.599

1963

199779

202650

20

10133

.603

1964

200380

206012

20

10301

.607

1965

200981

209406

20

10470

.611

1966

201581

212832

20

10642

.614

1967

202182

214150

20

10707

.616

1968

202783

215473

20

10774

.617

1969

203383

216803

24

9033

.575

 

          Because of international scouting, the effective population became larger than the American population in 1962.  Remember Camilo Pascual, Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Julian Javier, Juan Marichal, Luis Aparicio and the Alou brothers?   Because there was another expansion in the 1970s, not a lot of progress was made toward recovery:

 

Year

Population

Effective Population

Teams

Ratio

Winning  Pct

1970

203984

218139

24

9089

.576

1971

206308

221331

24

9222

.580

1972

208632

224540

24

9356

.584

1973

210956

227768

24

9490

.587

1974

213280

231014

24

9626

.590

1975

215605

234279

24

9762

.594

1976

217929

237562

24

9898

.597

1977

220253

240864

26

9264

.581

1978

222577

244184

26

9392

.584

1979

224901

247524

26

9520

.588

 

          Much more progress was made in the 1980s, pushing the product back close to the pre-expansion standard:

Year

Population

Effective Population

Teams

Ratio

Winning  Pct

1980

227225

250882

26

9649

.591

1981

229466

254167

26

9776

.594

1982

231664

257423

26

9901

.597

1983

233792

260619

26

10024

.600

1984

234825

262608

26

10100

.602

1985

237968

266974

26

10268

.606

1986

240116

270246

26

10394

.609

1987

242265

273537

26

10521

.612

1988

244413

276846

26

10648

.615

1989

246562

280173

26

10776

.617

 

          But the additions of four more expansion teams in the 1990s left the quality of the league about the same in 1999 as it had been in 1990:

 

Year

Population

Effective Population

Teams

Ratio

Winning  Pct

1990

248710

283519

26

10905

.620

1991

251981

288167

26

11083

.624

1992

255252

292842

26

11263

.628

1993

258524

297544

28

10627

.614

1994

261795

302273

28

10795

.618

1995

265066

307029

28

10965

.622

1996

268337

311813

28

11136

.625

1997

271608

316624

28

11308

.629

1998

274880

321463

30

10715

.616

1999

278151

326330

30

10878

.620

 

          With no expansions since 1998, the effects of expansion were finally wiped out by 2007, leaving the quality of play stronger than ever:

 

Year

Population

Effective Population

Teams

Ratio

Winning  Pct

2000

281422

331224

30

11041

.623

2001

284154

335510

30

11184

.626

2002

286887

339820

30

11327

.629

2003

289619

344155

30

11472

.632

2004

292352

348513

30

11617

.635

2005

295084

352896

30

11763

.638

2006

297816

357304

30

11910

.641

2007

300549

361736

30

12058

.644

2008

303281

366192

30

12206

.646

2009

306014

370674

30

12356

.649

 

          And it has continued to grow since 2009:

 

Year

Population

Effective Population

Teams

Ratio

Winning  Pct

2010

308746

375181

30

12506

.652

2011

311016

379149

30

12638

.654

2012

313287

383139

30

12771

.657

2013

315557

387150

30

12905

.659

2014

317827

391183

30

13039

.661

2015

320098

395238

30

13175

.664

2016

322368

399315

30

13311

.666

2017

324638

403414

30

13447

.668

2018

326908

407535

30

13585

.670

2019

329179

411679

30

13723

.673

2020

331449

415844

30

13861

.675

2021

333230

419417

30

13981

.677

 

          Each team now represents an effective population of about 14 million people, including international players.  This is the highest ratio of all time. 

          Just by way of my opinion, I will say that I don’t really believe that it takes as long for the quality of play to recover from expansion as this chart makes it appear.  Major league players do not simply exist; they are created--like lawyers, writers, educators and criminals. They are created out of talent, which is limited by the population size, but they are also created by training, development and opportunity.  Those things are not limited by the population size.   My opinion. . .the effects of the first expansion (1961-1962) were probably mostly gone by 1966, 1967.  Mostly gone, not entirely. 

          But. . .this is just intuitive, maybe, but it seems to me it took baseball longer to recover from the second expansion (1969) than from the first one.  You have two operations in a fairly short period of time, it’s going to take you longer to recover from the second one than it did the first one. 

          And my second opinion:  most people tend to dramatically overestimate the improvement in the quality of play over recent decades.  I know that a lot of people think that a team from 2022 would easily dominate a team from 1982, if a game could be arranged.  I really don’t see convincing evidence for that. 

          But there are a lot of things left that we could or will measure, and all of those things will feed into the estimate we make of the slope of history.  I am trying, as best I can, to take this issue out of the realm of complete speculation, and move it into the realm of educated speculation, careful speculation, organized speculation.  It’s a hard problem; take my work for what you think it is worth.  

 
 

COMMENTS (11 Comments, most recent shown first)

Brock Hanke
hotstatrat et al - I'm not at all sure that the number of 100-win (or winning percentage) seasons is all that relevant to the quality of the league, much less the game. What 100-win seasons measure is the DIFFERENCE between the best teams and the rest of the league. Teams after expansion won 100 games because they had real bad teams to beat on - the expansion teams. It does make conceptual sense that the presence of really bad teams indicates that the league is admitting too many bad players because of expansion, but there are times in history which were nowhere near any expansion, but a couple of teams were winning 100 games simply because those couple of teams just got ahead of the rest of the game. At the very least, that has to dilute the value of the expansion argument, by introducing a different factor that does the same thing as the 100-win seasons. And no, I have no idea how to compensate for that.
12:16 AM Jun 24th
 
stublues
I'd like to piggy back off FrankD's observation about the pool of baseball players being impacted by career options in basketball and football.
There are so many other options too. US kids playing elite youth hockey; expansion of collegiate and developmental golf, with the Olympics admitting pros, that's an athletic career athletic career path. There are probably young men currently active in skateboard, motocross, skiing, who would have been baseball players in an earlier era.
8:54 AM Jun 20th
 
Manushfan
I agree with Our Bill here, I don't think the 1982 Brewers for example go 60-102 now. To me that's goofy.​
5:59 PM Jun 13th
 
Marc Schneider
Of course, there is a difference between the quality of play and the entertainment value at any given time. We can agree that today's quality of play is at a very high level historically, but the entertainment value is much lower. And, for a fan, that seems to me far more important than some abstract quality of play. In fact, I wonder if there is some sort of inverse correlation between the quality of play and the entertainment value.
1:39 PM Jun 13th
 
FrankD
Interesting series. I to would like to know if there should be a correction for the increase of NFL and NBA players and status/salaries. Surely some of today's NBA and NFL players would have played or emphasized professional baseball. Also, and maybe this is too small of a factor, age demographics of a population may have had an effect. For example, did the baby boom have an effect on available talent for pro baseball?
12:22 PM Jun 12th
 
willibphx
Bill,

Can you provide the source for your 30% estimate. Most of the data I have seen show the African American population between 10% to 15% of the US throughout the last 150 years or so.

Second, how do you think the dramatic growth in the competition for talent from football and basketball has effected the talent pool for baseball.

Thanks as always for the analysis and insights.
9:43 AM Jun 12th
 
cderosa
Hey Bill,
This is an exciting series of articles; I'm really enjoying them.

Is there a case for marking down any of the later Korean War years to the level of maybe 1942 (90%)? It seems like there were a lot of important players in the service for a year or two during the 1951-1953 period, including Whitey Ford, Art Houtterman, Curt Simmons, Ted Williams. Willie Mays, Don Newcombe, Vern Law, Dick Groat.
It seems like a bigger deal to me than the losses in the rest of the Cold War draft.

Chris DeRosa
8:43 AM Jun 12th
 
cderosa
Hey Bill,
This is an exciting series of articles; I'm really enjoying them.

Is there a case for marking down any of the later Korean War years to the level of maybe 1942 (90%)? It seems like there were a lot of important players in the service for a year or two during the 1951-1953 period, including Whitey Ford, Art Houtterman, Curt Simmons, Ted Williams. Willie Mays, Don Newcombe, Vern Law, Dick Groat.
It seems like a bigger deal to me than the losses in the rest of the Cold War draft.

Chris DeRosa
8:42 AM Jun 12th
 
DefenseHawk
hotstatrat,

You mentioned at looking at the 100 win seasons after expansion. I had made a similar point in a "Hey, Bill" comment re: Grich, Parker and the 1977 A.L. expansion. That point kind of got lost in the larger question that I was asking Bill about Win Shares.

But, absolutely, it's something to look at. (I would look at winning percentages instead, however, because the first expansions in 1961 and 1962 bumped the schedule up to 162 games.)

The average A.L. "established" club played .522 ball in 1977, gaining an average of 3.5 wins over 162 games compared to 1976. The big four (Yankees, Royals, Red Sox and Orioles) even more so, gaining over 9+ wins on average.

The already "established" teams benefit with expansion. And so do their players. They're playing against weaker competition.

Does Rod Carew hit .388 in 1977 if not for expansion? Unlikely. Sure, he hit only .328 against the Mariners (.432 vs. Toronto). But the pitching is going to be slightly better on the established clubs if there's no expansion. Fielding will also probably be slightly better.

Carew went only 1 for 8 against Seattle's Glenn Abbott. If not for expansion, the A's Rick Langford might have been spending another year in the minors, with Abbott retaining his place in Oakland's rotation instead of being picked by the Mariners in the expansion draft. Carew had gone 4 for 9 against Langford.

However, the decline of the quality of play in the years immediately after expansion is not all due to the lack of available baseball talent. Some of the decline is due to the lack of talent made available to them. Not all of the best AAA talent was available in the draft pool. Nor was even all the best available "bench" talent from the majors was made available. Just look at the draft rules for the expansions of 1961, 1962 and 1977 if you're not already familiar with them.

Other rules hurt the expansion clubs, too, such as being put at the end of the draft selections. Or Seattle and Toronto not being allowed to participate in baseball's first re-entry draft (the free agent class of 1976).

It took, on average, the first class of expansion teams 20.5 years before winning a division title. The Class of '69 took an average of 12.75 years.
8:43 PM Jun 11th
 
77royals
The quality of the leagues in the 1970's might not have been as high as previously, but man, it was a lot of fun to watch.
4:33 PM Jun 11th
 
hotstatrat
I am extremely grateful for this, thank you. I even wrote a long article about something that relied on my very rough estimates of exactly what you are measuring. That article was abandoned because my estimates were unsatifactorly rough. I'm sure your conclusions will inspire me to try again.

I was surprised to read that you believe it took longer to overcome the 1969 expansion than the ones early in that decade. One thing I hope you will attempt to measure is that baseball teams over time have become ever more sophisticated and effective at training players. For that reason, if the Majors recovered from the 1961-1962 expansion by 1966 or '67, I would guess they recovered from the 1969 expansion by 1973.

One indicator of league strength that is admitedly very wonky because it relies on small sample size, but is evidently real: 100 win seasons. There have been a vastly out of proportion of 100 win seasons in expansion years or shortly after expansion.

There has also been a large number of 100 win seasons in recent years. I'm wondering if that is a reflection of a feast or famine style of team building lately or other modern baseball economics or that leagues are getting weaker due to so many American athletes being more interested in football or other endeavors. You've mentioned how scary baseball demographics are right now.
1:38 PM Jun 11th
 
 
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