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Baseball Analysis  John Holway

It’s not what you don't know that gets you in trouble; it’s what you know for sure that isn't so.

                                                                                    Al Smith,

Presidential candidate, 1928


The game is not diluted;

it’s the best baseball ever played

By John B Holway


            Wistful old-timers like to complain that there are more teams today than in Ty Cobb’s or Babe Ruth’s day.  But they don't add that today there are far more baby boys being born to play on them.   The population explosion has far out-stripped baseball expansion. 

In 1900 the population of the United States was about 100 million, ten percent of whom were black.  That leaves 45 million white American males.  At 16 teams and 320 players, every player represented the best of about 140,000 white U.S. males.

Today the U.S. population has topped 300 million, and Caribbean countries add another 160 million, for a total of 460 million, or 230 million males.  With 30 teams and 750 players (rosters are larger now), each player represents the best of over 300,000 western hemisphere males of all colors.

The number of players has doubled, but the pool of male babies has gone up five-fold.  Thus the odds against growing up to play in the Major Leagues has more than doubled.

And that doesn't count Asia’s teeming millions, who are beginning to push U.S. and Latin players out of jobs.

The stunning success of the rest of the world in the 2006 World Baseball Championship dramatized that today we're watching a caliber of baseball that great grandpop couldn't have dreamed of.

About half the pitchers in Cobb’s and Ruth’s day couldn't have made a big league roster today. 

And the other half might not have made it either – they'd be too small.   In 1952 Bobby Shantz (139 pounds) won 24 games; today his high school coach wouldn't even look at him.  In 1884 “Ol’ Hoss” Radbourne won 60 games; the “hoss” weighed in at 168.  Ten years later Hugh Duffy batted .440 and led the league in homers; he stood 5’7’ and weighed less than David Eckstein.  Wee Willie Keeler batted .424 and weighed 140.  Cobb was a heavyweight at 175.

If Keeler, Cobb, and Ruth (212) posed next to today’s Frank Thomas (270) and David Ortiz (officially 230), people would snicker, “Who are all those little runts?” 

The blacks and Latins have given baseball a huge qualitative, as well as quantitative, boost.  “I'd have shaved a few points off those high batting averages,” Satchel Paige said.  So would Bullet Joe Rogan, Smoky Joe Williams, and many more black stars.  There hasn't been a 400-hitter since integration; that's probably not a coincidence.  Only three less hits would have cost Ted Williams his .406 in 1941.  Cobb, Hornsby, Harry Heilmann, and Bill Terry would probably also have lost .400 seasons. 

How many homers would Ruth have lost in an integrated league?  In 1927 he might have hit 54 instead of 60.  And a black slugger like the new Hall of Famer, Mule Suttles, might have hit 55, taking Ruth’s title away, as well as his record. 

It’s true that football and other sports have siphoned off some potential baseball talent.  However, football and basketball players tend to be heavier or taller than the ideal baseball player.  One could wipe out the NFL and NBA and hardly make a dent in the rosters of Major League baseball.

In fact, I have my doubts that Ty and Babe could break into today’s Tiger or Yankee outfields against the bigger, stronger, faster, athletes of 2007. 

Babe’s only body-building exercise consisted of lifting beers. 

He used to walk up on the pitch.  Ty held his hands apart until the ball was halfway to the plate.  They couldn't do that against today’s hurlers.  By today’s standards they weren't professionals, they were amateurs who got paid.

The Olympics make this clear.  Johnny “Tarzan” Weismueller, the 1924 Gold medalist in swimming, couldn't make the U.S. team today – I mean the women’s team.   If his mate, Jane, were threatened by ravenous crocodiles 400 meters away, Janet Evans could splash to her aid a minute faster than Johnny; by the time he arrived, she would be swinging away through the jungle, ululating triumphantly.

The winner of the men’s marathon that year would have finished 26th in the women’s race in 1984.

To return to the competitive conditions of a century ago, baseball would have to double the number of big league teams.  The talk of “contraction” by two teams a few years ago would have drawn the population noose even tighter around the throats of today’s players, making it even tougher to get a big league job, let alone to stand out as Cobb and Ruth did.

If we do double the number of teams, we'll see the return of the .400 hitter, and we'll see other records go through the sky-dome roofs.  Expansion is the ultimate steroid.  

To put it another way, the records of Cobb, Ruth etc, which were once protected by segregation, are now protected by the population explosion.

            Today we're watching the best athletes who ever played the game.  And our grandchildren will watch even bigger and better ones.   Seven-foot 300-pound players will not be uncommon, without steroids.  To keep records more or less stable, the game will probably have to move the pitching distance back ten feet, lengthen the base paths to 100 feet, move the fences out to 380 feet at the foul lines and 480 in center.  We can anticipate a third Major League in Asia etc.

            As for salaries and the price of a bleacher ticket and hot dog, hold your hat.


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