19to21: January 3, 2008
John Shiffert on Steroids, Records Across Eras and the Hoosier Thunderbolt!
19 to 21
Yes, we’re starting off a new year of Baseball...Then and Now!
Baseball and football are vastly different games, on many different levels. For instance, in baseball you have deep thinkers like Bill James, John Thorn, Pete Palmer, Jayson Stark, Peter Gammons, Billy Beane, Bruce Brown, Theo Epstein, Jack Shiffert, Bill Chuck, Matt, Andrew and Frank Coyne, Brian Engelhardt, Zach Lazarus, Brian Walton, Clayton Trapp, Dan O’Brien, Lyle Spatz, Richard Lally, Rowdy Richard, Cappy Gagnon, Norman Macht, Charles Alexander, Jim Hardy, David Voigt, Tom Altherr, Bill Deane, Harry Gratwick, Jim Baker, Jim Bouton, Jim Brosnan, David Block, Rod Nelson, David Nemec, Jeff Powers-Beck, Rob Neyer, Jared Wheeler and a host of others, some of whom you’ve undoubtedly heard of, and some of whom maybe you’ve never heard of. But, they’re all deep thinkers on the National Pastime… doing their thinking on many levels, including the history of the game, the meaning of the statistics of the game, the strategies of the game, evaluating players both past and present… far more deep thinkers deeply thinking on far more subjects than you can ever count. Then there’s football, where deep thinking tends to start and end with those who would expound at length on the significance of the slot option wingback shotgun wishbone offense. Baseball is a game for deep thinkers. Football is a video game come to life.
Another major difference between the two sports is historical. Not only does baseball’s history go back some 150 years, but the game has changed so much over those 150 years that it’s extremely difficult to keep track of the changes. Nonetheless, baseball is a creature, a creation, of its history, and it’s a history, a past, that is revered and studied far more than that of any other sport. Football, on the other hand, didn’t really develop in a recognizable form until Teddy Roosevelt promulgated that these college kids had to stop killing each other on the field (a ruling that came about after a particularly violent game between two Quaker schools – Penn and Swarthmore), leading to the legalization of the forward pass and, eventually, the creation of a professional league… about the same time Babe Ruth built Yankee Stadium. So, football’s history really only goes back 100 years (prior to that, it was basically a cross between rugby and soccer), and its professional history is barely 80 years old.
And there’s a third difference. Football is supposed to be a similitude of war, supposed to be a triumph of strength. Baseball, despite Ty Cobb’s comment that it was not unlike war… isn’t. It’s a much more subtle, intellectual game, of more subtle skills. As Mr. Bouton noted in “Ball Four,” the hardest single thing in sports is hitting a baseball. (And the second hardest thing, he said, is keeping the other guy from hitting that same baseball.) As 2008 dawns, this is a very big difference, one that the aforementioned Mr. Stark noted indirectly in an excellent column last month wherein he wondered why there was such outrage over Andy Pettitte having used HGH while not a peep was heard over Rodney Harrison of the New England Patriots having done the same thing. The simple answer is that steroids and other performance enhancing drugs have been around football forever, and everybody knows it and expects it. How else do you explain a 350 pound behemoth running 40 yards in under five seconds? It’s a game made for such excesses, whereas those same excesses are seen as contrary to the essence of baseball, the intellectual game. Steroids, HGH and the like are seen as having polluted baseball, as being contrary to what baseball is all about.
Having made that distinction, and having also noted the importance of statistics, history and records to baseball, one of the issues that has been buzzing around the records of the game since the release of the Mitchell Report (actually, deep thinkers have been pondering this ever since, at the very least, the release of “Game of Shadows”) is, where to from here? With the baseball record book having been badly warped, if not mangled, by Barry Bonds, et al, what is to be done to correct the situation? And, for that matter, what are we to do about Roger Clemens’ records? Eric Gagne’s? After all, you can’t just throw all the statistics since 1993 out the window.
Into this no-win situation has come a suggestion from another deep thinker, one of the deepest thinkers of the mainstream baseball media. Bob Costas… the man who carries a Mickey Mantle baseball card in his wallet, and who reportedly left a $3.31 tip the first time he ate at Stan Musial’s restaurant in St. Louis. Costas has suggested that the best way, indeed the only way, to deal with the current mess from a record/history perspective is to include a preface in the record books. Costas’ suggestion goes something like this; add a preface to the official baseball record book that would read to the effect that while baseball has a far longer history than any other organized team sport, and while baseball statistics are far more relevant and important that that of any other sport, the fact is that the game has changed greatly, significantly, over the 150 or so years that it has been recognizable as baseball, and that these changes have greatly affected the game’s statistics and records.
Then comes the list of some of the changes in the parameters of baseball that have effected the game’s records, among other things; changes in the strike zone, changes in the height of the mound, changes in the pitching distance, changes in the ball/strike rules, changes in the pitchers’ delivery, changes in defacing the baseball and the bats, changes in the number of games each season, changes in the playing venue, changes in the ball, changes in equipment, day baseball vs. night baseball, the use of relief pitchers, the execrable DH, segregated baseball vs. integrated baseball, expansion, and, yes, the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Finally, according to Costas, comes the kicker, a statement something like… these various changes (which should also be listed in a chronology included in said preface) should be taken into account when reviewing these records.
Such an action would absolve baseball from putting an asterisk in front of every record set since 1993, since only a fool would believe that the Mitchell Report named all of the juiced (or suspected juiced… Brady Anderson, take a bow) players from the past 20 years or so. But, read over that list of changes above. The fact is such a preface would also remove the need for even more asterisks, hundreds of (theoretical) asterisks. Because the baseball record book as it now stands is misleading, and doesn’t really take into account the dramatic changes in the game. Like, the pitching distance moving in stages from 45 feet to 60 feet, six inches. Like the adoption of the foul strike rule. Like the changes in the number of balls and strikes needed for a walk or a strikeout. Like the prohibition against pitchers raising their arm above their waist. Like banning (also theoretical) of defacing the baseball. Like smaller outfields. Like Denver, Colorado. And those are just a fraction of the changes in the rules.
How much effect did these changes have? Well, sometimes they have, over time, counterbalanced each other, since some have benefited the hitters and some have benefited the pitchers. And some, like the current mess, apparently have benefited both at the same time. While we may rightfully deplore the effects of ‘roids, and the damage they have done to the record book, it can be pointed out that, exactly 100 years before the Juiced Era began, another, far more obvious change in baseball produced an even bigger effect than steroids, or whatever caused batting stats to jump so dramatically in 1993. Prior to the start of the 1893 season the official pitching distance was increased from 50 feet to 60 feet, six inches, and pitchers were required to keep their rear foot against a rubber slab, instead of the back line of a four foot by five-and-a-half foot box.
Many have laid these dramatic changes at the feet of Amos Rusie, the Hoosier Thunderbolt. And while that may be giving the rooster credit for the sun coming up, there’s no doubt that National League batters, and Rusie’s catchers, appreciated the change. Although maybe better remembered now as the other half of the 1900 fix that sent Christy Mathewson back to the Giants, Rusie was a 21 year-old farm boy from Mooresville (Indiana, obviously) with a terrifying fast ball when the 1893 season started. At that point Rusie had already been terrorizing anyone foolish enough to come to bat against him from just 50 feet away (that’s where he was when he let go of the ball) for four years. In his three full major league seasons, Rusie had pitched 1581 innings for the Giants, striking out 966 and walking 818. Before you shrug off his strikeouts per inning, note the he led the National League in two of those three years, and finished second the other time. Remember, he was pitching in 1891, not 1991 and the parameters of the game were different. And before you think that he wasn’t that wild, well, he was. He led the NL all three years in walks and set the all-time record for walks in a single season in 1890 (a season in which he didn’t turn 19 until Memorial Day) with 289 (he also threw 36 wild pitches that year.) In fact, three of the top four marks for walks in a single season are Rusie’s. Think of a primeval Bob Feller (who only walked 208 at the age of 19) and you get a pretty good idea of the type of pitcher Rusie was.
For whatever reason(s), they moved the pitcher back, really just five feet, because previously hurlers had to keep a foot on the back line of the five-and-a-half foot pitchers’ box (50 + 5 ½ = 55 ½). And you know what? It didn’t make much difference to Rusie. He still led the NL in strikeouts, albeit his total dropped to 208 in 1893 from 288 in 1892. And, he still led in walks, 218, down from 267. And he still won 33 games (up two from 1892). Which is one reason why he’s in the Hall of Fame. However, the extra five feet did make a big difference… to the hitters. In 1892, the average runs scored per team per game in the National League was 5.10. In 1893, it jumped to 6.57. That’s an increase of 28.8 percent in runs scored in one year. For good measure, the league’s cumulative batting average went from .245 in 1892 to .280 in 1893. The next year, 1894, runs scored jumped all the way to the all-time high (for the National League… it had been much higher in the National Association in the early 1870s, but that was an even different game) of 7.36, and the league batting average climbed to .309. Now compare that to the change in runs scored in the National League from 1992 to 1993, which was 3.88 to 4.49, or just 15.7 percent. Of course, by 1999 NL runs scored reached 5.00 per game, an increase from 1992 that, oddly enough, exactly matches the 1892-1893 28.8 percent increase. To put it another way, it took seven years for steroids (with a nod to smaller ballparks) to increase run scoring as much as moving the pitcher back did in one year.
Costas is exactly right. There have been manifest changes in the game over the past 150 years. They have very much affected the records of the game. And we can expect the game to keep changing, hopefully for the better, and hopefully without steroids. It’s a shame that the record book has been mutilated in such a cavalier fashion, largely by stars who weren’t satisfied with just being stars. But it has happened, mainly because it seems as if no one wanted to stop it. In recognition of that, baseball needs to make a statement… when reviewing baseball records from any era, and comparing them to another era, caveat emptor.