May 16th, 2011
In today’s baseball we are witnessing a paradox of progress, in which we recognize that the game on the field is vastly better than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, and yet to many veteran observers it somehow feels worse. Today’s ballplayers are bigger, stronger, better conditioned, and better trained. In the field they make plays on a daily basis that would have been season highlights not so long ago. Pitchers, long perceived to be in general decline, are in fact better than ever as they struggle to overcome minuscule strike zones and cozy fences.
It has always been this way. If left unfettered, pitching would have annihilated hitting long ago, driving league-wide batting averages below .180; ever since the beginnings of major league play in 1876, each time batting averages dipped below .250 for an extended period, the owners saw the peril to their profitability and enacted changes that sent offense soaring. In a 1921 column Ring Lardner wrote “I got a letter the other day asking why didn’t I write baseball no more and I usen’t to write about nothing else, you might say. Well friends, may as well admit that I have kind of lose interest in the old game, or rather it ain’t the old game which I have lose interest in, but it is the game which the magnates has fixed up to please the public with their usual good judgment.”
I second that emotion. Mark Gauvreau Judge, grandson of longtime Washington Senator first baseman Joe Judge, wrote ruefully about the man who invented the Big Bam game: “Ruth was the catalyst for baseball as we know it today — a Las Vegas slumber party, with epochs of lifelessness punctuated by the occasional blast from a slugger. What the game needs is what Joe Judge offered: hits, stolen bases, fielding, movement.” Pride of bloodline aside — Gramps was a solid but unspectacular player from 1915 to 1934 — this sentiment strikes a chord with me.
From its earliest period, when a runner could be retired by a thrown ball, baseball was a game defined by its adventurous circuit around the bases. The ancient field games — before bats and balls and other implements came into play — involved chaotic chasing, eluding, and capture. When baseball began it was primarily a game for runners and fielders rather than the batsman or the pitcher. The new game of ball took its name from its hallmark feature: the base, a safe haven symbolizing a bay or harbor amid the perilous homeward course.
The national taste of earlier days sustained a game marked by running and fielding; the appetite of the modern era has been for the contest of pitcher and hitter. It has been a long while since a home run generally involved running. In recent years we have had to endure the Whacks Museum of tableaux vivants, the macho posturing, the one-flap down home-run trot, the lazy fly ball wafting over a wall that has no business being there. When did baseball’s primal activity cease to be athletic? How, precisely, did behemoths who can’t run come to define the game that Lardner loved, the one of Mathewson and Cobb and Wagner and Johnson?
Looking at Joe Judge’s record, this is what popped out at me: in 15 years as an everyday player, he hit 154 triples, yet his average of 10 per season was unremarkable. He never led his league in that category, and even the three seasons in which he hit 15 triples left him no better than third best. Doing a quick study embracing three major-league seasons, representing the high point of Lardner’s interest (1911), the first year of league expansion (1961), and the 2006 season (which provided a recent high-water mark for home runs) I calculated these results, for both teams in an average major league game:
1961: 1.90 per game
2006: 2.22 per game
1911: 1.06 per game
1961: 0.53 per game
2006: 0.40 per game
1911: 2.64 per game
1961: 2.78 per game
2006: 3.76 per game
Not surprisingly, home runs per game were nearly five times greater in 1961 than they had been in 1911. Then they increased by a mere 17 percent in the subsequent period of 45 years. That’s not a lot to justify our carrying on so about the “home run explosion,” is it?
The batters of 1911 produced nearly seven times as many doubles as home runs, yet today’s sluggers amass not even two times as many doubles as homers. This tells us something about how much less running and fielding we are seeing today, no matter that these are, respectively, faster and better.
But the really illuminating event tracked in the chart above is the disappearance of the triple. Not only did its occurrence drop by precisely one-half over the 50 years from 1911 to 1961, but it has also declined by an additional 25 percent since then.
Harry Walker, when he managed the Houston Astros, once said: “The most exciting hit in baseball is the triple…. You usually have two or three men handling the ball, and if everything fits together, the runner is flagged down on a close play. On doubles and triples, several men must contribute. On a home run, one man does it all.”
In Lardner’s day, Tris Speaker’s glove was described as “the place where triples go to die.” (The phrase was later applied to Willie Mays.) Today that place is any one of the 30 major-league baseball parks.