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“You Could Look It Up”

ISSUE:  Spring 1981

Of the major American spectator sports, the game of baseball is probably the most “intellectual.” By this I do not mean that the average baseball fan is a metaphysician or a college professor, since the truth is that as such things go, baseball probably draws more of its adherents from blue-collar segments of the population than either football or basketball and certainly far more than golf, tennis, or track and field. Only boxing appeals to a less educated audience than baseball, and boxing, except for certain televised productions, is now all but defunct on the professional level, while as a school sport it has been abandoned entirely.

By the “intellectuality” of baseball I mean rather that it offers a formidable dimension of fan involvement that can be entered into quite independently of either sitting in a stadium to watch a game or observing it on television. Of the major sports it is by far the most statistical and measurable. In part this is because of the absence of muscle-against-muscle brute contact, and in part because by about the year 1900 the game attained pretty much its ultimate form, so that there are now available some 80 years of statistical data that can be compared, contrasted, and otherwise disputed in meaningful fashion.

To cite an obvious example, in the spring of 1974 millions of persons were engaged in following a home run duel between a player on the Atlanta Braves and another who had been dead for more than a quarter-century, and whose career had come to an end 13 years before that. Entering the 1974 season, Henry Aaron had hit 713 lifetime major league home runs. The legendary Babe Ruth’s record of 714, established between 1915 and 1935, had always been considered untouchable. Even Willie Mays, by far Ruth’s closest competitor, had retired from the game after the 1973 season with some 60 fewer home runs than the Babe.

Aaron, however, having begun playing major league baseball at age 20, had year after year exacted a toll of approximately 40 home runs per season off National League pitchers. His forte, as home run sluggers go, was his amazing consistency. He had never enjoyed spectacular seasons such as Ruth’s 60 home runs in 1927, or 59 in 1929. Mays, too, had bigger years: 51 in 1955, 52 in 1965. By contrast, Aaron’s highest annual total was a mere 47 home runs, in 1971. But from 1957 through 1973 he had only twice failed to hit at least 30 home runs a season.

Toward the close of the 1973 campaign, therefore, it became evident that, barring calamity, Henry Aaron had a very real chance of equalling Ruth’s record that very season. On the final day of play, when with 40 home runs to his credit he was only one home run short, more than 40,000 persons were in Atlanta Stadium to watch what might be one of baseball’s greatest historical moments. One is tempted to say that had Aaron been Ruth or even Mays, there would have been sufficient showman in him virtually to have guaranteed a recordtying home run that day. But consistency, not showmanship, was what Aaron had to offer, and though he hit three singles that afternoon, he ended the 1973 season one home run short of Babe Ruth’s record.

It was probably a good thing, for the entire autumn, winter, and early spring lay ahead for baseball fans to argue about the forthcoming event. By the time that the 1974 season began, millions of persons were conscious that Ruth’s apparently unsurpassable record was about to be surpassed. Thus when Aaron hit No. 714 in Cincinnati, and then upon his first time at bat in Atlanta Stadium cracked out the tie-breaker, No. 715, it was an event of national significance.

All this, mind you, about a baseball player who was surpassing a record set in the year 1935, when he was one year old, by another player whom only a fraction of the fans who were so excited about the deed had ever even seen play baseball.

The point is that the comparison between the two home run hitters was meaningful, because a home run hit by Henry Louis Aaron in Atlanta Stadium in 1974 signified approximately the same thing as a home run hit by George Herman Ruth in Yankee Stadium in 1924. The distances to the fence were approximately the same, the same number of players were on the field stationed in approximately the same places, the ball was the same size, the pitch was delivered in approximately the same manner, it was hit by a wooden bat weighing about the same, and so on.

It is the measurability of baseball from season to season and from decade to decade that enables its fans to compare and theorize almost endlessly. This is not true at all, for example, for football or basketball. Statistics in those sports, while not meaningless, are of far less consequence. Moreover, the rules, the playing conditions, and the strategies have changed so much over the years that it is simply not possible to undertake a comparison, say, of the retired Dallas Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach as against a great quarterback of the 1940’s such as Sid Luckman on any other than highly subjective grounds. Even a measurement such as the much-vaunted 1,000-yards-gained-rushing mark means relatively little; the great running backs of the past played in far fewer games a season and were in the games both on offense and defense.

In baseball the comparison is not subjective. There is available a vast literature of baseball statistics, including thick books containing the season-by-season lifetime records of every player who engaged in major league baseball from the 1870’s onward. There is even a Society for American Baseball Research which regularly publishes a journal to which the members contribute articles on topics such as the major league players who have grounded into the most double plays (Aaron leads that list, too), the fewest, and the season leaders in both categories for both the National and American Leagues since 1933 and 1940, respectively. Naturally the tabulations vary in their significance, but the elements inviting comparison are virtually endless.

For all the comparability of baseball records over the years, however, there are variables—sufficiently so that arguments can seldom be completely “proved” by statistics. In the excitement over the Aaron-Ruth lifetime home run duel, for example, those who favored the Babe pointed to the fact that it wasn’t until his fifth major league season that Ruth moved from the pitching mound, where he was one of the game’s top lefthanders, out into the outfield, where he could play and bat every day. Thus all but 20 of his 714 home runs were amassed over the course of just 16 seasons, whereas when Aaron hit his No. 714 and 715 he was in his 21st season of full-time outfield play. Ruth played in a total of only 2502 games all told, while Aaron got into 3258 games before he retired after the 1976 season with 755 home runs.

The truth is that the game’s rules and playing conditions have been altered just enough over the eight decades since 1900 to add meaningful variability to conjectures about individual players and teams. During the first two decades of the century, for example, the official baseball was “dead”— wound more loosely, so that it did not produce the compression that causes home run balls. Moreover, it was exchanged only infrequently during the course of a game, so that after an inning or so batters were swinging not at a gleaming white spheroid but one darkened and discolored by continued contact with bat, infield dirt, outfield grass, and tobacco juice.

Players were, as a group, smaller, so that infielders had less reach. The famous Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance infield of the Chicago Cubs of the late 1900’s, for example, averaged two inches less in height than the infield of the 1979 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates. To this must be added the difference in the shape of baseball gloves. Infielders’ gloves in the early years of the century were scarcely larger than the players’ hands, and the ball had to be taken in the palm of the glove; today’s gloves are far larger, with a spacious leather web between thumb and index finger, so that the ball is trapped in the pocket rather than grasped by the fingers. Moreover, the infields of the earlier years were less manicured and much rougher than today’s playing surfaces, so the ball was more likely to bounce erratically. (On the other hand, on today’s Astroturfed diamonds the ball bounces more rapidly, and a hard ground shot is more rather than less likely to skip through for a base hit.)

And there are other variables. Today’s players perform under lights much of the time. Thus their hours are irregular, whereas before 1935 all games were played in broad daylight. On the other hand, the modern player travels by airplane, and any veteran of the pre-1950 majors who made the two-nights-and-one-day railroad trip from St. Louis to Boston on a non-air-conditioned Pullman during July and August will tell you that even a six-hour coast-to-coast jet trip would be pure luxury by comparison. To which today’s players retort that there is nothing remotely luxurious about finishing a game at eleven p.m., getting aboard an airplane, flying three hours to Chicago, checking into a hotel at four in the morning, then reporting to Wrigley Field by noontime for pre-game batting practice.

So the game has changed. The home run is much more prevalent. It is not uncommon for a single team’s annual home run output nowadays to approximate the total number of homers hit in either of the two major leagues during the early decades of the century. Batting averages have declined: a season’s average of about .270 today is roughly comparable to .300 in the year 1930, when the overall batting average in the National League was .303!

Perhaps the most striking difference is the advent of the relief pitcher, the specialist who comes in during the late innings of a game to replace the starting pitcher and protect the lead. In 1974, for example, Mike Marshall of Los Angeles appeared in no less than 106 of his team’s 162 games. Before the 1930’s there were almost no full-time relief pitchers, and those who existed appeared much less often.

Thus today’s hitters get less time to grow accustomed to the delivery of a pitcher before he is removed from the game. There are far fewer complete nine-inning games pitched and less chances to win games. Between 1901 through 1910, for example, eleven major league pitchers won 30 or more games in a season. Since 1934, when Dizzy Dean won 30 for the St. Louis Cardinals, there has been only one 30-game winner, Denny McClain of Detroit, who in 1968 won 31 games.

In short, there are enough differences between baseball in the old days and baseball today to spark considerable argument and enough statistical continuity to give the arguments an arguable basis in fact. And for every argument there is a counter-argument. The old timers insist that back in the old days the game was played better because baseball was the only professional sport and could command all the best talent. The moderns reply that there are many more athletes today, far better trained, and in better physical condition, and moreover, before 1947 major league baseball was for whites only, thus eliminating a segment of the population that has since provided an inordinate number of baseball’s greatest stars. And so on.

Entirely apart from what actually goes on in ballparks, therefore, the game of baseball is a disputant’s delight, and the statistics are available to buttress the rhetoric. As the late Casey Stengel once declared, “You could look it up.”

I confess that I am an addict. For relaxation I like nothing better than to get my copy of The Baseball Encyclopedia and leaf through the several thousand pages of statistics, examining and comparing the lifetime performances of players, many of whom have been inactive now for half a century and very few of whom I ever saw play baseball. It is, I suppose, an aspect of our national mythology—properly, since it is American, imbedded in statistics.

Sometimes, too, there are odd associations to turn up. I am by profession a teacher of literature. Thus in browsing through the records I come upon the name of Kent Greenfield. Pitched for six years in the National League, for the Giants, Braves, and Dodgers. Won 13 games in 1926, 41 lifetime victories in all. Born Guthrie, Kentucky, 1902. Guthrie, Kentucky?—why, that must be the fellow in Robert Penn Warren’s poem “American Portrait: Old Style.”

So there you are. You could look it up.


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