Monday, June 24, 2019 08:59 am
A fondness for baseball’s past
My first experience with the syndrome occurred many years ago at large family gathering where the discussion turned to the pitching prowess of Sandy Koufax, then an incredibly gifted left-handed pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Koufax was more than an incredible pitcher; he was one of few Jewish baseball players in the game. The baseball Hall of Fame is home to only two observant Jewish players, Koufax and Hank Greenberg, a slugger with the Detroit Tigers during the World War II era. As the discussion of Koufax’s comparative skill warmed up, my father offered an observation that remains fresh in my mind even though more than 50 years have passed. “Koufax throws hard,” my dad observed, “but I watched Lefty Grove pitch in Comiskey against the White Sox and he was the fastest pitcher I ever saw. He was much faster than Koufax.” I was surprised for two reasons. First, I had no idea that my father had ever attended baseball games in the 1930s when Lefty Grove, a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, had played. Far more important, however, was the fact that my father had taken the side of a player from his baseball era against Sandy Koufax, a man who American Jews admired almost as much as David Ben-Gurion, one of the founding fathers of Israel. I was still a teenager and had no idea that one day I would grow older and become afflicted with the get-off-my-lawn syndrome. Your love and remembrance of something from years past affects your present memory and clouds your ability to reason.
Baseball more than other sports allows itself to be part of the fondness for past eras. Part of the attraction of the game comes from its numbers. As early as Little League, when kids are 9 and 10 years old, they learn how to calculate batting averages, tally home runs and runs-batted-in. Watch any baseball game on television and you will see those numbers appears on the screen for every batter. In his baseball masterpiece, Ball Four, Jim Bouton wrote about one major league player who could calculate his batting average in his head, to four decimal places as he ran to first base after a hit.
Baseball statistics are embedded in the game. Numbers are milestones. Discussions of records often lead to heated debates between contemporary fans and those who recall baseball greats from previous decades. As baseball has changed over the years, many argue that comparing player statistics does not tell the complete story. The current game is home run and strikeout dominated, impacting batting averages in a negative way. In 1960 the batting average for all major league baseball players was .266. By last season that average had declined to .248. For many years in baseball a .300 batting average was the dividing line for great hitters. As I write in mid-June, there are presently only 12 American Leaguers and 10 National Leaguers hitting .300. As the season progresses that number of .300 hitters generally declines. While batting averages are dropping, home runs are ascending. Players are on track this season to hit more home runs than in any previous year. It is a different game than the one I watched growing up.
Comparing players by resorting to only statistics is a difficult task that like a room full of economists, often comes to no conclusion. I love my numbers but common sense tells me that the answer to the generational debate must look elsewhere for a solution. While I claim no extraordinary insight answering the question, I do offer this observation. In every athletic endeavor that measures achievement by strength, speed, distance and velocity, athletes have improved every decade. Sixty-five years ago, Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in under 4 minutes. His time was 3 minutes 59 seconds. The current world record is 3 minutes 43 seconds. Swimming world records fall on an annual basis at each world championship. When we can measure their ability, athletes continually improve, the numbers tell us. To think that baseball players are any different is simply not logical.
Does that mean we cannot argue the relative skills of Sandy Koufax against Max Scherzer or Willie Mays against Mike Trout? Of course not. We are still arguing about Abraham Lincoln against contemporary American presidents. Perhaps it is arguing, not baseball that is our national pastime. It’s OK if you want to come on my lawn to argue a little baseball. I’ll even get you a lawn chair.
Stuart Shiffman’s baseball columns will appear in Illinois Times this summer.