by Harold Friend
Today's players are as great as any players in the history of baseball. Players must be evaluated based on when they played, statistics must be interpreted within the context of the eras in which they occurred, and the differences between and among baseball's eras must be recognized. Batting average, on base average, ERA, and wins are four basic measures that help refute the conclusion that the best all time players were the best old timers.
Only Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn
The highest single season batting average since 1901 belongs to Nap Lajoie, who batted .4265 in 1901. In 1894, Hugh Duffy set the all-time mark when he hit.440. The top 18 single season batting averages were accomplished before 1923. What is more incredible (not really) is that Ted Williams hit.406 in 1941, but the next 17 highest batting averages all had occurred before 1931. In the strike-shortened 1994 season, Tony Gwynn hit .394.
Top On Base Averages
Okay, in the 21st century, batting average is no longer as respected as in the past. Let's go to on base average. The top 9 single season on base averages were set before 1942, while the highest single season on base average used to be Ted Williams' .553, which he set in 1941, when he batted .406. And then along came Barry, who broke Ted's mark with a .582 OBA in 2002, and then set the current record in 2004 when he had an incredible .609 OBA. This makes one wonder or maybe it provides confirmation. Most of the top thirty-five on base averages were set more than sixty years ago.
Forty of Forty One Best ERA's Occurred BEFORE 1919
Old time pitchers set records that seem almost bizarre. Forty of the top forty-one single season ERA's were set before 1919. Only Bob Gibson's 1.12 in 1968, ranks among the leaders. Including the 19th century, pitchers have won at least thirty games in a season 147 times. There were ONE HUNDRED FORTY FIVE thirty game winners entering the 1934 season, and there have been 2 since. The last American League thirty game winner was Denny McLain, while the last National League thirty game winner was Dizzy Dean in 1934.
The Old Timers Were the Best?
Based on the above, one must conclude that those who played the game in its early years were the greatest of all time. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, etc. were certainly better than Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Manny Ramirez, Henry Aaron, etc. Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Bob Feller, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Mariano Rivera, and Pedro Martinez could never match Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Cy Young, Lefty Grove, Three Fingered Brown, Jack Chesbro, and Pete Alexander. Or could they?
Player Population Pool
The liveliness of the baseball, the size of the ballparks, the playing conditions of the fields, and the bats the players used are just some factors that have varied over the years. Before the 1950s, the pool of potential players was different. No one can deny the greatness of Babe Ruth and the others, but the most players came from the United States, with a population at the turn of the century of about 76,000, which increased to about 123,000,000 by 1930. Compare that to today's population of about 305,000,000. Sure, other sports are much more competitive for athletes than they were a century ago, but the pool has almost tripled.
The Melanin Barrier
Many great baseball players were not allowed to participate in America's national pastime until 1947 because their skin contained the wrong amount of the pigment, melanin. In 2009, about 10% of major leaguers are black.
Ruth, Cobb, Wagner, and other early stars not only didn't face competition from black players - there were very few Hispanic players. Today's major leagues draw players from all over the world.
Nutrition, training methods, medical advances, and technology, such as sophisticated computer video simulations, help motivated players maximize their skills. It is not being claimed that modern players are better, but they really are. The single season records for batting average, on base average, ERA, and wins were set by players selected from a limited population in a different era when it was a different game. The old time players were great, but we will never know how players of their abilities would have fared in the 21st century, just as we will never know how Barry Bonds would have done in 1927.