Baseball eras (for better or worse) a big reason why some records will never be broken
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Baseball and numbers go together like, well, I hate to do this, but, they go together like hand and glove.
511, 61, 755, 56, 4,256, 5,714
If you don’t know baseball, those are just a set of random numbers. If you do know baseball, those once were, or still are, considered unattainable milestones.
The tricky thing about baseball records is that the sport has been around since the mid 1800s and the game has gone through some considerable changes over the years. This is not to say basketball and football haven’t gone through vast changes of their own — just take a look at the passing numbers from this year’s NFL season. Neither, however, have gone through as many different eras as baseball.
Baseball actually has been around since as early as 1791 but wasn’t considered a professional sport until 1869 when the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional baseball team. During the 1870s and 1880s, teams would play about 80 games a year. They had a pitcher … who would pitch … every game … all of it. For that reason, the pitching stats in those days are incredible and forever unattainable.
In 1884, a guy by the name of Charlie “Old Hoss” Radburn, a pitcher for the Providence Grays, had the most ridiculous season ever by a pitcher. He went 59-12 on the year. He started 73 games and finished all of them for a season total of 679 innings pitched. He also struck out 441 batters and was obviously the number-one pick in everyone’s fantasy draft back then. Roy Halladay has led the league in complete games seven of the last nine years. Over fourteen seasons, he has 66. Radburn had 73 in one season. The last guy to log 300 innings in a season was Steve Carlton back in 1980 for the Phillies. The last guy to log 400 innings was Ed Walsh in 1907 for the White Sox. Again, Radburn tossed 679, and after the season probably had to go work in a quarry tossing boulders, or robbing trains. Have you seen pictures of those players back then? They all look like Jesse James and Doc Holliday.
Did “Old Hoss” Radburn really even exist? Or was he like some sort of Paul Bunyon made up folklore? Maybe people were just really bad at math back then.
These types of crazy stats are all over the “pre-modern” era of baseball. The reason why these numbers are not considered official stats is mostly because the game was still in its infancy back then, and the rules were a lot different than today’s game. For instance, back then, a fielder was allowed to hit the runner with a thrown ball to get him out; look it up. Also, if a fielder caught the ball on a bounce, the hitter was out. The pitchers threw underhand until around 1850, catchers often stood 10 feet behind the batter and the umpires sat at a table along the third base line.
They were basically playing rec-league kick ball with bats. And without having any real evidence, they were probably all drunk, too.
The “modern era” started in 1900, but the game still wasn’t being played on equal ground. Balls back then were expensive, around $3 a pop. Because of this, the same ball would be used for the entire game. By the late innings, the ball would resemble, basically, a brown, and not quite round, glob of tobacco spit and dirt. Hitters were forced to play small-ball, because, well, go outside and try to hit a hacky sack down the street. This is why the years between 1900 and 1919 are known as the “dead ball era.”
Guys like Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Nap Lajoie owned this 20-year span, winning 23 batting titles between them — Cobb won 12 on his own. They were small-ball slap hitters playing in the perfect era.
Or were they?
In 1920, a rule change prohibited pitchers from spitting or scuffing the ball, and a new ball was to replace any one that was discolored or banged up. This would open the gates for the offense, especially power hitters. One would think they would have been even better had they played in the 1920s. A perfect example of this is a fellow by the name of Rogers Hornsby.
“Rajah,” as was his nickname, came up to the big leagues in 1915, and from his first year until 1919 was a solid player. He had a .300 career average and led the league in SLG in 1917. He was nothing spectacular, however. But once 1920 came around, his numbers got silly. From 1920-1925 he lead the league in AVG, OBP, SLG and OPS every year. He also won two triple crowns. He went from never topping 10 home runs in a season to hitting 42 in 1922 and 39 in 1925.
I would say he definitely played in the perfect era. For the record, Cobb did play for most of the 1920s. At that point, though, he was in his late 30s and his best days were behind him. However, he still managed to hit .401 in 1922 at the age of 35. As great as Cobb was, imagine his numbers had he been born 10 years later. The record books might look a lot different.
Rajah wasn’t the only guy who was flourishing under this new rule change. A strapping young fella by the name of Babe Ruth was the first to adopt the “swing for the fences” tactic and soon everyone followed suit.
George Herman Ruth made a very wise decision in 1918. After going a combined 47-25 with a 1.88 ERA in 1916 and 1917, he might have been tipped off about the new rule changes coming. He took on hitting full time and led the league in home runs with eleven in 1918. The next three years went like this: 29, 54 and 59.
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