Baseball eras (for better or worse) a big reason why some records will never be broken

Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby benefitted greatly by a change in baseball's rules.

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.

Charlie "Old Hoss" Radburn posted a 59-12 W-L record in 1884.

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.

A rule change that ushered in the "live ball era" may have been the reason Babe Ruth transitioned from a pitcher to a hitter.

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.

The “live ball era” had begun and Ruth was the poster child for it. Before Ruth, and before the 1920s, the record for home runs in a season was 27 by Ned Williamson of the Chicago White Stockings in 1884. In fact, only three guys had hit as many as 20 home runs in a season up until that point. Williamson finished with 66 home runs over 13 seasons, and never hit more than nine aside from his obviously steroid induced 1884 season.  Just kidding, maybe. I mean he did get a $200 raise in 1885.

Would Ruth have been the player he was had he played in the dead ball era? I mean, sure, he was more than just a power hitter and he would have been great had he played in any era, one would think. Would he be any better, than say, Ryan Howard today? Or was he just the perfect player, big and strong, for the perfect time to be one?

We will never know. Just like we will never know how Howard would have done in the 1920s because he wouldn’t have been allowed to play.

All of this has to be taken into account when talking about both baseball’s hallowed records and when comparing a player’s abilities. Most of the all-time pitching records are secure forever, because, c’mon, no one is going to toss anywhere near 600 innings again, or complete 73 games for that matter. Aside from the obvious changes to the game, money plays a huge factor in today’s game. As much as Justin Verlander would love to take a crack at those records, his $20MM annual salary wouldn’t allow it. You gotta protect your investments people.

Bob Gibson dominated when the pitching mound was raised in the '60s.

Bob Gibson’s single-season ERA record of 1.12 set in 1968 is also secure. Ubaldo Jimenez of the Rockies toyed with it for about 60 games in 2010 until he had a couple of bad games, which is totally unacceptable if one hopes to attain that record. Dwight Gooden has come the closest over the past 43 years, posting a 1.53 ERA in his magical 1985 season for the New York Mets. Greg Maddux had a 1.56 ERA in 1994 and 1.63 ERA in 1995 with the Atlanta Braves but would have had to toss 80 more shutout innings in 1994 to match Gibson’s mark.

The mound was raised in the 1960s to try and get the pitchers some self-respect back. After 40 years of being abused by hitters, the ’60s belonged to pitchers. Gibson pitched most of his career during the 1960s and was a big, hard thrower. Again, perfect recipe for the era.

Small-ball was back ladies and gentleman!

From 1924 to 1956, no one in the National League stole more than 50 bases in a season. In the American League, it had only been done five times. Power was in vogue and the stolen base was a lost art. Once the ’60s came around, however, the ghosts of Billy Hamilton and Ty Cobb were channeled from the ’20s and another new era had begun … again.

Four guys — Lou Brock, Maury Wills, Luis Aparicio and Bert Campaneris — defined the small-ball ’60s. Together, they won 19 of the 20 stolen base crowns during the decade. Wills was the best of the bunch, and in 1962, stole 104 bases, the first player to top 100 since Billy Hamilton stole 111 way back in 1881. Brock continued his dominance into the 1970s and retired as the all-time stolen base leader in 1979 with 938.

What kind of player would Brock and Wills had been if they played in the ’40s and ’50s and were told not to steal bases?

The small-ball resurrection lasted well into the 1990s with guys like Vince Coleman, Tim Raines, Willie Wilson, Kenny Lofton and, of course, the greatest of all time (just ask him) Rickey Henderson leading the way. Henderson led the league in swipes 12 times, topped 100 three times and, in 1982, stole 130 bases, a record that still stands. Coleman is the only other player to have recorded three seasons of 100 or more stolen bases having done it three straight years from 1985-1987.

Unless baseball goes back to another small ball era, 130 stolen bases is another record that is secure, as is Henderson’s career total of 1406.

Barry Bonds' intentional walks record of 120 in 2004 nearly tripled the previous mark of 45. (Darryl Bush/SF Chronicle)

The 2000s came and steroids were at its peak. This era completely made a mockery of the record books. One man in particular, who rewrote records in video game style, was Barry Bonds.

Bonds owns records that are so far out of reach that, unless Major League Baseball starts letting players use aluminum bats, no one else will ever own them. The following six records are secure:

  • 73 home runs in 2001
  • 232 walks in 2004
  • .609 OBP in 2004
  • .863 SLG in 2001
  • 1.422 OPS in 2004
  • 120 intentional walks in 2004

His 2004 season was the tipping point that finally made everyone throw their hands up and say, “enough already!” His .609 OBP is 60 points higher than anyone not named Ted Williams. Babe Ruth is the only other player to have a .800+ SLG in a season. Bonds’ 232 walks are 62 more than the next guy, also Ruth. His 1.422 OBP is 140 points higher then anyone except Ruth. And, finally, his 120 intentional walks are almost triple (45) then the next guy, Willie McCovey.

His 73 home runs could be topped one day, but considering that between 1961-1995 only three players had reached even 50, it looks out of reach.

The game today finally appears to be playing on equal ground. With no clear-cut advantage either way, pitchers seem to have the slight upper hand. You look around the league and starting pitching is in high demand with teams shelling out large contracts to anyone who can go six innings. All of this can change, however, with just the slightest tweak to any rule.

Records are meant to be broken, just not so frequently when it comes to baseball. Players don’t always dictate which records can broken, eras do. Arguments over who is better than who is also pointless for the same reason. We just will never know, and that is part of the reason why baseball is the best.

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