Top Ten Reasons Comparing Players Across Eras is Sticky

I love lists about baseball. Comparing players and having light-hearted arguments with people defending their stance is incredibly fun. I never take it too seriously though because I refuse to compare beyond a surface level across eras. Here are my top ten reasons why.

10. The Ball Parks
While Wrigley and Fenway still stand most of the old ballparks have long since been replaced for better or worse. You need look no further than those two in order to see how quirky these playing fields were. The Astros’ Minute Maid park is a modern example of these quirks from today. Each one lends advantages and disadvantages; each one offers something a home player an opportunity to embrace and turn into their version of the friendly confines. Sometimes it can be more than the ballpark, and the location itself, like the swirling winds of old Candlestick and the altitude in Denver. No matter how you look at it, where all the players have practiced their craft is the most prevalent reason to not try to equalize the playing field.

9. Skills Have Changed
The simplest of these is possibly average fastball velocity. During the Babe Ruth era for instance the records are shady, but the average is 82-85. Yes, just like today there were exceptions like Walter Johnson who could hit 95, although again not modern radar technology. Today’s average fastball is at least 90, depending on who you believe. There is a real difference there and while I’m sure The Babe could adjust, but who knows how much.

8. Modern Athletes
This one is pretty easy to understand because we citizens have evolved ourselves. We’ve learned what we should eat to be healthy, not that we listen all the time, but so too have athletes. Gone are the days of smoking in the locker room and pitching through what surely could have been repaired with modern medicine. Now players are on nutrition plans and workout scheduled. Babe Ruth by the end had throat cancer and still went off in his last game in Pittsburgh. Who knows?

7. The Playing Surface
From clay, to crab grass and on to the concrete Astroturf of the dual-purpose stadiums. Eventually landing on the plush surfaces and manicured base paths of today baseball has changed multiple times. A simple ground ball on Astroturf was a rocket compared to the home team decision of how tall to make the infield turf. If anything, it shines a bit of light on just how damn good Ozzie Smith must have been to have patrolled short stop while on Astroturf for so much of his playing career.

6. Modern Pitching
In one thought, pitch counts. How can you possibly use complete games as a measurable when it’s all but been eliminated from the modern game? There was no closer, at least not in the modern sense. There certainly weren’t 7 pitching changes in a single contest. We also don’t value the win any longer. 200 wins used to be a prerequisite for entering the HOF, now it might get you a statue.

5. The Pitching Mound
After the season of 1968, often referred to as the year of the pitcher, the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10. Immediately the offense rebounded, and the numbers forever are skewed. Can you imagine Gerrit Cole throwing heat from 15 inches? Fundamental changes like this always have effects that can’t be overlooked.

4. Our Racial and Continental Divides
I often hear the name Josh Gibson when discussions of “best ever” come up. His numbers certainly show that. Witness accounts sure say that. But because evolving on race took longer than it should have, we never got to see how he would handle major league pitching. I don’t say that to argue that pitchers in the Negro Leagues were inferior, in fact no Major Leaguer got to face any of them either. Latin players again weren’t involved and that is a multi-factored reason, race and the game started in America, took a bit to spread. Bottom line, it altered the direct competition of these players. None of that denigrates the greatness of players in that era, but it does make direct comparisons difficult.

3. Performance Enhancing Drugs
Believe it or not, Steroids aren’t the only option. Greenies were prevalent in the 70’s. Cocaine and LSD in the 60’s. Let’s just say this, we have no idea with any reasonable assurance who all took them. We have no idea in totality the actual effect. For instance, Bonds may have looked like one of the Space Jam Monsters by the time he retired but he still had to hit the ball. We’ll never know the exact cocktail Doc was using to throw that no-hitter.

2. Modern Medicine
This one mainly speaks to the longevity question. The medicine of today could have fixed Kirk Gibson’s knees, and fixed the pitching elbow of countless pitchers throughout baseball history. That’s it really, who knows how much longer some of the greats could have played.

1. Equipment Has Changed
This is obvious. Name something used to play the game of baseball and it’s changed. Gloves, hell they didn’t even have ‘em when the game started! Bats, many players used one for the better part of a season. No paint, no symmetry, no weight balancing, no composite materials, to make bats. How can you ever have an intelligent comparison of exit velocity?

Those are my top ten reasons comparing players across eras is sticky. Do you have any to add?

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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