I’ve been working on this in my head for a while. I’ve been reading – for the umpteenth time – Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract of late, and I’m still struggling with the idea of rating players by position from the start of time to the present. How can you say a 19th century first baseman is better or worse than one of this era? How can you really judge the horse of early baseball, Cy Young, against the modern-day horse, Roy Halladay? You just can’t. You can try, but no methodology can ever really do it.
But as I’ve researched, I’ve realized that baseball has six distinct eras. And they’re VERY distinct. You have to ponder it a bit, but it’s not hard to see when you think it all through. Here are the six era that I see.
1. Pre-institutional. (1876 – 1900). During this era, baseball was sorting out how it was going to exist. Numerous leagues formed and folded, and it was this era that saw the gradual formation of the National League. The most difficult part of this era is the constant change in the level of competition; it’s almost impossible to assess the validity of a top-notch season by any player during this era, although the Hall of Fame did do a reasonably good job at identifying the best of the era.
2. Pre-modern Institutional. (1901-1919). In 1901, the American League was formed, and the eight franchises included all still exist today, At the same time, the National League also moved to eight franchises that all still are around today as well. Within a couple of years, the first World Series was played. While the game itself retained the general qualities of the 19th century game, the difference was that now it was governed with a consistent number of franchises and the players didn’t jump from these two established leagues. Geography played a big part in this era – New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, St, Louis and Boston accounted for 11 of the 16 franchises, with Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati and Washington completing the league’s locations. After 1903, no team would change locations until the 1950’s – so stability was the biggest accomplishment of this era. But the other side is the lack of offense that defined this era – commonly known as “Dead Ball”.
3. Early Modern. (1920 – 1945). After the Black Sox scandal broke, and with the emergence of Babe Ruth as the game’s first power-hitting star, teams could not move fast enough to embrace power hitting. Park dimensions shrank, and big, powerful farm boy types became the target of teams instead of the graceful, fast slash hitters like Ty Cobb. Pitching wins shrank rapidly in this era; while a 30-win season was routine in the 1910’s, Jim Bagby’s 31 win season in 1920 would the first of only three such occurences through this era. As the era wound down, we saw the emergence of two of the game’s greatest hitting stars – Dimaggio and Williams – would form a rivalry that remains unsurpassed in the history of the game. World War II signalled the end of this era.
4. Postwar Era. (1946 – 1968). The game moved into a state of flux after WWII, with attendance down and the game seemingly spinning its wheels; relocation was one of the biggest stories of this era. The St. Louis Browns started the parade by moving to Baltimore and becoming the Orioles, followed by the Braves moving from Boston to Milwaukee, the Athletics moving from Philadelphia to Kansas City and later to Oakland, and most shocking of all, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants moving west to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively. The early sixties also saw the first expansion in sixty years, adding four teams – the California Angels, the Houston Colt 45’s, the New York Mets and the Washington Senators – and the old Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins. Pitching re-emerged during this era, culminating in record setting seasons by Bob Gibson (13 shutouts and a 1.12 ERA) and Denny McLain (31 wins) in 1968.
5. Divisional Era. (1969-1993). In 1969, both leagues expanded from 10 to 12 teams, adding the Montreal Expos, Seattle Pilots, San Diego Padres and the Kansas City Royals. Along with this, each league divided into two divisions and for the first time played an imbalanced schedule, playing 18 games against their own division and 12 games against the other division. MLB had now moved from 16 to 24 teams in less than 10 years; this did water down talent through the early seventies and it didn’t stop there; the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners were added in 1978 to the AL.
6. Multi-Divisional Era. (1993-present). With a further four teams added in the late eighties and early nineties – in Phoenix, Denver, Miami and Tampa – the game had outgrown four divisions, with now 30 teams around. So both leagues moved to a three division set, with 16 teams in the NL and 14 teams in the AL. This era – as we all know – has been accentuated with outrageous home run totals and the subsequent discovery that numerous athletes had sought assistance from suppliers of performance-enhancing drugs.
So what’s the importance of knowing the eras? Quite simple, actually…I don’t think it’s relevant to discuss whether Cy Young was a greater pitcher than Roy Halladay is. But it’s relevant to discuss who is the best at what they did in their own era. Here’s an example. Since the beginning of the early modern era, 10 catchers have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Five are from the Early Modern Era; Two from the Postwar Era; Three from the Divisional Era. To me, the choice of Rick Farrell as a Hall of Famer (no offense to the man) demonstrates the most basic flaw of the Hall voters when it comes to older players. Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, Gabby Hartnett and Ernie Lombardi are no-brainers. It was an era that was top-heavy with star catchers, to be sure, but with those four in there, how do you justify the fifth-best catcher of his era as a Hall of Famer? It also explains why a seemingly deserving guy like Alan Trammell isn’t there yet. Cal Ripken, Robin Yount and Ozzie Smith are all already in the Hall, and Barry Larkin seems to be ahead of Trammell in the pecking order. Great though Trammell is to many of us, the reality is that there are four quality shortstops that come before him, and it’s just hard to justify five of them in the Hall.
As soon as we start thinking about a player’s greatness relative to the others of their era, we’ll know a lot more about the real definition of greatness.