“Baseball people, and that includes myself, are slow to change and accept new ideas. I remember that it took years to persuade them to put numbers on uniforms” –
Change in baseball is like watching the tide roll over the beach. You can see it happening, but only from above, and while you can’t predict where it’s going, you can very slowly see where it’s headed. Some things have changed a great deal. Players have evolved from the stocky Ty Cobb to the finely tuned Mike Trout. Rickety Ebbets Field has given way to the architectural wonder of Petco Park. In front offices, baseball lifers have given way to entire analytics departments, led by a class of men who have held more college degrees than baseball bats. Yet, Rogers Hornsby and Nolan Arenado both run the same 90 feet to first base. Cy Young and Clayton Kershaw both throw the same 60 feet, 6 inches to home plate every game, and the farm system concept laid down by Branch Rickey over 60 years ago (albeit quite expanded) remains virtually unchanged. The game serves as a time capsule for the country, for better or worse, and like all capsules, one needs to contextualize each significant happening, so we better understand where we came from, and where we just might be headed….
Pre 1900: “Origins”
This is a tough era to really pin down. The rules of the game were still evolving, and there was still very little formal organization. The true origination point of the game is a point of contention to this day, and there is no hard evidence of who started the game, or where it began. One of the more accepted theories is that the game began on the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, where the New York Knickerbockers played their “home” games. There are, of course, several disputes to this claim, but for all intents and purposes, many simply settle on this point as “Chapter 1”. This era saw many growing pains for the game, as many rules had not yet been established. The numbers of strikes and balls allowed per at bat were still being ironed out, gloves were not yet a thought, and getting outs by pegging the runner were considered routine plays (also called, getting “hosed”). The World Series had not yet been invented, and the entire National League consisted of 12 teams.
Players of Note: John McGraw, Cap Anson, Cy Young
Teams that Ruled the Era: Boston Beaneaters, New York Giants, Baltimore Orioles
1901 – 1919: “The Dead Ball Era”
In what may be one of the more transformative eras in the games history, the turn of the 20th century saw the game go through many changes. It organized itself quickly, adding a new league to rival the National League: The American League. The two leagues agreed to host a single series at the end of every season between the two best teams in each league, to determine who truly was the best of that season. They called it the World’s Series. The game was one of strategy, emphasizing what many call “small ball”, or moving base to base, utilizing speed and skill to advance runners methodically. Scoring was hard to come by, and pitchers learned to take control of the game by spitting, scuffing, and scraping the ball to manipulate it while in flight, causing it to dip, curve, slide, or fall away from hitters. Unfortunately, gambling came to define the era, culminating in the infamous “Black Sox” scandal, where the 1919 Chicago White Sox conspired to purposefully lose the World Series to the inferior Cincinnati Reds for their own (and, really, gamblers) financial gain.
Players of Note: “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson
Teams that Ruled the Era: Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia A’s, Chicago White Sox
1920 – 1941: “The Live Ball Era”
This era saw the country experience both an economic boom and the great depression. It was, to paraphrase, the very best of times, and the very worst of times. While the country saw extreme changes in all facets, in between the foul polls, the game was changed forever as well. It began August 17, 1920, when a high-and-tight fastball from Carl Mays struck Cleveland Indians short stop Ray Chapman in the side of his head. The impact crushed Chapman’s skull, and killed him shortly after. It was agreed that Mays had not intended to cause such harm, but rather, blame was placed on the ball itself. The battered, misshapen, discolored ball had become too difficult for batters to see, so now the ball was to be rotated out with a fresh, new, bright white ball on the first sign of wear and tear. In one fell swoop, the advantage shifted to the batter, and one batter in particular: The chicken-legged son of a bartender turned elite pitching prospect for the Boston Red Sox: Babe Ruth. He would go on to dominate an era, and with his prolific ability to hit for power, change the way the game was to be played. The old method of bunt, steal, scrape, and slide was replaced by the more modern method of driving the ball as far as possible to generate more runs quickly. It could be argued that he may have been the greatest player of all time, and he set the table for the next century of baseball.
Players of Note: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby
Teams that Ruled the Era: New York Yankees, New York Giants, Washington Senators
1942 – 1953: World War II, Integration Era
It was during the offseason in 1941 when the Japanese Air Force sneak attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and drew the United States into the Second World War, and started a chain reaction of change in the country. The baseball diamond was no stranger to this, as many of its greatest stars, including Jo Dimaggio, Bob Feller, and most notably Ted Williams (twice) headed overseas to help fight the axis powers. This created some interesting storylines, where replacement players were brought in, and teams that were once cellar dwellers became pennant contenders overnight. It was all with the idea that in such stressful times, the country needed baseball to keep its spirits up. Of course, shortly after, one of the most significant events in baseball history occured, when Jackie Robinson was called up from the Montreal Royals to join the Brooklyn Dodgers, and become the games first African American to play at the major league level in the 20th century. Many stars from the Negro Leagues would follow suit (and eventually lead to their demise), but it all started with Jackie.
Players of Note: Ted Williams, Joe Dimaggio, Jackie Robinson
Teams that Ruled the Era: New York Yankees, New York Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers
1953 – 1976: The Expansion Era
In the 1950’s, it seemed as though New York owned the game of baseball. While some may argue that’s true either way, the 1950’s were the clearest example. From 1950 until 1958, one or both teams featured in the World Series was from New York. Whether it was the Giants, Yankees, or Dodgers, they seemed to build on their epic three way rivalry every year. That is, until two of the teams seemingly vanished into the night. In 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers finally brought home their first World Championship. Just two years later, they were relocated to Los Angeles, and their cross town rivals, the Giants, ended up in San Francisco. This move set the precedent for baseball, that there were fans out west, and soon other teams followed. An American League team, the Angels, also moved to Los Angeles. The games reach expanded even more, with Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Seattle all eventually moving in. Even Canada got a piece of the action, and suddenly, the game began to explode in popularity. This era also saw a shift in offense, both in favor of it (the introduction of the DH), and against it (The “Second Dead Ball Era”, when the mound was raised, and pitchers like Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson dominated hitters)
Players of Note: Frank Robinson, Pete Rose, Sandy Koufax
Teams that Ruled the Era: New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Oakland A’s
1976 – 1989*: The Birth of Free Agency
From the very beginning of organized baseball, the relationship between ownership and the players was tense, and that might be a generous way of framing it. A “rivalry” wouldn’t really be an appropriate term, because in a true rivalry, both sides have to win sometimes, in order to create the proper amount of tension. In this case, ownership always won, and their ace in the hole was the dreaded “reserve clause”. This kept each player contractually bound to the club that drafted him in perpetuity, often manifesting in a one year contract, allowing ownership to suppress salary growth among players. That tide would begin to turn in 1972, when St. Louis Cardinals Center Fielder took exception to a trade to Philadelphia, and decided to do something about it. He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where they inevitably ruled against him. It would’ve seemed like a major loss for players, but it actually gave them the opening they were looking for… Enter Andy Messerschmidt and Dave McNally, two sought after pitchers, who decided to use Flood’s model to challenge the reserve clause, and seek their own free agency. They won, thanks to a third party arbitrator, Peter Seitz, and Free Agency in baseball was born. Now players would be paid what they were truly worth on the open market, and the game was forever changed. Now, thanks to some crafty negotiations by the Players Union and Marvin Miller, the players finally scored a hard earned victory against the owners, and the dynamics began to permanently shift.
- *While Free Agency “era” is bookended in 1989, many argue that it still continues to this day. The dates are to illustrate its early stages, rather than its cultural acceptance in todays game.
Players of Note: Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt, Tom Seaver
Teams that Ruled the Era: New York Yankees, Oakland A’s, Cincinnati Reds
1990 – 2009: The Steroid Era
It was in the late 1980’s when sportswriters began to notice a change in baseball players. The prototypical wiry middle infielders were being phased out by muscle bound athletes that could be mistaken for an inside linebacker, much less a corner outfielder. The dynamics had changed too. The writers, once a compatriot of the ballplayer, suddenly became the enemy if he should so much as insinuate that something beyond the norm was going on. The byproduct of this change in culture led to an extreme shift in how the game was played. Now the idea was simple: Hit the ball over the fence as many times as possible (Or as George Will puts it, “Get your first two guys on, then let Godzilla hit it into Tokyo Bay”) . Home runs became the theme of the 1990’s, and the ripples broke into a wave in 1998, when the most obnoxious home run chase in the games history took place, and in it’s wake was the 37 year old single season home run record (a record that stood for just three more years after that). Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Ken Griffey Jr. all captured the nations attention, and seemed to breathe new life into the game… Then it all came crashing down. Steroids were suddenly the hot topic, and the media that had exposed the scandal had now allowed it to spiral into a fresh “whodunit” every time some sort of significant milestone was achieved. It is arguably the most controversial era in the game simply because not only is it still ongoing, but we continue to learn more about it even as we drift further away from it. The steroid era is the one part of the game we will never truly shake off the dust from, and as we continue to find out, we may never really learn from, either.
2010* – Present: “Moneyball” and The Age of Analytics
Baseball is an 19th century game, with 20th century ideas, and 21st century problems. The biggest of those modern problems is one that has dominated the headlines in society for years; income inequality. Competition had seemed to stagnate, and your odds of winning a pennant seemed directly tied to how deep ownerships wallets were. Ranking teams by payroll often seemed indicative of where the standings would end up, and the ballplayer himself became a sort of “cookie cutter” type person. Enter Billy Beane, a failed outfielder with the Mets and A’s, who (with the help of an ivy league graduate, Paul DePodesta) decided to turn the system on its head. Statistics beyond the normal surface level would drive their decisions, and they would learn how to objectively quantify a players value, rather than use antiquated scouting techniques like “the eye test”. The idea yielded results, much to the ire of the baseball establishment. Suddenly, the A’s, who touted the lowest (or near the lowest) in baseball was not only making the postseason, but perennially, and giving the high price free agent teams a real run for their money. It was widely shunned, and Beane was written off as a “mad scientist” for several years, until the 2010’s, when other teams began to adopt the same model, but took it even further. Young, financially controllable talent took president over experienced veterans. Teams began to analyze every aspect of a players game, from how many pitches he took every at bat, to how he positioned himself in the field. These tactics were adopted at a team level as well, with fielders having NFL style playbooks on their uniforms to position themselves based on reels and reels of data on opposing players. Relievers have become high priced commodities, and are even starting games now. The game has gone to a new level, with teams like the Astros, Braves, Phillies, and White Sox forfeiting competitive major league teams in the name of “rebuilding” and creating their own home grown dynasties. The time of the “nerds” has come, and it seems here to stay.
Players of Note: Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw
Teams that Rule(d) The Era: San Francisco Giants, Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals
* While the era is marked as beginning in 2010, Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” teams in the early 2000’s truly marked the genesis of the era, however the dates are marked as such to reference its general acceptance in the sport.