Drawing the line at 1969

Jayson Stark points to 1969 as the season that should mark the official start of modern baseball.

Originally Published: June 5, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

In 1900, there was no such thing as air conditioners, movies, corn flakes or bubble gum. But somehow, in baseball, we consider 1900 to be part of the "modern" era.

You couldn't listen to a game on a radio in 1900, let alone watch one on DirecTV. And you couldn't buy a Model T to drive to a game, so you sure as heck couldn't fly across country to play in one. But in baseball, those were "modern" times.

Well, here in this corner of ESPN.com, we may not be quite as futuristic as, say, Steve Jobs. Or even M Night Shyamalan. But we think we know the difference between modern and ancient.

So how can we not wonder: What's up with that?

WHAT SHOULD THE NEW
"MODERN" ERA BE CALLED?
If baseball is going to define the "modern" era as post-1900, what should we call our new era? Here are two suggestions from users:

• From loyal reader Jere Northridge: "I feel the term 'modern' should be tossed. Let's go 'Classic Era' (pre-Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose) and 'New Era' -- enhanced nutrition, weight programs, training, and yes, even those performance enhancers. Let's draw the line where it emphasizes heroes. Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn -- let's include their careers and move forward. Leave Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Willie Mays in the Classic."

• From loyal reader Michael Guerin: "Pre-1900's: Mythic Age (or something like that). 1901 to 1949: Golden Age (though it's hard to call a league that excluded players of another ethnic background "Golden"). 1950 to present: Modern Age.

Just a week ago, we examined the most romantic records in baseball. And we asked you, our loyal readers, about this very question: How the heck can baseball consider anything that happened in 1900 to be a "modern" record?

Nearly 500 e-mails later, you people have spoken. Or written, anyway.

Many of you agree with us -- that it's time to revise the record book's definition of "modern." Some of you -- possibly the ones who are still walking around in 20-year-old sports jackets -- think we're nutcases for even suggesting anything that sacrilegious.

Well, we've considered all the arguments. Now it's time to present our case.

1. Why We Need To Change
It wasn't only the outside world that looked a little different in 1900, back in a time when people's idea of cool technology was a vacuum cleaner.

It was baseball itself. Tell us this was the same sport we're watching today:

Cy Young threw 32 complete games and pitched 321 1/3 innings in 1900 -- and didn't come close to leading his league in either category.

One pitcher in the entire National League (Rube Waddell) averaged more than four strikeouts per nine innings.

And the home run leader (Hammerin' Herman Long) hit exactly 12 homers -- barely more than half as many "bombs" as the triples leader (Honus Wagner) hit triples (22).

But that's not all. Just the stats on the old scorebook looked a little different then.

Nobody was keeping track of walks in 1900. Or RBI. Or Earned Run Average.

So obviously, they weren't paying real close attention to VORP, or pitches per plate appearance yet, either.

And even the rules in effect back then would come as a major shock to Manny Ramirez:

Foul balls weren't counted as strikes yet.

Spitballs were legal.

And players were allowed to leave their gloves on the field between innings.

But every record set that year is still considered by this great sport to be a "modern" record. We still can't believe we even typed that sentence.

So there's no logical reason why 1900 became the cutoff point for the beginning of baseball's modern age, as best we can tell, other than it's a nice round number.

But if we're going to use 1900, then we really ought to start the "modern" era with 1893, says Lyle Spatz, chairman of the records committee of the Society for American Baseball Research.

At least in 1893 something really, really dramatic happened: The mound was moved to 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate instead of 50 feet.

So the forthcoming SABR Book of Lists and Records will use 1893 as the cutoff, not 1900. And we were surprised by how many readers also campaigned for 1893.

"Let's move today's mound back by 10 feet, 6 inches," suggests loyal reader Martin Hajovsky. "Can you imagine the differences? Just sit and think about it for a bit. No fastball would be fast enough. Everything would lob in there.

"Now let's posit the opposite. Move the mound back in to 50 feet. Curve balls and breaking pitches of all kinds can not be thrown with any skill to major league hitters from a 50-foot distance. Can you imagine facing Ryan, Gibson, Drysdale or Clemens from 50 feet? In the immortal words from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark': 'Very dangerous. You go first.' This was a huge, huge change."

Well, we agree -- kind of. But we're still having a hard time classifying any year that predates the birth of Danny Murtaugh as "modern." So we're still looking for a date with a lot more relevance to the sport we watch today. And fortunately, you folks sent in many tremendous proposals.

2. When Modern Became Modern
Pick a year. Any year.

Well, not quite any year. There has to be a decent reason to pick a year when our new "modern" age truly began. And by that, we don't mean the year your grandmother got married.

So based on recommendations by our panel of experts and by our readers, we've laid out the best choices:

1920: Babe Ruth starts bopping. "Live-ball era" begins. Baseball invents a job known as "commissioner" in the wake of the Black Sox mess.

1947: The stars are all back from World War II. But more important, Jackie Robinson arrives -- and changes the sport forever.

1961: Expansion kicks in. American League goes to the 162-game season (with the National League to follow a year later). All teams are finally integrated.

1969: Big year. First year of division play and the expanded postseason. Pitcher's mound lowered five inches. Strike zone shrinks. Five-man rotations kicking in. The save is invented. More expansion. Unbalanced schedules.

1973: Designated hitters allowed to roam the baseball earth -- or half of it, anyhow.

1976: Dawn of a little concept we like to call "free agency."

1987: The age of offense erupts. Is it the baseballs? Is it the bats? Is it the fitness centers? Is it Jose Canseco's chemistry set? Yes, yes, yes and yes.

1995: Strike ends. Payroll disparity explodes. Everybody has a new ballpark, or has an architect designing one. Wild cards send purists to the emergency room.

Oh, we had some other fun-filled dates thrown out there -- 1950 (as a post-war, post-integration round number), 1953 ("small-market" baseball arrives, in Milwaukee), 1958 (California here we come), 1960 (White Sox slap names on the back of uniforms), 1965 (Astrodome brings us phony turf and controlled environments), 1969 (baseball in Canada), 1997 (interleague play) and 2000 (one-century anniversary of "modern").

But to those ideas, we say: Thank you for playing. We'll stick to the eight above.

There's a case to be made for every one of those dates. In fact, Pete Palmer -- co-author of the 2006 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia -- has actually divided baseball history into eight different eras in that book (and previous encyclopedias), because he and his co-authors think that's the most relevant way to compare and rank players and their stats.

"There really are not many categories that transcend a long period of time," Palmer says. "Maybe consecutive games might be one. But in terms of home runs, triples, doubles, any pitching stat -- if you're talking about somebody today, you really have to talk about him in the context of the last 20 years."

THE CASE FOR NOT MESSING
WITH A GOOD THING
Would baseball be better off leaving well enough alone (as, of course, we know it will)? Several users argued eloquently that we're trying to fix what isn't broken:

• From loyal reader Jeff Snider: "If Johan Santana won 32 games next year, no one would care that he didn't break Jack Chesbro's record; they would recognize it as an amazing feat in this day and age. Same with someone batting .400 or .395 or whatever. I think if we try to actively define the era, we are doing it wrong. True baseball fans like you and me know history when we see it. We don't need to go to the record books and figure out if it is a record for a certain era."

• From loyal reader Jim Dietz: "Personally, I'm in favor of leaving 'modern' at 1901. I know the difference in eras between the deadball to the modern, as do all baseball fans. Those old records make me go, 'Hey, who the heck is this Chesbro guy?' -- who would otherwise be forgotten. I like the fact that baseball can say its modern era started in 1901 -- long before other sports were even professional."

• From loyal reader Joe Dittmar (author of the "Baseball Records Registry"): "Every era presents an environment that will one day become the 'olden days' and not modern. If the steroid cancer ever goes into remission, can we really expect anyone to ever surpass Barry Bonds' walks, regular or intentional? Is that any more unfair than Chesbro's 41 wins? ... Every decade has its own set of circumstances and rules that may never be mirrored, and, in that environment, stats will evolve that will later be considered outrageous, simply products of their time, and not modern."

We thoroughly agree with that -- as long as we're only analyzing stats -- but we sure wouldn't want to see any record book near us divided into eight different eras. And not just because it would make that book thicker than the Yellow Pages.

There's a fundamental difference, you see, between stats and records. Numbers tell stories. But records connect the generations. They transcend numbers.

In baseball, we have a reverence for our records that almost no one has for the records in any other sports. But how could anybody show much reverence for, say, eight different single-season home run records?

Can't go there. So we need to pick one date, one year, one significant dividing line that accurately depicts when the game we're witnessing today realistically arrived.

Maybe 1920 -- except that guys like Nick Swisher and Morgan Ensberg are on pace to hit more home runs this year than whole teams hit that year. So that's out.

Maybe 1947 -- except that it doesn't seem right to pick a year when only one black person on the entire planet was playing in the major leagues. And if we want to use integration as the line of demarcation, when was baseball truly integrated? When it had one black player? Or 50? Or 100? Or when the influx of Latinos finally arrived?

We understand the social significance of 1947. We just don't think it works in this context, as a statistically accurate way of dividing records.

Our big problem with 1961 and 1973 is that they affect only one league at a time. And '76, '87 and '95 -- notable as they may be in many ways -- aren't quite tangible enough for us to inject them into any record book we'd relate to.

So for us, only one year really works -- 1969. Of the folks who wrote us, more of you favored that date than any other. And not just for the reasons we've already outlined.

If you look at the period from 1969 to the present, offers loyal reader Joe Berlinghieri, it's baseball's version "of the Industrial Revolution."

"It's when 'science' affected baseball," Berlinghieri wrote. "Lowered mound, divisionsal play, the DH, the explosion of the stats industry, the invention of the bottle bat, pitch counts, closers, lefty specialists, the wild card, personal training, nutrition, Tommy John surgery, Lasic surgery, TV, videotape, Questec, the Internet and steroids all marked the application of the scientific method to baseball. Not to mention how this method advanced previously invented equipment like uniforms, spikes, mitts, batting gloves, batting helmets, catcher's equipment, etc."

Eloquently stated. But we have to admit that many readers -- and even some of our experts -- had major reservations about using not just 1969, but any recent dividing line.

"1969 is a good year," Spatz says. "But if you're concerned about killing the romance of the records, the romance is that the records are the link to the same game we've always played, more so than any other sport. So if you start the records in 1969, would you be killing some of the romance? It's a terrible web you weave."

It's also a terrible crime to accuse anybody of committing -- killing romance. What's the mandatory sentence for that, anyway? Is it the death penalty or just a life sentence in Lewisburg?

But as we've written back to many readers who have made similar points, we're not out to kill anybody's records.

Cy Young collected 267 of those 511 wins of his before 1900 -- but we still count all 511. And he still owns about the most untouchable career record in the whole sport. We even count the games he won before the mound moved back to 60 feet. We're magnanimous like that in baseball.

So Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak wouldn't disappear from our record book. It would still hover up there for the world to shoot at. We'd just be adding a new line to most of these records. You'd have pre-1900, post-1900 and post-1969 records. Which means Pete Rose's 44-game streak would turn into a "post-modern" record. But that doesn't mean it would be the ultimate record.

What would happen, though, is that a .400 batting average, a 30-win season and even a 10-shutout season would become feats that wouldn't just be fun to follow. They'd be officially historic. And they ought to be -- because that's the way the sport is played nowadays. And capturing the essence of today's game is all we ever set out to accomplish with this venture.

But this is America. So feel free to worship any records you want. And feel free to drive a Model T to the park if it turns you on, too. It's your choice. ... But it's a new world. And we don't just live in it. We also play baseball in it.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com