Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Historical Context of Baseball Greatness

One of the most appealing things about baseball is its context in history. If you transported a fan from Fenway Park's first Opening Day in 1912, and plopped them down in the same spot a few months from now, it would likely be the only thing about modern life they understood.

Sure, there are differences: the jumbotrons, the sound systems, and the racial diversity of players and spectators would surely confuse our mythical 1912 fan. But the ballpark has changed remarkably little when compared to other everyday institutions of American life.

Baseball's long history has certainly had its share of upheavals, what with multiple expansions to the playoff structure and number of teams, the addition of the designated hitter, and the explosion of player salaries under free agency - but the game still has a level of statistical continuity that allows for perennial arguments about the "best ever."

This year's debate will center around Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. If the Captain had played for a shorter lived expansion team (like the Rays), I might be able to entertain the idea of him being the best they'd ever had. But the Yankees? A team that employed Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, and Yogi Berra?

There's a tendency among fans to view players that were on the field as they came of age as larger than life - better than any who came before or who will play in the future. But the beauty of baseball is that you can look at (most) statistics and compare them across the decades, even if they must be taken with a grain of salt.

Typically when discussions of "modern advantages" come up in baseball, they allude to the use of performance enhancing drugs, but today's players have plenty of totally legal advantages over their predecessors. Things like Tommy John surgery and laser eye surgery didn't always exist, and players didn't always have access to personal trainers and dietitians to perfect their bodies. Even something as simple as a salary that doesn't require an offseason job as a ditch digger to make ends meet can extend a career long enough to make a Hall of Fame worthy difference.

So is it really possible to compare players across generations? Maybe - but while having heated discussions about "the best ever," we must remember that there's no definitive way to know how today's players would perform under 1912 circumstances - or how someone like Babe Ruth would do with the modern conveniences (and prying press corps) of today.

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