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a continuation of the discussion (originating in Bill James On-Line, then scoresheet-talk) regarding where to best divide baseball into eras

Bill James had been bombarded by his On-Line site readers wanting to know the best ways to group the history of Major League baseball into eras. Bill questions whether baseball before 1893, 1900, or 1920 should even be considered “Major League”, but was game enough to give the question his wonderfully organized way of thinking. Here is his article on it, if you are a subscriber. If you are not, I highly recommend that you become one.


I thought it was such an interesting question – especially with James’ spreadsheet on it available for downloading at the end of the article that I shared it with my friends on scoresheet-talk. One ss-talk member gave a gut reaction to the era markers he felt were most significant. Garth is a very bright and knowledgeable fellow. His out-of-position tool in ss-talk files is probably more useful than my entire scoresheetwiz site. So I was a little surprised at how thin his knowledge is of baseball history, although, it was interesting to see what he considered most important. I’ve been doing a great deal of reading and research lately on baseball history– and want to share with everyone what I see as the most significant game changing events. I will address Garth’s comments as they come up chronologically.


Let’s start with 1857 when the first baseball league started. Most baseball history buffs start with 1901 or 1876 or 1871. Of those three options, I’d say 1876 makes more sense, because the National League of 1900 was stronger than the N.L. of 1901. And, I’d say there was a bigger difference between the National League of 1876 and the National Association of 1875, than there was between the N.A. of 1871 and the NABBP of 1870, but I could be wrong about that. We are just now uncovering the true beginnings of baseball that were buried in myth 100 years ago by the Mills Commission. Anyway, the start of the NABBP was the start of league play that despite its demise and the demise of its officially professional successor – the N.A., it does have a direct lineage to the Major Leagues today as where the best base ball players alive could best test their abilities.


1857 is also when they officially switched to 9 innings instead of 21 runs.


It is when the bases were set 90' apart. 


The teams agreed to play by the rule that a batter was out if his batted ball was caught before it bounced a 2nd time.


A year later, they established a strike zone. Fouls became strikes unless it was the third one. The same team - Brooklyn Atlantics led the National Association of Base Ball Players from 1857-1860, while the best teams before 1957 were believed to be either the Gothams, the Knickerbockers, or the Eagles of New York. In the earliest days, games were exhibitions - mainly for exercise.


Balls weren't called until 1863, but the same champs that year: The Eckfords of Brooklyn were champs in 1862.


In 1865, they changed it so balls had to be caught in the air. Again Brooklyn's Atlantics were the best team before and after this era marker, so I'd still consider this the "earliest league play" era.


Throughout the 1860s NABB Players were paid for made-up jobs, but never officially for playing baseball. Finally in 1869, they gave up that pretense. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati – independent of the NABBP - Harry Wright assembled the best team money could buy and toured all over the country playing 58 official games without losing – including many contests against NABBP members. His brother George was the best player the world had known up to that time.


In his essay, Bill James said that more eras had epochs within each era. You could put an epoch marker for 1869 or, fairly enough, for 1871. That was when the National Association of Professional Baseball Players began. In this league - some consider it the start of Major League baseball - the batter gets to decide if his strike zone is the upper half or the lower half of the strike zone. The rule allowing the batter to overrun first base began then, too.


Baseballs were standardized in 1872.


The National League sprung up in 1876 killing the National Association. The N.L. immediately outlawed gambling on the game premises - and banned players who were caught fixing games. They also forced teams to complete their schedules even if they were losing money and had no chance at a championship. In 1877, they kicked the two largest markets (New York and Philadelphia) out of the league for violating this new rule, despite their having the most established baseball communities. This is 19/20 years after the first league, so this is a good spot to call a new era.


1877 established that balls, though initially fair, bouncing foul before passing the bases was foul. Also, if a batted ball strikes a runner, he is out.


Baseball gloves started in 1878 and have evolved ever since - especially over the next 90 years, but their use was established over the next 10 years.


In 1879 the N.L. (really, the N.L. was William Hulbert - owner of the Chicago team) started the reserve clause - first, just the top 5 players - then the entire team. The N.L. hired professional umpires at this time and the league expanded back up to 8 teams, but still no representation in New York or Philly - the closest was Troy, New York - which is very close to Albany. No, they did not have an expansion draft. 


It wasn't until 1879 that batting orders were maintained continuously as they are now. A year later, if the home team was winning in the 9th, they didn't take their final turns at bat.


So, 1879 was a mini-marker as the Boston Red Caps were the best team in 1877 and 1878. One of their stars Orator Jim O'Rourke joined the Providence Grays in 1879 and they became the new best team. In 1880 Cap Anson's White Stockings returned to prominence. 


--- In, "Garth Hewitt" <garthhewitt@...> wrote:
> Establishing Balls/Strikes rules in the 1880 and 1890s

At least as significant, were the rules establishing how and where the pitcher could pitch, but in 18
80, they reduced the total of 9 balls for a walk to eight.


In 1881, the mound was moved back from 45' to 50', but the White Stockings remained the top team.


In 1882, the American Association's 6 teams take on the N.L. by charging cheaper prices and allowing alcohol to be served. Of course, the start of the A.A. is another major marker, but the White Stockings were still the dominant team. 


The A.A. put a team back in Philadelphia - and they instantly became baseball's best attended and most profitable team. The next year, they added two more teams – one of which in New York. Meanwhile, the National League moved Troy to New York and Worcester to Philadelphia. So, suddenly there were two Major League teams in both prime cities after 5 years of major market void.


By 1882 overhand pitching was used extensively - and a year later, it was officially legal. Bill James gave the 1883 pitching rule change a marker importance of 10. The Boston Beaneaters in 1883 and the Providence Grays in 1884 surpassed Chicago, but the White Stockings returned to dominance in 1885.


The A.A. expanded to 13 teams in 1884. Meanwhile a third league vied for the world's best players. The Union League's 8 teams brought the "Major League" total to 29 teams. That didn't last long. A year later the Union League was dead and the A.A. was back to 8 teams.


1887 could be an era marker. The N.L. and A.A. agreed on rules and it is 5 balls and 4 strikes. Also, the batter could no longer call for a high or low pitch. The era of White Stockings dominance is over. The St. Louis Browns were at the peak of their A.A. dominance, while the Detroit Wolverines led the N.L. and won the championship played between the two leagues.


In 1888, it was 5 balls and 3 strikes - and the league conspired against Detroit and some of its contracts allowing the New York Giants to emerge on top.


Finally in 1889, 4 balls and 3 strikes became the standard. That’s a big deal. You can’t call anything before 1889 but baseball-in-an-experimental-stage. Yet, the New York Giants with Buck Ewing – considered at the time the game’s best player – even over Cap Anson – was the best team in both ’88 and ’89.


Another one year 8 team "Major League" came and went in 1890: the Players League.


Until 1891, substitutions weren't allowed at just any time in the game. Well, geez, that’s also a big deal, isn’t it? That year the Boston Beaneaters began an era of dominance.


Then in 1892, the A.A. folded, but the N.L. took half of its teams. The Beaneaters (now Atlanta Braves) survived this turmoil as the top team.


They survived an even bigger change in 1893: pitching boxes (where the pitcher took a little running start) were abolished, and the pitcher merely pushed off a rubber 60-6" from home. Wow. OK, so, perhaps, the experimental baseball era ended in 1893. That is where Bill James put his era marker.


Rule nuances in 1895: a foul bunt after two strikes is an out; foul tips were a strike; infield fly rule started. Those are significant nuances. There were bunt artists back then, who could bunt foul until they got their pitch.


You mention Tony LaRussa. OK, you have to mention John McGraw, who started managing in 1899.


For 1900, we are cut down from 12 teams to 8, then in 1901 the American League comes along and we have 16 Major League teams. The A.L. initially ignored the reserve clause, so they were able to steal many of the best players and add to what was already a very strong existing minor league.


The World Series began in 1903 - skipping 1904 and 1994.


In 1904 we finally settle for 57 years of a 154 game schedules. James credits 1898, but there were far fewer games than that 1900-1903.

James pegs the modern stadiums for 1908, yet, he lists them one by one as they were built with 13 of them going up between 1909 and 1916. Yankee Stadium came in 1923. 


The 8 team Federal League lasted two years 1914-1915.

> Outlawing of the spitball

> Changing of the ball. The end of the dead-ball. (One could point to Babe Ruth as the marker, but it was the change in the ball that lead to Babe Ruth.)

The change to a livelier ball came in 1910. There was a spurt in hitting that year. The Athletics repeated as the best team, but suddenly Frank Baker became Home Run Baker. Cobb and Speaker had other worldly seasons. What also happened that year was the scuff ball was invented. With increasing use of the scuff ball and spitball, baseball went right back to being pitching dominant by 1915. 


Babe Ruth led the league in home runs in 1918 with 11. That was in 382 plate appearances - still primarily a pitcher, but getting in 50 games in the outfield with his 20 appearances of which 18 were complete games. He had a league leading 35 complete games the year before, so he was already making the switch to the outfield. In 1919, he set the all-time record for home runs with 29. His slugging percentage was the highest since 1894: .657. That's what he did in 543 at bats – with 15 starts and two relief appearances as a pitcher.


The next year 1920, the spitball and scuff ball were outlawed – except a few spitball masters such as Red Faber and Jack Quinn were allowed to pitch with their saliva tainted balls until they retired. The leagues also insisted on clean balls - tossing them out when they got dirty of scuffed. And, Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees where he was given 616 PA and hit 54 bombs.


Yes, that had a huge impact, but it isn't fair to say the clean livelier balls made Ruth. He was still only 24 when he was sold to the Yankees - still getting stronger - and was still developing his career as an everyday player. The change in venue may have contributed. His increased playing time contributed. And, sure, the cleaner balls helped, too, but he was already by far the all-time most powerful hitter in the making before 1920.


And you had Judge Landis coming in, banning the Black Sox, and lording over baseball as a czar. All in all it is a good year to start a new era.


With Ruth, then Gehrig, DiMaggio, Dickey, Berra, Mantle, and plenty of outstanding supporting talent we had 4 1/2 decades of Yankee dominance. The Philadelphia Athletics may have been a little better three years in a row 1929-1931, but they were never as strong as the 1827 Yankees, who were topped only by later Yankees teams in pure talent until you get to the 1967 Cardinals. 


The biggest change over the next 20 years was the Major Leagues’ relationship with the minors. It was Branch Rickey's success using minor league franchises to develop a farm system for his St. Louis Cardinals who so dominated the National League from the mid '20s through the mid '40s - that the rest of the majors to eventually developed their own farm systems. Most teams caught on reasonably quickly, but even in the early 1960s, Toronto had an independent AAA franchise, while some Major League teams hardly had much of a farm system at all.


Rickey is better known as the GM who in 1947 integrated Major League baseball while steering the Dodgers. Over the next few years Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Jim Gilliam, Monte Irvin, Hank Thompson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Al Smith, and Minnie Minoso joined Jackie Robinson as all-stars of dark skin hues providing their teams with far more success and popularity as a whole than the teams which lagged behind in integration.


Ever since Jackie Robinson, players of dark skin have had such a presence in Major League baseball as MVP candidates or winners, that it casts a giant asterisk over every Major Leaguer before 1947. That is an era marker.


Other changes had been taking place around this time. The first night game was in 1935. I'm not sure how fast that caught on, but I know in the 1960s all the World Series games were day games. Sunday doubleheaders during the summer were fairly routine.


Of course, radio broadcasts had a huge positive impact on baseball popularity. Yet, owners resisted television broadcasts initially, but those proved to be another boost to baseball’s popularity. 


It boggles my mind that players left their mitts on the field when they came to bat - right up until 1953. 


Around the same time, teams started airplane travel instead of trains. Since the beginning of professional baseball leagues to the American League's third year - almost a half decade later, some team in the league would fold, be added, or change cities almost every year. Then there was 50 years of the utter peace in A.L. and N.L. Suddenly in the 1950s, the franchises started to move around again. Airplane and jet travel allowed Major Leagues to travel to California, where two New York teams relocated in 1958.


In 1961, the American League added two teams and added 8 games to each team's schedule. The N.L. did the same the next year.


> Arrival of Sandy Koufax heralds pitching with much more torque

I don't know about that, but I do know the strike zone was expanded in 1963 beginning a pitcher's era. Koufax and Marichal stood out in the early to mid 60s about as much as Greg Maddux did 30 years later or Pedro Martinez after him.


The Rule IV amateur draft began in 1965. After winning 35 pennants in the previous 44 years, the Yankees entered an 11 year drought.


1965 was also the year the Houston Colt 45s became the Astros of the Astrodome playing on Astroturf. In less than a decade, most teams would be playing on an artificial turf. A new generation of round suburban stadiums were getting built with longer foul lines, but a less deep centerfield.


The 1967 Red Sox went from 9th to 1st. The Cardinals had a comeback that year - probably the most talented team ever up to that time considering how much better players were now since integration, etc. 1967 was one of the all-time biggest era markers in both movies and popular music.


> Playoffs (Along with odd one which most people wouldn't think about, and/or would disagree with: the introduction of Joe Garagiola on national broadcasts make baseball more universally popular, stepping away from the Kurt Gowdy staleness, and heralds a new era of much higher attendance and more money. The introduction of the playoffs is often given credit for this, but I think too much.) 

Both leagues expanded in 1969. The leagues split into divisions with post season play-offs. That seems to me to be a big marker. Before teams played the 162 game schedule for the right to play in the World Series. Since '69, there is a good chance the team with the season's best record won't be in the Fall Classic.


I don't have a strong opinion of Garth's assertion that the play-offs have not added so much to baseball's popularity. For me, it has its pluses and minuses. My opinion is that they should not have made the League championships 7 game series - it drags out the post season too long and we are tired of baseball by the World Series. The five game format was more exciting, but that's another article.


Growing up in the New York market of the '60s, I quite enjoyed Joe Garagiola during his Yankee broadcast days - and at the same time, I enjoyed Kurt Gowdy's Game of the Week. By the time Garagiola went national, I was a bit tired of him - or he was getting tiresome, I don't know. I was older and had less time to watch baseball.


> Reduction of the mound

More changes in '69: the pitcher's mound was lowered and the strike zone shrunk back to pre - '63 dimensions. The brief pitcher's era ended, although, 1972 was another pitcher's year. 


At the same time, there was a major shift in which were the best clubs. Baltimore started a little dynasty with the best record three years in a row. The New York Mets went from league jokes to World Champions.


And, it is time to credit another innovative great manager: Earl Weaver ('68-'86).


Also, Bowie Kuhn became Commissioner of baseball in 1969 after a period of seen-but-not-heard commissioners.


It wasn't until 1972 that batting helmets were required, but my impression is that many players starting to wear them after Tony Conigliaro was seriously beaned in 1967. I watched more baseball in the '60s and '70s then all my other decades combined.


From '72 to '74 the Oakland Athletics had a dynasty of three consecutive World Series championships. 


Another great innovative manager deserves marker grades: Dick Williams '67-'88, who also managed '67 Red Sox and first place finishes for the Expos and Padres.


> The DH

That was the most major rule change since the 1890s. However, it came in the middle of the Athletics' little dynasty and the National League still hasn't adopted it, so it doesn't feel like an era marker.

In '75 and '76, the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati totally dominated the Majors. Clearly here was a new best team ever.


> Curt Flood, Andy Messersmith and the reserve clause

Yes, free agency began in full swing in 1977, hence the Yankees won the next two W.S. and appeared in another a couple years later - all against the Dodgers. The Royals and Phillies both won their divisions in '76, '77, '78, and '80.


> LaRussa/Duncan/Eckersly/Honeycutt create the role-specific bullpen.

James starts this at 1978 and it builds through 1984. Eck and Honeycutt established their roles with Oakland in 1988. I know my '84 Tigers had two ace relievers both with about 140 innings pitched (Willie Hernandez and Aurelio Lopez). So, I don't know what prompted James to start at '78. Perhaps, that was a mistake. Saves leaders didn't generally have 20 something saves until the 1950s. In the mid 60s, they started breaking the 30 barrier. Dan Quisenberry blasted his way into the 40s in 1983. Bobby Thigpen smashed the 50s level in 1990. Many others have had 50+ saves since, but only Francisco Rodriguez topped Thigpen's 57 saves. He had 62 in 2008. Anyway, saves totals is one thing, Eckersley is credited as the first 9th inning only closer and that began in 1988.


James gives points for cable television coverage from 1975 to 1979. That seems a bit early to my understanding. Perhaps, cable TV blanketed smaller communities than where I lived in the ‘70s and early ‘80s (New York, Boston, and L.A. areas). I didn’t have cable until I moved to Toronto in ’83. Although, I guess by then, the Braves and Cubs had that extra cable revenue stream that was the envy of the rest of the teams.


Actually, it is the added revenue from various broadcast rights as well as a significant cut from merchandise sold with team logos that ballooned baseball revenues. That has had a huge impact. It seems to me that accelerated during the Uebberoth regime of the mid to late 1980s, but I could be off.


> PEDs (though a temporary era, unlike the permanence of the other markers here) and likewise the crack-down on PEDs.

Yeah, the rise of steroids was gradual. James doesn't even try to pin it, but just looks at when hitting stats passed certain milestones. His era marker begins in 1993, which is unsatisfactory to me as it splits the Blue Jays' back-to-back championships in two separate eras. I believe 1988 is a good marker for the beginning of the steroids era because that is when the Canseco & McGuire Bash Brothers (naming two known users) led Oakland to a mini-dynasty of three straight best-records-in-baseball. James also pins the end of it at 2005 when it was officially banned. However, it wasn't effectively banned until 2008 - the year no team would hire Barry Bonds.


James' 1993 is an unsatisfactory era marker for another reason: the strike came during the 1994 season. That felt like the end of an era. Baseball players have been amazingly cooperative with owners ever since. If I’m not mistaken, that is also when baseball salaries stabilized after over 20 years of exponential rises – excluding the collusion years. Although, there was an expansion in '93, the added layer of play-offs including a wild card team didn’t begin until 1995 - immediately after the strike. Again, that felt as though it had more impact than the expansion into south Florida and Colorado – unless you were from those places.


Arizona and central Florida were brought along in 1998 – possibly the last expansion for a long time.


1996-2003 or 2009 was another Yankee era. In those fist 8 years, they appeared in 6 World Series winning the first 4 of them. Then 6 years later with much of that team's core still starring and only once missing the play-offs, the Yankees had both the best regular season record and the World Series championship. This overlapped with an even longer Braves era and recently a four year Phillies era that saw their championship team improve its record each year for the following three seasons. That era is now emphatically over. Now we are in a Rangers era.


> The next era marker, perhaps: Joe Maddon and the Shift? This might be hard to nail down because hitting metrics have been becoming more sophisticated over a number of years; Maddon has just made an obviously decision to move further away from traditional positions. The idea goes back at least to Lou Boudreau in 1946 (Williams shift, Mantle shift) but shifting has not previously been used as much as now. 

I am not convinced that Maddon's shifts are particularly significant.


This year could be an era marker, however. We have new rules regarding free agents, the amateur draft and compensation, as well as yet another added bit of play-offs. It is also Bryce Harper and Mike Trout's rookie seasons.


> Along the way, you could add when new pitches were added to the game, though these represent refinements rather than eras.


Sure, we have noted the spitball/scuff-ball era. There was a knuckleball era. There was a screwball era. In the '80s, there was a split-fingered forkball era . . . of sorts. It wasn't when those pitches were introduced and none of those pitches dominated most pitchers’ repertoire. They only had their moment of having an unusually high number of masters. We might be in a slider era right now. The pitches of choice right now are sliders and two-seam fastballs. Mariano has made the cutter quite fashionable, too. Almost everyone has a four seam fastball and some kind of change-up. OK, this is long enough and I have stepped out of my expertise, so ciao for now.

John Carter