Monday, December 20, 2010


The dark age of the triple began in 1946. (Note: chart
presented in logarithmic scale.)
The reinterpretation of baseball history that's been underway ever since sabermetrics brought its own lens to the past is not an unalloyed success. While we've discovered a series of obscure, forgotten players in the process, there has been an odd, troubling homogenization of the past that all too often jettisons the differences in playing conditions in place during what I like to call baseball's "triples age".

(As the chart shows, the "triples age" came to an abrupt halt right after World War II and isn't likely to return any time soon.)

The Bill Mastro Collection, a superb assemblage of baseball memorabilia, was auctioned earlier this month; it's a reminder of just how much has changed, how the game has narrowed itself. Do we have better quality of play today? Without question. But it is a game increasingly steeped in uniformity. What's astonishing is that Babe Ruth's large hand (the visible documentation of which was one of the stunning centerpieces of Mastro's collection) did not, in and of itself, bring the "triples age" to an end: as we can see from the chart, the Ruthian era brought triples and homers into parity. It was the post-war game, with its increasing emphasis on home runs, that brought about the "endangered species" status of the triple.

The increasing remoteness of that past game makes it all the more alien to us even though we can clearly see its similarities. While we can use measures to determine the "value" of these players, these applications of modern, "scientific" methods have no stylistic or aesthetic component to them, and completely sidestep the question of whether the game on the field in the 21st century is as rich or as varied as the game being played in the 1920-1945 time frame, where triples still had a fighting chance to contribute to a player's value.

You can see the beginning of the end in pre-Ruthian days, of course. One of Mastro's items from his collection of baseball pins shows how the fascination with the long ball was brought into being a few years before Ruth made his debut as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. Frank Baker, third baseman for the Philadelphia A's dynasty that dominated the first of the 1910s, was a great hitter; his enshrinement at Cooperstown, however, was ensured not so much by his superb six-year peak as the A's cleanup hitter (an OPS+ of 153) but by the fact that he hit two dramatic home runs in the 1911 World Series. That feat led to his nickname--"Home Run" Baker--which began the slow, steady, but increasing fascination with the long ball.

It's clearly coincidental, but the shape of Baker's stats changed markedly once he left Philadelphia. (Baker held out in 1915 and was sold to the Yankees in 1916). While with the A's, Baker hit nearly twice as many triples (88) as homers (48). While with the Yankees, Baker hit three times as many homers (48) as triples (15). This is readily explained by modern baseball analysis, of course: Baker lost his foot speed as he entered his thirties. Nevertheless, it's an interesting harbinger of the overall shift that would soon come.

The Mastro Collection wasn't assembled in order to provide a glimpse into the changes in the game, of course, but it really can't help doing so. For example, the incursion of the media into the game began much earlier than one might think, as using baseball star power to sell products began prior to the Ruthian era. One of the earliest (and most interesting) is the Christy Mathewson baseball game, exploiting the recently retired and deeply revered New York Giants pitcher (known as "Big Six" for his lean, lanky frame). Apparently you're supposed to "Spin the Pitcher" dial to produce the outcome of each plate appearance: it's clearly a precursor to Ethan Allen's "All Star Baseball" game, though whether either of these indoor games can actually capture "all the thrills of the diamond" is an open question.

Today, of course, we have computer games that produce season results in an instant. It's already become a quaint notion to play a baseball simulation game in real time; one wonders if someday it will seem quaint to actually play the game itself...

Here's another example of how marketing and media have changed over the course of a century. Today it would be virtually impossible for a baseball player--for any athlete, in fact--to attach oneself to products containing any kind of serious health warnings. That was certainly not the case in the late 1940s, when this Chesterfield cigarette advertisement appeared regularly in sports publications, and featured an entire menage of baseball luminaries (in this photo, we have: Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Elliot, Ewell Blackwell, and then-Yankee manager Bucky Harris).

One way of looking at the decline in triples would be to map the usage of cigarettes by ballplayers. With more and more players lighting up, the more winded they would get trying to go to third base on a long hit. Hence why not swing for the fences so you won't have to run that hard? Nobody wants to look winded in front of a paying crowd! This is exactly the point in time (as shown on the chart) where the ratio of triples to homers, which had made a bit of a comeback during WW II, reversed itself. (Yes, there was a bit of a gain in the 70s--possibly due to the Lords of Baseball having a backlash to Roger Maris's 61-home run season in 1961--but the "dark age" of triples has been with us since the mid-50s).
Nothing wrong with A-Rod, needs 
a player like Honus Wagner again--check out that hand!

Consequently, the chances of us ever seeing a player like Honus Wagner again--an amazingly rough-hewn performer, with outsized hands, who looked twenty years older than his birth age but was described in the media of the day as "the most amazing Methuselah ever seen on the diamond"--are approaching absolute zero. A player who could hit 20 triples in a season at the age of 38, 17 triples at age 41. (The most triples we've seen from a player that age in modern times is 12--Steve Finley did it at age 41 for the Giants in 2006). Fourteen of the twenty players with the most triples from the age of 35 on (a list led by that surprising Hall of Famer Sam Rice--with 87, three ahead of Wagner) are players whose careers occurred prior to 1946, when the dark age of triples began.

The increasing rarity of these players is not something to simply shrug one's shoulders over--we need some pioneering spirit in the game to turn the tables on the stifling uniformity that has taken over baseball. We need someone to build ballparks like Forbes Field (yeah, yeah, I know, only with luxury boxes). Ballparks where triples come to live, not die. Ballparks where speed and power can operate on a level playing field.