Sunday, August 16, 2020


Golden Ages are never what they're cracked up to be, for two reasons. First, those who tout them, even assiduous students of history with iron-clad methodologies, are either slaves to hierarchy or have a hidden agenda. Second, no one seems capable of determining that they are, in fact, living in such an exalted era during the time in which it occurs.

Or if they do proclaim a Golden Age in the present moment, we are strongly cautioned to return to reason number one: Ye Olde Hidden Agenda. That's why some folks (no names here: we'll let you find them on your own...) will proclaim that we are living in a Golden Age of home runs. But such things are not supposed to be, nor can they be, in reality, things that go on interminably. We've had a so-called Golden Age of homers since around 1994, give or take a lull in the early years of the last decade, when what we really are having is an extended pandemic of long balls that have finally begun to take their toll on baseball's version of an ecosystem.

And in that protracted, unyielding and ultimately insufferable and stultifying onslaught of homers, there was a true Golden Age that came into being unappreciated and virtually unseen. It took shape in the offensive explosion of the 1990s, flying under the radar as offense in general reached levels not seen in sixty years. But oddly--and somewhat gloriously--it sustained itself after the peak of that run-scoring explosion had passed. 

It was the Golden Age of doubles, the two-base hit--the Middle Way in the shape of offense. As the chart at right demonstrates, it was the longest and most consistent level of high achievement in the history of the game. And it passed us by after close to two decades of silent, unheeded existence.

The earlier peak levels for the two-base hit were much spikier, as the chart also shows us. The American League reached what we might call "Golden Age" territory first, shortly after the start of the live ball era in 1920, with the National League following suit in the run-up to 1930, the biggest offensive season in history for nearly seven decades.

But the NL falls off quickly from that pace, and despite another peak from the AL in 1936 we see the first Golden Age of doubles dissipate. Two-base hits become significantly less abundant for forty years, driven down by the game's first systemic uptick in homers, followed by the overcorrections imposed on offense in the sixties. A slow but steady uptick begins in the mid-1970s; doubles manage to hold their own through the roller-coaster ride for home runs as the 1980s play out. And so they are primed for a big jump when conditions for offense burst back into existence in 1993--with that Golden Age of doubles taking hold in both leagues shortly thereafter. It was a double-barreled Golden Age, as the chart demonstrates: it represented a uniform offensive strategy employed across both the AL and the NL.

We can look at this in another way--one that depicts the emphasis on hitting doubles as brought into play over the history of the game. The two tables displayed here show the number of teams hitting 300+ doubles in a season: the first table shows the raw number of teams in each year who meet or exceed that standard. From looking at the 2B/G chart, you'll not be surprised to see what is a nearly forty-year gap in teams hitting 300+ 2B's in a season (from 1941 to 1978). And the Golden Age of doubles as measured this way can be seen in the 1996-2009 time frame.

We can see it in a similar but possibly revealing formulation in the second chart (below right), which measures the percentage of possible teams hitting 300+ 2B's in a season across all these years. In 1996-97, teams approach the percentages achieved in the 1930-32 peak (30+% of all possible teams); they match it in 1998-99; and they take it to an unprecedented new level in 2000. They pretty much sustain that rate until 2008, whereupon the percentage of possible teams subsides. The 2010s are still stronger than any other time except for the 1930s, but the Golden Age is over. 

Of the 283 incidences of teams hitting 300+ 2B's, 222 of them (78%) have occurred since 1996; 173 of those (78% of that subset, and 61% of all such teams over baseball history) happened from 1996-2009. And it happened right under our noses. 

Of course, no team will come anywhere within a hemisphere of 300 2B's in 2020. But the chart at top shows an unprecedented drop in 2B/G occurring this year--not quite a stock market crash, but what folks in the financial world like to call a "correction." Is it a one-season blip, or has the emphasis on homers finally reached a tipping point for other forms of offense? We won't know the answer to that for awhile, but what we do know is that the Golden Age of doubles is not coming back anytime soon. 

Thursday, August 6, 2020


Of the folk in the past quarter-century who have altered perceptions of baseball and its relationship with American history, Terry Cannon deserved to be the last man standing. But life is inherently unfair, and the life's work of a man who contained more multitudes than any present-day "public spokesman" for the game was cut short this past weekend. (Terry was only 66: by rights, he had another fifteen years coming to him, but such was not to be.)

And so those who appreciate Cannon's unique achievements--a singular combination of intellect and charm, buttressed by a barely repressible whimsy--must wonder about the great torso he has left behind. The Baseball Reliquary was always a work in progress, but it now faces its truest and most fateful of all possible "Rubicon" moments. 

Its depth and substance are (mostly) not in dispute, but was it dependent on a cult of personality? Its Shrine of the Eternals--a far more felicitous and wide-ranging group of personages than Cooperstown--requires a guiding hand to continue its project. And it needs someone to keep the Reliquary ritual intact--the cowbell, the unlikely rendition of the National Anthem prior to the keynote address and the Shrine inductions. Can anyone possibly be as amusingly dead-pan as Cannon in his role as overseer and master of ceremonies?

We will need to find out--and such a discovery is, fortunately enough, deferred due to even greater tragedies that are playing out in America this summer. Presuming that we emerge relatively intact from the effort of the majority to throw off the tyranny of the minority, we'll be able to turn our attention to preserving this sacred-yet-profane anti-institution as the manifestation of a "People's Hall of Fame" in a way that honors Cannon's unique vision and provides a platform for it to take hold as more than the "quirky West Coast phenomenon" that various factions wish to dismissively characterize it as being.

As Executive Director of the Reliquary, Terry Cannon brought together a matchless sense of art curation, historical sweep, unwaveringly and unapologetically left-leaning cultural orientation, and a serious case of silliness to his brain child. He had a great deal of help: his wife Mary, the wise counsel whose behind-the-scenes efforts brought an anchoring stability; conceptual partner Albert Kilchesty, the voluble polymath whose writerly skills were so outlandish that they obscured Cannon's own formidable talents; allies and project coordinators such as Tomas Benitez and Kerry Jo Nakiyama, who opened our eyes to baseball's impact on immigrant communities; and a bevy of accomplished writers from John Schulian to David Davis, who recognized the depth of the cultural synthesis that lay beneath the irreverent, playful veneer of the organization.

The most important of these allies, however, has been artist Ben Sakoguchi, whose incredible series of baseball history paintings are the pictorial embodiment of what the Reliquary is all about. The symbiosis between Cannon's project and Sakoguchi's unflagging visual invention is one of those rare occurrences where concept and object merge as one without the need for a physical partnership. In a perfect world, Sakoguchi's series of orange crate art-styled baseball paintings would reside in a Reliquary museum, where their shared connection in a more encompassing world-view of baseball's cultural importance and its (often subterranean) impulse for progressive change could be displayed and celebrated. 

Cannon had originally felt that the Reliquary should be a "stateless" anti-organization, but he was persuaded to change his mind a few years ago--and his association with Whittier College, where the Institute for Baseball Studies has been housed, helped to put in place a broader platform for events and projects that otherwise were subject to the vagaries of finding appropriate and available venues. The first effort of those following in Terry's footsteps will be to ensure that this arrangement continues.

Why do we need a Shrine of the Eternals? The answer to that is another question: why do we need fresh air? While Cannon and the Reliquary leaned left, the hard-core political content was not worn on its sleeve; while progressive elements and individuals (people of color, women, LGBTQ) had a home in the organization's cultural outreach, these elements blended into its insistence that the idea of an American melting pot was neither moribund nor passé. The Shrine of the Eternals was the perfect instrument to impart such a message to the rest of the baseball community busy factionalizing itself.

It is still that perfect instrument, and it needs to be continued. In 2021, the three inductees from this year will be given their belated due: Rube Foster, the ebullient but tragic Negro Leagues pitcher and entrepreneur; Max Patkin, one of baseball's most fabled clowns; and Bob Costas, the highly-regarded media figure whose reverence for baseball history in its larger sense is unique amongst his peers. Instead of conducting the traditional vote for 2021, the new leadership of the Reliquary should re-iterate their commitment to the literary vision of baseball and its history that is at the bedrock of its mission. They should focus their future efforts around these ideas by adding three inductees for 2021 who capture this better than any others:

--First, Terry Cannon himself. Cannon's deadpan showmanship, networking skills, and boyish irreverence have kept hidden his other skills, including his own writing. His last act as Reliquary director was to pen a firm but fair rebuttal to the estimable Historian of Baseball, John Thorn, who had questioned the long-term commitment of 2001 Eternal inductee Jim Bouton to the Baseball Reliquary. It is a masterful piece of writing, revealing facets about Bouton's viewpoints and character (and his ongoing devotion to the Reliquary) that even his indefatigable biographer Mitchell Nathanson was unable to capture. 

And, of course, the man who thought up and nurtured the Shrine in the manner of a patient but ever-vigilant gardener, is himself an Eternal.

--Second, the great nineteenth-century baseball writer-scholar David Nemec, whose work takes us back to the dawn of the professional game in America and whose obsession for completism has brought us more information and grassroots insight about baseball's early years than any other writer (even the estimable Thorn, whose approach is loftier and more academic--probably more suited for enshrinement in that East Coast institution). Nemec's multivalent skills as historian and novelist permitted him to write a fascinating novel about baseball in the "exploding year" of 1884, a book with a title that evokes much about what remains important and essential about the spirit within baseball: Early Dreams

Others may eventually eclipse his historical work, but Nemec is the giant upon whose shoulders they will still be standing.

--Third, and not least, the great lexicographer of baseball, Paul Dickson, whose Baseball Dictionary is one of the game's most essential cultural and historical resources. Like Nemec, Dickson's interests span beyond baseball, but there is something incandescent in their obsession with the game that exemplifies what the Reliquary has been endeavoring to cement into the minds of its membership (and all others who may yet hear its clarion call)--a transcendental relationship between the National Pastime and the nation that still needs it, warts and all.

These three individuals are each Eternals, each an individual who is not reproducible or repeatable in baseball history. The argument for bypassing the standard election process is predicated on the idea that these three capture the essence of what those of us who should appreciate, support and sustain in the impulse to engage with baseball as more than a set of statistics, or as a media spectacle. These choices reconfirm that the Reliquary is a place for a Platonic communion with a game that, unlike any others, takes us back to childhood--reminding us that even in a nation currently torn asunder by chaos and corruption there are symbols that can help us to transcend our ills, forgive our trespasses, and deliver us from evil. 

That is why the Baseball Reliquary and the Shrine of the Eternals must continue, so that the vision of the Good Shepherd Terry Cannon cannot, and will not, vanish from the earth. Godspeed to you, Terry, and thanks for everything.

UPDATE 8/9/20: Richard Sandomir, jack-of-all-trades at the New York Times, has published a thoughtful, detailed tribute to Terry today. In it, he notes that a large portion of Terry's sizable collection of baseball memorabilia will be transferred to Whittier College (where the Reliquary-related Institute for Baseball Studies is located), and that Joseph Price, a Whittier College professor emeritus, was tapped by Terry to guide the Reliquary to the other side of the Rubicon. Best of luck, Joe.

And from it, we've appropriated what is perhaps the most indelible photo of Terry that is publicly available--an image that reminds us that Terry was born near Detroit and retained his attachment to the Tigers even after relocating to California, where his true calling awaited him. We propose that the Reliquary brain trust invest some of their not-so-plentiful cash in a standee of Terry that can ensure that he will always be present at Shrine of the Eternals induction ceremonies; his puckish sense of humor would surely appreciate the fact that such a presence would ironically echo the efforts of present-day baseball to keep a strange semblance of humanity on hand even as ballparks across America were kept empty in 2020 so that the show could go on. 

Sunday, August 2, 2020


Baseball is back: that's both good and bad, from so many perspectives. It's good because its fans need it right now, with a virus raging and politics turning even more virulent; it's bad, because the games are forced to be played in cocoon-like settings offering only a small fraction of its usual "comfort food" blandishments. It's good, because there will at least be some continuity (despite the efforts of both labor and management to create a hole as gaping as the one bored into the game in 1994); it's bad, because the game on the field is almost certain to reflect and exacerbate the calamitous trends of the recent past.

We could go on with such cheap parallelism for maybe six paragraphs, but others have seemingly procured a patent on that, and we don't want to shell out any of our precious dough at a time when the economic indicators are so dire. The so-called great champions of the sabe-neo-post hoc "enlightenment" (aka the institutional analytic madness) are either apologists for these catastrophic developments, or they are whistling loudly past the graveyard as the bodies pile up. (Now there is a parallelism that is not cheap, except in the eyes of certain "politicians" who've concluded that a certain portion of American life is decidedly unprecious.)

The data measure we employ to highlight baseball's escalating descent into two-dimensional irrelevance is called ISOBA. (Sounds like it might be a virus, yes? It might as well be.) The relative health of the game, in terms of "shape variety" existent in baseball offense, is captured by ISOBA, which takes isolated power (a wonderfully simple measure from Bill James, before he fell into a series of rabbit holes: it is, simply enough, slugging average minus batting average, or SLG-BA) and divides it against batting average itself (in order to see just how much hitting is being moved around by hits other than singles).

In the course of baseball history, triples have been marginalized, so doubles and homers have vied for prominence in the ongoing measurement of ISOBA. As the chart below intimates, these two principal pillars of run creation have been in relative balance since the live ball arrived in 1920, with a few oscillating escalations over time.

But look at what has happened since 2015. In a manner not un-analogous to the escalation of economic inequality in a certain nation (in danger of being traded for an autocracy to be named later...), ISOBA has gone...well, virulent. Worse than that, the two leagues--which had often shown divergent paths with respect to the power/BA interaction, had achieved a hegemonic lockstep that could only come from the incursion of antigens akin to a pandemic. The "second wave" of sabermetrics, as infused into baseball organizations as a giant "booster shot", has, in fact, produced a "death spiral" leading the game further into an "all or nothing" approach to scoring runs.

2019 brought absurd (as in Beckett/Ionesco-style absurdity) new highs in terms of HR/G, with both leagues cracking the previously unthinkable .700 ISOBA barrier. We warned at the time that the implementation of practical approaches emphasizing "launch angles" and "three true outcome" theorizing would result in a game where batting average would decline. The "official bright minds" (James, Tango, Posnanski) were mostly silent on this. (After all, batting average is such a flawed measure; why would we care if it declined more, so long as run scoring didn't crater?) Only Joe pushed back in public, praising hitters for a "smart adjustment" as pitchers became more strikeout-oriented. (Of course, Joe tossed his shiny penny-wise brain into a mud puddle by omitting the fact that it takes two to Tango--pardon the pun--and the batters were at least as culpable for the rise in K/9 as their counterparts on the mound.)

So, here, in 2020, with a strange version of baseball on display--and in an preparatory environment that due to the disruption of spring training would seem to favor the hitters--we have the first results to examine. ISOBA is down--but not by much: it's still over .700. HR/G are down--but not by much. The ratio of D/HR is down, and to a marked degree: in the 2020 AL thus far, that ratio is 1.19, whereas in 2014 the ratio was 1.91. 

What else is down? You guessed it: batting average. The most precipitous drop in BA in either league in any given year is 1931, when the NL lost 26 points of BA. In the 2020 AL, we currently have a drop of 21 points of BA (from .253 to .232). Worked out as a percentage, the NL BA drop from 1930 to 1931 is 8.6%; right now, the AL BA drop from 2019 to 2020 is 8.3%. The delta in the 2020 NL is milder, but only mildly so...

Baseball fans from the Reagan era will "capture" this reference...
How likely is what we're seeing the "sea-change into morbid two-dimensonality" we'd previously suggested would be the case? It's hard to say. This year is, of course, aberrant in more ways than we can enumerate without subjecting our readership to act upon pent-up urges to slit one's wrists. (And we still need you around to vote in we will do no more harm.) But the picture is not a pretty one--one way or another, sooner or later, our dire predictions about the direction of offensive shape will come true, and the fans will suffer enough from it that it will put the game in the kind of peril we've seen democracy fall into over the past four years. 

We'll let you decide which one you think is more important to world history; all we can say is that it is symptomatic of a malaise that has systematically befallen America, gestating slowly and picking up steam, triggered by forces that care little for nuance or the give-and-take of true reasoned discourse. It's all of a piece, and it's got to stop. For baseball, ISOBA is the measure that tell us that the consequences are dire, and the sand in the hourglass is picking up speed...