The mystique of 1934 (and why I don't buy it)
Let's begin with a dream: You're face-to-face with the Devil. He looks like Paul Giamatti. I don't know why he looks like Paul Giamatti. I do know that people often say that I look like Paul Giamatti, and that he should play me in the movie. I suspect that this comparison would not please Paul Giamatti. I'm good with it, though. I like Paul Giamatti.
Anyway, the Paul Giamatti devil has an offer for you. He has a baseball team. It's probably the 2018 New York Yankees. He says that if you can put together a team of players that defeats his Giamatti Devils in a best-of-21-game series, you'll get something really good, like 100 wishes, or Hamilton tickets, or awesome parking spaces for the rest of your life, or whatever it is that you want. You know what happens if your team loses.
There are no catches, no traps, no tricks when it comes to your player choices. You absolutely can take anyone you want in baseball history, and you'll get the very best version of that player. You want 1921 Babe Ruth, you get 1921 Babe Ruth. You want Satchel Paige in his prime, you get Satchel Paige in his prime. You want a fully loaded Barry Bonds, you get a fully loaded Barry Bonds.
You might have a different view of PED use if your SOUL is on the line.
[caption id="attachment_22699" align="aligncenter" width="384"] How would Ruth fare against today's flamethrowers?[/caption]
Now think hard about this: You need a right fielder. We all know that Babe Ruth is the greatest right fielder in baseball history. That's a nearly unanimous view. So you take Babe Ruth. You put him in your cleanup spot and send out your team of extraordinary men plucked from baseball's history pages, and you're confident, sure, dreaming about those awesome parking spots that will magically appear for the rest of your life.
In the first inning, Ruth comes up against Luis Severino with a runner on second. You're excited. You can see Devil Paul Giamatti sitting there, and you expect his forehead to be beading giant tears of sweat. Instead, he looks comfortably pleased. In fact, he appears to be smiling.
And before the at-bat even begins, you suddenly realize something frightening: There is a much greater than 0 percent chance that Babe Ruth will have absolutely no chance whatsoever against Luis Severino, that the enormous bat in his hands is entirely useless, that Ruth has never seen anything at all like this, and he won't even know what to do against a pitcher who throws a fastball 100 mph and a slider that wrecks hearts and minds. It doesn't even MATTER that he's slumped lately.
And then you think: "Oh no, these guys are going to DESTROY Walter Johnson."
Welcome, my friends, to the Baseball 100.
The year is 1934. Depression. FDR. Donald Duck first appears; Flash Gordon too. Dark shadows stretch across Germany. Pretty Boy Floyd is gunned down, but Bonnie and Clyde are still on the run. At least 15 African-Americans are lynched across the South.
Henry Aaron is born that year in Mobile, Ala. He has seven brothers and sisters, and like them, he picks cotton and shines shoes and works whatever jobs he can to help keep the family fed. And then he escapes to the sandlot games, hitting bottle caps with broomsticks, the closest approximation to baseball that he and his friends can muster. Young Hank Aaron hits cross-handed.
I bring up 1934 because Hank Aaron is generally the youngest person that you'll see on a greatest baseball players top 10 list. Yes, now and again people will put Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens on their lists, but this always sparks angry responses that hardly seem worth the trouble. The consensus Top 10 list -- and I've looked at a lot of them -- goes like so (in alphabetical order):
Hank Aaron (born 1934)
Ty Cobb (born 1886)
Walter Johnson (born 1887)
Mickey Mantle (born 1931)
Willie Mays (born 1931)
Stan Musial (born 1920)
Satchel Paige (born 1908?)
Babe Ruth (born 1895)
Honus Wagner (1874)
Ted Williams (born 1918)
Those aren't the only people to appear on Top 10 lists, obviously. Lou Gehrig is on a lot of them. Joe DiMaggio. Rogers Hornsby. Lefty Grove. Yogi Berra. Warren Spahn. For people who include Negro Leaguers, Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston usually make the cut. Not one of these players, not even one, was born anytime CLOSE to 1934.
Some will include Roberto Clemente. Born 1934.
Now, I love baseball history; in fact, I'm obsessed with it. But this is delusional. There's not even the slightest chance that NONE of the Top 10 baseball players of all time were born after 1935. There's not the slightest chance that 40 to 50 percent of the greatest players in the game's history were born in the 19th century. It's just not possible, not with all the advances that players have made.
Look at football: Of the consensus "Greatest Ever," only John Unitas (1933) was born before 1934 (other than those who would fight for Otto Graham or Don Hutson).
Look at hockey: Gordie Howe (1928) and Rocket Richard (1921) get Top 10 consideration, but that's about it.
Look at basketball: Bill Russell was born in 1934, and he's usually the oldest player on any Top 10 list. Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West were all born later. The clearer choices -- LeBron, Jordan, Magic, Bird, Kareem -- were all born a lot later.
Baseball is older than the other sports, so golf might be a better comparison. It's true that you'll find a bunch of golfers born before 1934 on most greatest-ever lists: Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Walter Hagen, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer. But even with that, the consensus BEST players -- Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods -- were both born post-1935, and then there's a long series of recent players acknowledged as all-time greats, such as Gary Player, Tom Watson, Phil Mickelson, Lee Trevino, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els, etc.
So the question is: Why are we so convinced that long-ago baseball players are the best to ever play the game? I think it comes down to two related concepts:
No. 1: The quality of baseball got a lot better.
A few years ago, I played in two basketball games in the same afternoon. The first was with a bunch of little kids -- I was the tallest person in the game by like two feet. They insisted that I play my hardest, which I did not, but I obviously dominated the game. I scored whenever I wanted, grabbed every rebound I wanted, dribbled around them in silly Globetrotter ways. And during the game, it occurred to me that if everybody else on earth was an eight or nine-year-old kid, I'd probably be the best basketball player in the world.
Later, I played in a pickup game with a group of friends; there were a few former college players in the game. I was so much worse than anyone else in the game that at some point the whole thing just seemed pointless. I only got a shot off when they let me get a shot off. I could only dribble at the mercy of a defender who could have picked me clean anytime he wanted. I laughed and took a seat. If everybody else on earth was a former college basketball player, I'd be the worst basketball player in the world.
This is all obvious. And yet, we rarely think about it in baseball. Consider Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton. In 2012, Billy Hamilton hit .311/.410/.420 and stole 155 bases in 132 games. We didn't care too much, though, because he did it in Class A and AA. If he had done that in the MAJOR LEAGUES, holy cow, he'd be legendary. He'd have broken Rickey Henderson's stolen base record. He'd have been on all the talk shows. He'd have his own SportsCenter commercial. He'd be on the cover of EA Sports "Out of the Park" game. He'd have a comic book. He'd be a superhero.
Now, ask yourself this: How does Class A and AA baseball compare to the majors league version in 1909? Remember, that was an all-white league. Remember they played all day games. Remember they used gloves that were basically raw steaks. Remember they let starting pitchers go all day. Remember the baseballs were heavy and mushy. How fast do you think those things were being thrown?
[caption id="attachment_22700" align="aligncenter" width="437"] Early 20th century baseball may not have had an answer for Billy Hamilton.[/caption]
Now, put Billy Hamilton up against those 1909 guys. You think pitchers are going to strike him out throwing what they threw then? You think if he hits a roller to third or short, they're going to throw in time to get him at first? You think any catcher is going to throw him out stealing? Oh, and not for nothing, but Billy Hamilton would have played defense so mind-blowing for that time, they probably would have named the glove after him.
This is Billy Hamilton we're talking about, a player barely clinging to a job in the big leagues.
The quality of the game has changed dramatically in countless ways. That's the first part of the story.
The second part is: We would prefer not to believe it.
No. 2: We pretend that baseball is timeless.
I used the Billy Hamilton example above, and maybe that moved you, maybe it didn't. If it didn't move you, the reason is obvious: You believe that Class AA is inferior baseball. That's reasonable enough. But let me give you another example. Take a look at this season:
.320/.456/.720, 55 homers, 110 runs, 119 RBIs
How good of a season is that? It's crazy good, obviously. But we don't know enough to determine how we feel about it.
Is it a company softball league? Then who cares? The batting average is very low.
Is it a minor-league season? If it is, OK, it's great, but it's not earth-shattering.
Is it a Negro leagues season? Josh Gibson, maybe? OK, now it might mean more to us, but we'd still have questions. What was the season like? Does it feature only games against other Negro leagues teams, or does it also include town games? Who did the stat-keeping? How sure are we of the numbers?
OK, wait, maybe it's a major league season. Now, we're getting somewhere. But what season is it? If it's a season in the 1970s, then, wow, it's legendary, one of the greatest of all time. But if it came along in the late 1990s or early 2000s, well, we might have questions about it. If it's a Babe Ruth season around 1929, we'll bow in respect. If it's a Larry Walker season when Coors Field was a hitter's amusement park, we'll withhold our applause.
As it turns out, this season is none of those.
Before I tell you what season it is, I want to ask you something. The instant you find out, chart your reaction. That is to say, consider how you feel about the season as soon as you find out the details -- think about how impressed you are, how authentic the numbers feel. OK? Ready?
That was the season that Sadaharu Oh had for the Yomiuri Giants in the 1964 Japan Central League.
So now, what does that season mean to you? The answer, I suspect, comes directly from how you feel about Japanese baseball in 1964. Was it major league quality? Class AAA quality? Lower? I'm going to take a couple of guesses here: (1) You instantly made a determination on the quality of the league; and (2) You determined that 1964 Japanese baseball was of lower quality than MLB during Hank Greenberg's 1938 season, Jimmie Foxx's 1938 season or Babe Ruth's 1928 season.
That's probably right -- I don't know, obviously, but it seems like a good guess. This gets to the heart of the matter, though: We almost never even THINK about the quality of baseball that Greenberg faced in 1938 or Ruth faced in 1928. We prefer to think of baseball history as a linear timeline. This belief does wonderful things for us as baseball fans. It allows us to plainly compare baseball statistics through the years, apples to apples. It gives us the freedom to celebrate records (and to complain that Bonds and Clemens and the like broke our connection to the sacred numbers). It lets us follow the course from Christy Mathewson to Clayton Kershaw (and most people have Mathewson ahead of Kershaw in their Top 100 lists).
I suspect that all of this is nonsense. Was Lou Gehrig better than Albert Pujols? If I'm facing Paul Giamatti's Devils, I wouldn't bet on it. I wouldn't bet on Cy Young over Max Scherzer, either. I don't believe at all that Ty Cobb was a better baseball player than Mike Trout.
So, if that's what I believe: How do I put together the Baseball 100? I've been tossing and turning over that very question for a while. On the one hand, I really believe that if Billy Hamilton could be transported to the Deadball Era -- and America was the sort of place that would have allowed him to play -- he would have put up records that would never be broken. On the other hand, I'm not putting Billy Hamilton anywhere near my Top 100 players ever. I'm also not ranking Max Scherzer over Cy Young or Mike Trout over Ty Cobb, because -- even if I believe those things are true -- that doesn't tell baseball's story.
I think I've come up with a way to do it. This is going to be a very different kind of list in many ways. But in the end, I will rank the all-time best baseball players from 100 to 1. The list will reflect how I view the game. We can, and no doubt will, argue about it, which is essential. And there will be any number of surprises too. One thing that you should know going in: There are a lot of players born after 1934 on this list.
The Baseball 100 begins next week!