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Baseball Lovers: These Are the Good Old Days : Sports: If the nation sees itself in decline, why should the national pastime be any different? But players today are actually better than ever before.

July 11, 1993|Guy Molyneux | Guy Molyneux is president of the Next America Foundation, an educational organization founded by Michael Harrington

WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, baseball will play its 64th All-Star Game in Baltimore, in a stadium built, fittingly enough, on Babe Ruth's birthplace. The sym bolism virtually demands that we indulge one of the oldest and dear est debates among fans of the national pastime: Are today's players any match for the greats of yesteryear?

Well, just suppose: Someone finds DNA samples for Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Honus Wagner and the other greats of olden days and clones them before Tuesday. They arrive in Baltimore to challenge the striplings we today call All-Stars. Camden Yards would host the game every fan has dreamed of. What would happen?

Most fans would expect Ty, Lou, Shoeless Joe and the rest of the old boys to win handily. But that is the stuff of dreams. The old-timers would find themselves playing guys who run faster, throw harder and probably hit better. The cold truth is: Today's best would be a match for the old greats, and might be substantially better.

America holds onto the mythology of past-player greatness with extraordinary passion. The most famous victim of this was Roger Maris, who had the misfortune, in 1961, of having one of baseball's greatest seasons, beating Ruth's single-season home-run record. He was excoriated by fans and writers for his temerity.

The two most esteemed records remaining--esteemed because they support the mythology--are Gehrig's consecutive-games-played streak of 2,130 and Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Baltimore shortstop Cal Ripken is closing in on Gehrig. Yet, every time Ripken goes into a slump, commentators blame it on the streak and suggest he take a day off. Their ostensible concern is for the Orioles' welfare, or Ripken's; the truth is, they hate to see another icon fall. God help the player who makes a serious run at DiMaggio's mark.

Why do we hold onto this myth so tenaciously? Part of the answer is normal generational hubris. Older fans want to believe "their" players were the best--just as their movies and their music were better than today's. Baseball heroes also play a significant part in our national mythology. They are secular equivalents of Greek gods--their greatness is part of our national greatness.

But there's something else at work, too, because the myth is framed as much to denigrate today's players and today's game as to elevate the greats of yore. Its roots lie in baseball's non-athletic role, its function as a metaphor for our society. America increasingly sees itself as a nation in decline, and so baseball, too, must be seen as declining. It would somehow be out of character, as we grow increasingly cynical about our public life and pessimistic about our economic future, for us to doubt that baseball is also going to hell in a handbasket.

But being in sync with the national mood doesn't make it so. In fact, the men who played major-league baseball in the past 25 years are, on average, far better than those who played in the "glory days" before World War II. They're even better than the players of the 1950s and '60s, though not so decisively.

Why should we believe that? Because everything we know about athletic talent leads to that conclusion. In sports with timeless measures of performance, like track or swimming, there has been constant improvement over the years, with new records set and then broken again. Today's athletes jump farther and higher, run faster and are, in every respect, better than those of earlier times. No one would say "Carl Lewis is some sprinter, but he's no Jesse Owens." The statement is absurd because we know exactly how good each was at what they do. Owens was a tremendous athlete in his day, but he wouldn't have a prayer of making the 1996 U.S. Olympic team.

There is no reason to think baseball is the exception to this general trend of increasing excellence. Still, the notion that today's players are as good as Gehrig and Ruth may strike many as a startling claim. But it pales in audacity before the idea that only baseball has not seen improvement--indeed, has declined.

But wait a minute, someone always insists, what about the statistics? No one today hits for power as consistently as Ruth, or Gehrig or Ted Williams. No one hits for average the way Cobb did. Doesn't that prove the old guys were better? No, it doesn't.

The problem with using baseball statistics this way is that the game has changed many times and in different ways over the years. In track events, we have objective measures: A second is always a second. But baseball is not always baseball--not in the same way.

The myth-makers exploit the changing nature of the game by selective use of the old stats. All-time great teams invariably rely on pitchers like Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson, from the pre-World War I era, when runs were scarce. But for hitters they turn to the years between the world wars. One could just as easily--and as wrongly--conclude that baseball had lousy hitters before 1920, and lousy pitchers thereafter. But that's not good myth-making.

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