Don Larsen: The readers write

Comparing the players of 1956 to those of today gets a lively debate going.

By King Kaufman

Published January 8, 2009 7:10PM (EST)

Wednesday's item about watching the rebroadcast of Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series sparked a lively debate in the comments section about my observation that, gee whiz, they were a bunch o' mutts in those days!

Well, not really. But the approach of the hitters was notably different, and it's hard to picture similar approaches being effective today against, another point, much better pitching.

Of course, this led someone to point out the similarity between my point and the famous parody article from the Onion, "In My Day, Ballplayers Were For Shit."

To the mailbag we go.

zwrite: King, you might be the first person to ever agree with my conclusion that athletes today are far, far better than the athletes of years ago.

Really? I think it's generally understood that athletes today are better than ever. What I hear people talking about is how players in the old days, in various sports, had better fundamentals, cared and knew about the game etc. etc.

Rob H.: As I pointed out a few years back in this column ... Wilt Chamberlain would have been great today because he would have matured as a player playing the modern game ...

Somehow, I think the Babe and Ty and Ted, given all the advantages of the modern game, would have feasted on the league-average middle reliever from 2008. After all, in the modern game, there are far more teams and far more players. And far more opportunity for mediocrity.

beantrader: Watching a junk ball pitcher like Larsen on his best day is not a way to judge the quality of hitting or pitching in that era ... My guess is that hitters from that era would flourish in todays hitter friendly game.

Agreed about Larsen, and beantrader also makes the point that the mound was higher in those days, making it tougher on hitters. But I have seen enough footage from the old days to stand by what I wrote here.

As to the stars of yesteryear, yes, the great players would still be good or great today. I mentioned that in the section about Duke Snider. Ted Williams transported to today would still be a hell of a hitter, though I don't know that he'd be quite the same Ted Williams.

The competition's just better. The Wilt Chamberlain argument above carries some weight -- Ted Williams or whoever would be better today with access to today's competition level, training methods, equipment etc. And it's true that there are more teams and more players than there used to be, but it's not true that there is more opportunity for mediocrity.

The talent pool is much, much larger. It's grown a lot faster than the number of roster slots has. Lanri makes this point in a letter as well.

The population has grown, though that's mitigated, maybe more than mitigated, by the growth of other sports that draw talent away from baseball. But there was total segregation through 1946, nearly total segregation after that, and the effects lingered into the 1970s. There also weren't nearly the numbers of Latin American or Asian players that are in the majors today.

Williams and Ruth and Cobb today would come back to the pack some, because the pack is better.

lutherhouse: When they eventually play the Sox - Yankees playoff from Oct. 1978, check out the physical condition of the players.

Check out Mike Schmidt, one of the greatest hitters ever, who played until 1989 and was a top slugger through '87. When you see clips of him, he looks like a shortstop.

T. Rossi: It's simple to get the evidence of how easy it was to pitch perfect games in the World Series, just print out the list of people who did so in the 50's. Oh, wait, that was just Larsen. [Snip: This point repeated numerous times about various eras for emphasis.] Still just Larsen? How about no hitters in the World Series since 1975? Hmmm ... Maybe we could run a statistical analysis to prove that no hitters (at any point in the season) are becoming less frequent as compared to total number of games played -- but it would prove the opposite.

Maybe it would or maybe it wouldn't. I don't know. I don't understand your point about the frequency of no-hitters. You seem to be arguing that if I'm correct that players are better now, there would have been more no-hitters in the past, in both the World Series and the regular season. I don't see why this should be true.

No-hitters are freak events. In the regular season since 1901, when the American League started, there have been 213 of them, according to Wikipedia. That's roughly one every 1,000 games. Consider: Quite a few no-hitters get thrown against poor hitting teams, poor hitting teams rarely make the World Series, and there have not been close to 1,000 World Series games played. It's not at all surprising that Larsen's no-hitter is the only one in World Series history.

Psychlist: I wonder how much of the difference you perceive is a function of the quality of the video image. I've seen chunks of that game and others from that era, and it always strikes me that things are so blurry, distant, and herky-jerky that it's very hard to get a feel for what's going on. I would agree that today's players are better conditioned and schooled, and therefore would be "better" on average than players from prior eras (though I'm not sure when the dividing line should be drawn), but maybe not so much better as you might think.

Maybe, but it feels to me like I kind of accounted for that in my brain.

Big Paulie: The whole Dave Winfield/Bo Jackson approach to baseball (great athletes playing baseball, rather than great baseball players playing baseball) has spread to the point where we can applaud the feats of great athletes, but barely recognize what a great baseball player is. You know, a guy who knows what base to throw to from the outfield, a guy who can bunt, a guy who can steal, a guy who can play his position so well he doesn't have to make spectacular plays, a guy who can hit a 3rd inning sac fly in June and resist the temptation to step out of the dugout and tip his cap to the crowd.

But all of those things you list, starting with what base to throw to, are things you can teach a great athlete to do, though I question how many wins it adds to a team to have a guy not feel the need to tip his cap after a sacrifice fly. Do you get extra runs for not tipping your cap? But anyway: Why not start with a great athlete? You can't teach that.

Big Paulie: I read somewhere -- it might have been in "The Glory Of Their Times" -- that Satchel Page rarely struck anyone out on three pitches. If he had them 0-2, the next pitch was very high and very inside. Then the 4th pitch was down and easy called strike three.

Bob Gibson was also said to have never given up 4 hits to the same batter in one game. The first pitch of the fourth at-bat (after three hits) was in the middle of the back.

I'm not glorifying any of this. Just pointing out that pitchers "back then" weren't the soft tossing wimps they're being made out to be ... and hitting off them carried more than a little risk.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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