Entropic homogeneity isn’t why no one hits .400 any more – Essay
Stephen Jay Gould
Comparisons may be odious, but we cannot avoid them in a world that prizes excellence and yearns to know whether current pathways lead to progress or destruction. We are driven to contrast past with present and use the result to predict an uncertain future. But how can we make fair comparison since we gaze backward through the rose-colored lenses of our most powerful myth — the idea of a former golden age?
Nostalgia for an unknown past can elevate hovels to castles, dung heaps to snowclad peaks. I had always conceived Calvary, the site of Christ’s martyrdom, as a lofty mountain, covered with foliage and located far from the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem. But I stood on its paltry peak last year. Calvary lies inside the walls of old Jerusalem (just barely beyond the city borders of Christ’s time). The great hill is but one staircase high; its summit lies within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
I had long read of Ragusa, the great maritime power of the medieval Adriatic. I viewed it at grand scale in my mind’s eye, a vast fleet balancing the powers of Islam and Christendom, sending forth its elite to the vanguard of the ”invincible” Spanish Armada. Medieval Ragusa has survived intact — as Dubrovnik in Yugoslavia. No town (but Jerusalem) can match its charm, but I circled the battlements of its city walls in 15 minutes. Ragusa, by modern standards, is a modest village at most.
The world is so much bigger now, so much faster, so much more complex. Must our myths of ancient heroes expire on this altar of technological progess? We might dismiss our deep-seated tendency to aggrandize older heroes as mere sentimentalism — and plainly false by the argument just presented for Calvary and Ragusa. And yet, numbers proclaim a sense of truth in our persistent image of past giants as literally outstanding. Their legitimate claims are relative, not absolute. Great cities of the past may be villages today, and Goliath would barely qualify for the NBA. But, compared with modern counterparts, our legendary heroes often soar much farther above their own contemporaries. The distance between commonplace and extraordinary has contracted dramatically in field after field.
Baseball provides my favorite examples. Our national pastime may strike readers as an odd topic for this magazine, but few systems offer better data for a scientific problem that evokes as much interest, and sparks as much debate, as any other: the meaning of trends in history as expressed by measurable differences between past and present. This article uses baseball to address the general question of how we may compare an elusive past with a different present. How can we know whether past deeds matched or exceeded current prowess? In particular, was Moses right in his early pronouncement (Genesis 6:4): ”There were giants in the earth in those days”?
Baseball has been a bastion of constancy in a tumultuously changing world, a contest waged to the same purpose and with the same basic rules for 100 years. It has also generated an unparal- leled flood of hard numbers about achievement measured every which way that human cleverness can devise. Most other systems have changed so profoundly that we cannot meaningfully mix the numbers of past and present. How can we compare the antics of Larry Bird with basketball as played before the 24-second rule or, going further back, the center jump after every basket, the two-hand dribble, and finally nine-man teams tossing a lopsided ball into Dr. Naismith’s peach basket? Yet while styles of play and dimensions of ball parks have altered substantially, baseball today is the same game that Wee Willie Keeler and Nap Lajoie played in the 1890s. Bill James, our premier guru of baseball stats, writes that ”the rules attained essentially their modern form after 1893” (when the pitching mound retreated to its current distance of 60 feet 6 inches). The numbers of baseball can be compared meaningfully for a century of play.
When we contrast these numbers of past and present, we encounter the well known and curious phenomenon that inspired this article: great players of the past often stand further apart from their teammates. Consider only the principal measures of hitting and pitching: batting average and earned run average. No one has hit .400 since Ted Williams reached .406 nearly half a century ago in 1941; yet eight players exceeded .410 in the 50 years before then. Bob Gibson had an earned run average of 1.12 in 1968. Ten other pitchers have achieved a single season E.R.A. below 1.30, but before Gibson we must go back a full 50 years to Walter Johnson’s 1.27 in 1918. Could the myths be true after all? Were the old guys really better? Are we heading towards entropic homogeneity and robtic sameness?
These past achievements are paradoxical because we know perfectly well that all historical trends point to a near assurance that modern athletes must be better than their predecessors. Training has become an industry and obsession, an upscale profession filled with engineers of body and equipment, and a separate branch of medicine for the ills of excess zeal. Few men now make it to the majors just by tossing balls against a barn door during their youth. We live better, eat better, provide more opportunity across all social classes. Moreover, the pool of potential re- cruits has increased fivefold in 100 years by simple growth of the American population.
Numbers affirm this ineluctable improvement for sports that run against the absolute standard of a clock. The Olympian powers-that-be finally allowed women to run the marathon in 1984. Joan Benoit won it in 2:24:54. In 1896, Spiridon Loues had won in just a minute under three hours; Benoit ran faster than any male Olympic champion until Emil Zatopek’s victory at 2:23:03 in 1952. Or consider two of America’s greatest swimmers of the 1920s and ’30s, men later recruited to play Tarzan (and faring far better than Mark Spitz in his abortive commercial career). Johnny Weissmuller won the 100-meter freestyle in 59.0 in 1924 and 58.6 in 1928. The women’s record then stood at 1:12.4 and 1:11.0, but Jane had bested Tarzan by 1972 and the women’s record has now been lowered to 54.79. Weissmuller also won the 400- meter freestyle in 5:04.2 in 1924, but Buster Crabbe had cut off more than 15 seconds by 1932 (4:48.4). Female champions in those years swam the distance in 6:02.2 and 5:28.5. The women beat Johnny in 1956, Buster in 1964, and have now (1984) reached 4:07.10, half a minute quicker than Crabbe.
Baseball, by comparison, pits batter against pitcher and neither against a constant clock. If everyone improves as the general stature of athletes rises, then why do we note any trends at all in baseball records? Why do the best old-timers stand out above their modern counterparts? Why don’t hitting and pitching continue to balance?
The disappearance of .400 hitting becomes even more puzzling when we recognize that average batting has remained relatively stable since the beginning of modern baseball in 1876. The chart above displays the history of mean batting averages since 1876. (We only included men with an average of at least two at-bats per game since we wish to gauge trends of regular players. Nine- teenth-century figures
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