Foul Territory: Does The Deadball Era Equate to Weaker Players? Part II

As I touched on in my previous post, the plaintiff’s attorney in the current Atlanta Braves lawsuit was one year off from making an “apples to apples” argument. Clearly, player size and strength had nothing to do with the lower batting averages of that season or of any season. The ball and pitches did. While I understand his reasoning for grasping at the century mark to make his point, he’d have been better off simply saying “50 years ago.” Because 1910 was definitely the wrong year.

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…that a change in the fabric of the game may necessitate a change in the safety precautions. The way baseball is played today, the lawyer argued, is not the way it was played years ago, and fans may be put at an increased risk of injury as a result. “The players are much stronger and bigger and the balls are hit harder than they ever were before,” he said. “This was 2010, not 1910. … The balls now travel so fast there is no way a child can get out of the way.”

Furthermore, some simple search engine work pulls up information about the speed of pitches versus those of today. It should be no surprise to learn that the speed of fastballs during the Deadball Era are only marginally slower than those pitches today, although there are more pitchers able to hit 100+ MPH now. By some accounts amateur researchers on baseball-fever.com have stated that the average Deadball Era fastball averaged a speed of roughly 91 MPH. According to several sources, like FanGraphs, the average speed 100 years later is still about 91 MPH. Such incredible results beg the question: What research did the attorney have to make a statement such as he did?

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Perhaps more surprising is that our initial research suggests there may have actually been more foul balls hit during the Deadball Era (even after the “foul strike” rule went into place in both leagues) than today because Deadball Era players were only able to get a piece of a wild pitch instead of a clean cut. If our further research ends up supporting this hypothesis, then the assertion above becomes even more invalid.

As for the balls being hit harder and the players being bigger and stronger, again this is a subjective assertion at best. If this is true, then we must determine why the records of players from 1913 and a decade later stayed in place for so long. The attorney is, after all, equating strength with “better” in his comments. The baseball was changed in 1911. As a result, it became more active. But the ball hasn’t changed significantly in the last 100 years; yet the players in the past, those dealing with 90-95 MPH fastballs too have records that have been standing since the late -1910s and into the 1920s. The logical progression of this statement means that home run record, the hits record, and all sorts of other records held by players in the 1910 timeframe would have been broken quickly as players gained strength. But check out the list of longest standing records that were just recently broken or are still in place. Notice how many are from the Deadball Era cited by the attorney. Perhaps this is an indication that the players of the Deadball Era were actually stronger and faster and just plain better.

As any baseball fan knows, size doesn’t matter all that much in baseball. The all-time hits leader Pete Rose, for example, isn’t all that different than Ty Cobb, the man who held the record before him for 58 years. At one point, several Deadball Era players broke the hits record. Baseball-Reference.com shows only three “current” “bigger and stronger” players on the list of player near 3000 hits or more. Alex Rodriguez (suspended for PED use), Derek Jeter (retiring after the 2014 season) and Ichiro Suzuki. None of these modern “bigger and stronger” players are close to the record Rose and Cobb reached of 4000+ hits. Others on the list from the Deadball Era include Nap Lajoie and Honus Wagner, both reached 3000 hits (and presumably a whole lot of foul balls) in 1914.


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It should be obvious the comparison the attorney made is one that is predicated on lack of research and understanding of the history of the game. Had the balls been in better shape and the specialty pitches illegal at the time, then it’s possible that more records from the early-1900s would remain unbroken. The idea that “old” baseball equals less powerful, less strength, and therefore fewer possible foul ball injuries because of decreased speed of the hit is logically lacking. Players set batting records in spite of the differences in baseball at the time, in spite of size differences, in spite of special pitches. Players naturally adapt to what is happening in the moment. To assert otherwise implies that those players were actually better than those today; and they may have been considering how long it has taken for players to finally break some of the records. Looking to these shows us that the question of size and strength is a moot one.

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The attorney also failed to consider historical context. On the point of foul balls being more dangerous now because players are bigger and stronger, we have to acknowledge a few other facts. Regardless of how many fouls went into the stands in 1910, there would be fewer injuries  regardless of ball speed for no other reason than there were no significant distractions for fans. They had to pay attention to the game. There were no smartphones, tablets, ear plugs, portable radios and other ways to interrupt or distract them from the game. None of these existed in 1910.

That said, comparing apples to oranges is never a good idea. In this case, the attorney has done just that. He assumes there is a correlation between size and strength and the rate and speed at which balls are being hit. But even the most basic data calls this into question. The magical year of 1910 is the orange in this case. They attorney simply picked the wrong year of the Deadball Era to use as an example. I can’t imagine that is good for his case.

That said, as one dedicated to learning more about foul balls, I’d love to see the data the plaintiff’s counsel has on the foul ball rate, pitching speeds, bat speeds, strength of the players, and all other data that helps support this assertion.



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