From the archive: Baseball’s eternal debate

Bill James has a recurring feature in at least a few of his books called “Old Ballplayers Never Die.” The idea is that for almost as long as baseball has existed, former players have lamented the decline in play. For instance, in his 2001 historical abstract, James included an excerpt from an article 1890s standout Bill Joyce wrote for the 1916 Spalding Base Ball Guide. Joyce concluded:

“It makes me weep to think of the men of the old days who played the game and the boys of today. It’s positively a shame, and they are getting big money for it, too.”

Conversely, James also notes that for almost as long as baseball has existed, there have been people who would say that the latest version of the game is the greatest. Today’s edition of this column concerns an example of this latter trend, from a 1908 article in the Oakland Tribune. It begins:

“No matter what they tell you about baseball going back and not being as spectacular, etc., as it used to be in the good old days, you just tell them that baseball, as a whole, is a mighty improved game over what it was ten, aye twenty years ago, and you’ll not be more than a mile wrong.”

The article and several accompanying pieces then highlight several stars of the late 19th century. It’s a neat series of articles.

I go back and forth on the question of whether today’s player’s are better or worse. To be blunt, I don’t know if it matters. Every generation of baseball has had players worth celebrating, ones who could perform astonishing feats. Near every generation of baseball has also been vastly different than the one that preceded it. I think that various individual statistical feats that seemingly point to declines or increases in quality of play are more evidence of whatever the current rules and trends are in baseball.

There is, of course, a far broader debate that could be had here. I’ll look into this more another time, though the comments are open.


“From the archive” is a Friday series that highlights old baseball-related newspaper clippings.

Others in this series:

4 Replies to “From the archive: Baseball’s eternal debate”

  1. I’m 56 years old, and there is no doubt in my mind that today’s players are better than EVER! Maybe if Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb played today, they would be just as good. But the Babe Ruth of 1927 wouldn’t be getting around on any fastballs today. And, size matters in baseball, too. (Some people claim it doesn’t.) Looking at the White Sox 40 man roster, there is exactly ONE pitcher under 6-0, with five total players under 6-0. The Indians, two and ten. The Twins, zero and six. I picked those teams at random. Players are bigger, faster, and better than ever.

  2. But, a player is judged against the players he played against. Mark Spitz isn’t any less great because Michael Phelps is better.

  3. I like what Wilbert Robinson said 100 years ago when the 1927 Yankees were killers–He was asked how his Orioles of the 1890s (who were considered the best team of that era) would fare against the Yankees–He said –THEY WOULD HAVE KILLED US!-Like any sport==Players get better–I Iike a couple of quotes on this–Rogers Hornsby once said–You rate a great player on FIVE GREAT YEARS AS A PLAYER–Do that and you will have a better example of greatness–Example–Don Sutton is in the Hall of fame for having 300 wins–Yet Steve Garvey is not–His lifetime totals just arent there–However from 1974 to 1979– NOBODY would have traded Don Sutton for Steve Garvey straight up! Finally the BLACK Players of the old Negro Leagues–For 30 yrs had at least 300 hundred players that were better than the whites and many many white players knew this–Dizzy Dean said many times that Satchal Paige was easily the greatest pitcher whoever lived–This has long been a travesty in Baseball-Just a few thoughts

  4. Another comment here–Put the DH in the National League–This is crazy–2 Leagues- 2 Different games-Its a joke–The AL will never give it up and those in Baseball need to wake up–It is plainly wrong period
    I have no idea what makes the Dinosaurs stop this! Whether it is right or wrong Baseball always talks about an even playing field for all–WRONG—-Put the DH in all of Baseball!

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