One of my favorite things to do is argue about how the greats of the past would compare with the players of today, if they had played in the same era. Inevitably, the MLB arguments generally focus on the era before Jackie Robinson permanently broke the color barrier, the pre-steroid era, the steroid era, and the alleged post-steroid era.
One of my favorite arguments is one that I find ridiculous each and every time I have it: who is the greatest player in the history of the game. There is only one choice- Babe Ruth, but invariably, there are those that will make the argument that he never had to face a pitcher of color, at least not in a big league game. That’s a fair point, but throughout his career, he faced the very best pitchers that he could, and he mashed them. There is absolutely no reason to suspect that the Babe would have been any less dominant against any pitcher in any era, regardless of skin color. It’s important to note, also, that in the Babe’s time there was only 16 MLB teams, period. Jobs were at a premium, and even if all of the pitchers he faced were white, they were the very best white pitchers on the planet. Babe Ruth would have been Babe Ruth, no matter when he played. It’s just who he was.
Today’s MLB argument revolves around the treatment of players, in particular those who had injuries throughout their career. The impetus for this argument heads back a couple of months, when I was perusing through baseball-reference.com. I happened[1. Happened is a bit weak, I was looking through the lineups of all past Red Sox World Series Championship teams.] upon Smoky Joe Wood‘s page, and I was reminded that he had not been elected to the Hall of Fame, which always give me pause.
Shortly thereafter, I was reading The Greatest Baseball Stories Ever Told, and came across an article by Roger Angell entitled “The Web of the Game”, which used the backdrop of a Ron Darling – Frank Viola 1981 NCAA College World Series match-up as a way to get to Smokey Joe’s story. According to the article, Walter Johnson had said that Smoky Joe threw the ball harder than he did, but Wood deflected that, saying “I don’t think there was ever anybody faster than Walter.”
The most telling portion of the article for me, however, was the revelation of Wood’s injury during the 1913 season, and gets to the crux of today’s argument. On July 29th, 1913, Wood went to field a “swinging bunt” down the 3rd base line, slipped on the wet grass, and broke his thumb (a “subperiosteal fracture”.) Wood relayed that because the Red Sox were the defending Champs, and because his paycheck depended on him taking the mound, he might have rushed himself back. In any event, his arm was never the same, and he never won another game following the 1915 season.[2. It bears noting that Smoky Joe Wood may have been the inspiration for Rick Ankiel, following the latter’s failed MLB career as a SP. Joe Wood would sit out the 1916 season, but return in 1917, having been sold to the Cleveland Indians. He pitched on occasion, but turned to the OF as his primary position beginning in the 1918 season. He batted as high as .366 in 66 games during the 1921 season, before closing out his career with a .297 average in 142 games in 1922.]
If Wood had played a century later, and that same type of injury had occurred, I think it is fairly safe to say that it would have been handled in a much more delicate manner. If it was necessary, he would have sat out the remainder of the season, and he never would have worried about his paycheck, because his contract would be guaranteed. In the case of players who were playing when the game was still in its infancy, it was all about the timing of the situation. In those days, players, even superstars such as Wood, were expendable.
Wood finished his career as a pitcher with a 117-56 record (.672), 121 CGs, 28 shutouts, 2.03 ERA, and a 1.087 WHIP despite only pitching two full seasons (1911-12) that were injury free. Had he lived in the modern era, he likely comes back from his thumb injury and enjoys a full career.
Our next career interrupted by injury was one Dizzy Dean, fearless leader of the 1930s “Gashouse Gang” St. Louis Cardinals teams. During the 1933 through 1936 seasons, Dean averaged 25.5 wins[3. Including 30 wins in 1934, the last National Leaguer to eclipse the 30 win mark. Only Denny McLain in 1968 for the Detroit Tigers has passed the 30 win mark in the American League in that time frame.] and 26.75 complete games per season. Heading in to the 1937 All-Star game, he was right on pace to continue or surpass those averages with 12 wins and 14 complete games.
During that All-Star game, Dean pitched three innings, but the last batter he retired, Earl Averill of the Cleveland Indians, struck a ball off of Dean’s left foot, breaking a toe. Just like Wood 20-odd years earlier, Dean came back far too early[4. He threw a complete game (8 IP) only two weeks after the injury, and followed that up with a 10 1/3 IP performance 4 days later against the Brooklyn Dodgers.], and injured his arm by changing his mechanics. Again, if he had pitched even 40 years later, there is no way in the world he is allowed to return the mound that quickly, and he would have enjoyed an even more spectacular career than what he did.
Our last player in this argument is the one most familiar to fans, because he is the most recent on the list of injured players. Sandy Koufax retired from baseball at the age of 30, at what appeared to be the height of his pitching prowess following the 1967 season. Like Dean Dean 20 years prior, Koufax enjoyed 5 absolutely dominating seasons from 1962-1966. During that run, he won 111 games against only 34 losses (.766 winning percentage) and also staged the most successful holdout in MLB history up to that time leading up to the 1966 season.
Whether or not modern medicine might have helped the pain that Koufax suffered through, or whether it may have helped prevent or repair the damage that was caused, there is one thing that I can say for certain: if a superstar pitcher today was in the type of pain that Koufax was in then, he would be shut down, and he certainly would not be allowed to throw a combined 658 2/3 innings over two seasons, as Koufax did in his final two years in the league. Restraint would be used, and if it had been then, perhaps Koufax’s career would have been extended.
All three of the players mentioned today, and countless others who suffered the same fate due to the expectation or demand that they perform, even through injury, would have had more successful careers pitching in the modern era. Players now may be bulkier, they may appear to be more athletic, but they have every benefit when it comes to treatment and training that previous generations of players could never have dreamed of. When comparing players across generations, it is another thought to consider.