Thursday, March 8, 2007

Old-Time Baseball

In checking out baseball's Triple Crown Winners I first look over the hitters who led their respective league in Homers, Runs Batted In and Batting Average.

Then it's the pitchers who led their league in Won/Loss percentage, Earned Run Average and Strikeouts.

The names for both hitters and pitchers aren't really surprising -- although back at the turn of the century, the early 1900s, pitchers like Christy Mathewson and Walter "Big Train" Johnson really put up some unbelievable numbers.

In 1913, Walter Johnson was 36-7 with a 1.14 ERA and 243-SO.

Five years earlier, in 1908, Christy Mathewson was 37-11 with a 1.43 ERA and 259-SO.

And I'm thinking: who could've done better? And the answer can be found in just reviewing the triple crown winners of pitching. One man got his entry into the Hall of Fame because he had a run that wasn't about longevity, usually a pre-requisite for Cooperstown , but because he was the most dominant force the game had ever seen up until he played and not since #32 toed the slab. (What he did on the diamond in baseball, Gale Sayers did on the gridiron in the National Football League. They both accumulated totals never before realized, in a short period of time.)

My choice is Sanford Koufax (born Sanford Braun). He had a run from 1963, 1965 and 1966 where he won the pitcher's triple crown in each of these seasons.

1963: W25 L5 ERA 1.88 SO-306
1965: W26 L8 ERA 2.04 SO-382
1966: W27 L9 ERA 1.73 SO-317

Now I'm clicking around and I come across a couple of pitchers back in the late 1800s who put up monumental numbers. Numbers that had a lot to do with the rules of that day, but nevertheless these two guys had to hurl it.

Perhaps, though, when you see these outrageous statistical numbers you can understand why it was appropriate for baseball's powers that be to change the rules.

Guy Jackson Hecker in 1884 had W-52 L-20..Started 73 games, completed 72 of them.
In that year he pitched in 670 innings, walked 56 and struck out 385.

In that same year a pitcher by the name of "Old Hoss" Charles Gardner Radbourn was W-59 L-12. He started 73 games and completed all 73 games. Threw 11 shutouts in 678 innings. Allowed 98 bases on balls and struck out 441.

But... there were some interesting rules during these times.

1884- Six called balls was a walk (a.k.a. base on balls)
1885- Five balls became a base on balls. Four strikes were adopted for that season only.
1888- A batsman was credited with a base hit when a runner was hit by his batted ball.
1889- Four balls became a base on balls (walk).
1891- The pitching distance increased from 50' to 60' 6".

So you see that in the early days the rules favored the pitcher in that the batter had to be up there swinging. Needing 6 wide ones to get a free pass just wasn't that likely.

And with the pitcher up in the batter's face, they had to have cat-like reflexes with a birds eye view of the pea zipping past them. As medieval as the game was back then, you have to think a pitcher plunking the batter was as much a part of the game as anything else. It was a crude time and these were the pioneers of our great game of baseball. Somebody had to go through the bumps and bruises of a game not yet tailored for its best results.