Baseball conversation is almost as important to the game as bats, balls and gloves. Some questions, issues and disagreements are never resolved, but people never stop discussing them. Big league managers employ full-time “bench coaches,” usually an old friend, or an old pro from a winning team. His job is to sit next to the manager on the bench and talk the game with him.
Other conversations are game specific: Do we bunt or swing away? Do we send up a pinch-hitter for the pitcher or leave him in the game? A manager’s decision in that situation can decide a game no matter what he decides. And it gives fans an opportunity to second-guess the manager and call him an idiot. That’s fun.
Using pinch hitters for the pitcher is only an issue in the National League now. The American League has the designated hitter. The pitcher never comes up to bat, so you never have to decide whether to pinch hit for him.
So now we have another perennial argument: Is the designated hitter rule a good thing or a bad thing? Baseball purists think it’s an abomination. It takes away a fan’s opportunity to boo the manager. But the designated hitter rule gives us David Ortiz, and he’s so much fun to watch.
Are today’s players as good as the old-time players?
They’re better. In every sport that’s measured objectively with a clock or a tape measure, each generation pushes the envelope farther than the previous one. Younger athletes break records all the time. In track and field or swimming, records rarely last a year, or even a month.
In each generation, athletes are better coached, better fed, better conditioned, bigger and faster than the one before. Why should baseball be any different?
Today’s players are smarter and better educated than the old-time players, and the agents and union leaders who represent them are smarter than that. Once the reserve clause was revoked, and salary arbitration was instituted, owners had to negotiate with players as independent contractors. If a player could get a better deal with a different team, or from an arbitrator, he could do it. Owners could no longer say, as they did for a century, “You will play for my team until I decide to trade you or sell you, and you will play for the money I’m offering. If you don’t like it, you can quit baseball and be blackballed for the rest of your life.”
Players aren’t greedy. As Babe Ruth said, “It’s a business. Nobody who ever worked for somebody else ever got paid more than he was worth.” Ruth’s top salary was $80,000. Williams and DiMaggio hit $125,000 20 years later. When someone asked DiMaggio what he’d be worth if he played in this era, he said he’d walk into the owner’s office and say, “Howdy, partner.”
So it’s a myth that old-time players played just for the love of the game, and would have played for nothing. They played because they had the ability, and it was more fun and better paying than working in the mills, the mines, or the farm. They wanted as much money as they could get, same as now, but players now have the leverage to get a whole lot more.
That’s what I say when someone says the old-timers loved the game more, and were less greedy than now.