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Tracking trends: a little historical perspective, please.

To the serious historian, tracking trends is the passion that spurs his working life. Successful trend-tracking is the skill that sets the trained historian apart from analysts, antiquarians, reporters, and other commentators on the human past. It is the logical outcome of research.

A baseball historian's daily routine might find him gathering facts, filing them into categories, and analyzing each category with an eye for trends, counter-trends, combinations of trends, and consequences of trends. It can be a grind, but trend-tracking can be great fun when it lets us correct some addlepated know-it-all.

Of pundits pushing pretentious trends--Mischievous delights aside, baseball historians regularly shoulder the burden of enlightening the clueless and undoing the damage wrought by shallow research probings. Some commentators bedevil readers by touting trends with shaky roots. Sometimes their findings take the form of short term predictions that fall flat; at other times they deal in historical falsities. What's more, purveyors of such errors are notorious for not admitting that they were wrong.

Baseball historians are most likely to be plagued by soothsaying sportswriters spinning phony predictions. Examples crop up almost daily in baseball accounts. Thus, early in the 2000 season a New York scribe projected early winning streaks by the Yankees and Braves into a near-record total of 115 victories for each. Later on, a Gotham tout took note of current Yankee fielding lapses to forecast a record error total for the season. And early in May another seer airily awarded the AL wild card to the Red Sox.

Such baseless predictions are quickly debunked by historians. There's a greater threat from scribes who try to explain a present happening as the outcome of a misinterpreted trend. An example of this blunder was a Sports Illustrated writer's assertion that "Scientific evidence irrefutably dates the Big Bang to the 1997 expansion." (SI, July 17, 2000.) Did he ever hear tell of the homer explosion (the original Big Bang) of the 1920s?

An even more wrong-headed example cropped up in Time magazine of April 30, 2000. Penned by Charles Krauthammer and entitled "Requiem for the Summer Game," it asserted that "new" trends of the past twenty years were causing the "imminent death" of major league baseball. The "new" problems included carpetbagging star players and the "emergent" caste system dividing the teams; together these trends supposedly just opened a yawning divide between "have" and "have not" clubs.

Had the author gone beyond such shallow research, he would have learned that his putative new trends were actually quite old. After all, carpetbagging stars had plagued professional baseball ever since 1871; moreover, owners abetted such carpetbaggery by trading, buying, and selling star players.

As for the author's other "new" problem of the haves and have-nots, that trend may well be the oldest tradition in the game's history. Without breaking a sweat a historian can trace this phenomenon back to the 1860s; thereafter, each passing decade demonstrates that a few teams always have captured an inordinate share of glory. More ironic, in erroneously pinpointing the 1980s as the beginning of major league baseball's competitive imbalance, Krauthammer picked the one decade in history when teams came closest to achieving the dream of balance!

Some sportswriters, of course, are able trend-spotters. Indeed, Buster Olney's article, "Hitters vs. Pitchers" (New York Times Magazine, July 9, 2000) is a sparkling elucidation of the ongoing and deep-rooted "cultural war" between these antagonists.

Some Trends to Ponder--For their part, baseball historians should beware of sanctimonious finger pointing. For an antidote to any smugness toward other trend purveyors, we would do well to remember Montaigne's adage that one should never sit so high upon his stool lest he forget that he sitteth upon his own ass!

As a chastened sitter, I am listing a few long term trends with deep roots in major league baseball history. To seasoned historians these might be all too familiar, but they might be interesting to fans and players who want a better appreciation of how some of the game's pressing problems of today came to pass.

#1. The Pitching-Batting Disequilibrium--In the wake of the recent record homer barrages pundits have been urging baseball officials to take action to correct this "new problem." However, the historical record shows that imbalance has been a major problem for baseball at least since the 1870s. Over the decades since then, rules makers have labored to cope, tinkering with such things as pitching distances, ball-strike counts, equipment changes, pitching boxes, pitching mounds, and replacing pitchers as batters, to name only a few. Despite such efforts, imbalance continues. Maybe it is time to accept disequilibrium as the norm and to regard any longterm equilibrium between pitching and batting as a pipe dream.

#2. Players vs. Owners--Like the first trend, this one harks back to the early days of major league baseball. A likely point of origin was the 1876 coup in which club owners overthrew the player controlled National Association and imposed their newly created National League. Ever since, tensions between owners and players have smoldered--and sometimes erupted into fierce struggles like the Brotherhood War of 1890 and the strikes of 1981 and 1994-1995.

#3. Player Militance--If any readers think that the first united action by players against owners came after the players hired Marvin Miller to head the Major League Players Association in 1966, they would be surprised to learn that the player union trend dates back to 1885, when players united against, among other things, the owners' threat to impose salary caps. When the owners rebuffed the demands of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the players formed the Players' League, which came within a hair's breadth of reshaping baseball's structure in 1890.

In 1892 the victorious owners began imposing their salary cap policy on all players of the monopoly National League. In 1900, the Players Protective Association indirectly helped to end both the monopoly League and the salary cap policy by allowing members to join teams of the new American League.

The Baseball Players Fraternity of 1912-1917 died trying to win rights for minor league players, and the American Baseball Guild of 1946 lost its bid to rally players behind a pension rights plan. But the pension issue encouraged major league players to join the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1953. Approved by the owners as a "company union," the MLPA gained limited benefits, but after 1966, under the leadership of Miller, the MLPA became the great countervailing force against the owners.

#4. The Dual Major League Trend--Baseball's grand design of two rival major leagues, each with its own leaders and administrative staffs, united under a National Agreement headed by a Commissioner system, was a sports standard of the twentieth century.

Yet it is rooted in the game's nineteenth century past. Like the version that arose out of interleague war in 1903, the first dual major league agreement settled an interleague war between the National League and the interloping American Association. This shaky union began in 1883 to curb the expenses of interleague war, but ended in 1892 when the NL monopolized the major league game until 1901, when the interloping American League asserted major league status. By 1903, what came to be called the Senior and Junior circuits established the detente that allowed them both to prosper while retaining their rivalry.

As the twenty-first century unfolds, the dual major league trend is giving way to a greater unity. The resulting blurring of the identities of the two leagues, like interleague play, a single umpire staff, and the realignment of teams, is bewildering to older fans. But the seeming loss of identities is counterbalanced by prospects of profitable efficiencies.

#5. The Weak Central Government Trend--Whether dominated by single or dual leagues, major league baseball's 130-year history shows a general trend of weak incumbents in leadership positions. Indeed, we can count only two strong presidents of major leagues, William Hulbert of the National and Byron "Ban" Johnson of the American. The true founder of the National League, Hulbert wielded dictatorial power, even ousting Philadelphia and New York clubs in 1877. But when he died in 1882, owners ousted his forceful successor after two years and named compliant presidents ever after. Likewise in the American League, Johnson was a forceful leader in the struggle for his league's recognition, then became the most influential member of the National Commission that presided over major league baseball. No successor has matched his influence.

And so it was with the High Commissioners. Elected to preside over baseball in 1920, Judge K. M. Landis pontificated much, but by the end of his first seven-year term the owners reasserted their power. And despite a few stirrings by the likes of Commissioners Chandler and Vincent, all succeeding Commissioners were beholden to their owner employers.

Baseball's decision-making power has always resided with owners acting individually or through cabals. The "iron law of oligarchy" applies to baseball as to other organizations.

These few trends are among many to be found and tracked in MLB history. Any student of baseball history can research trends and adduce one's own considered interpretations. Such is the promise of the baseball history enterprise. And the only caution to be heeded is that one remembers Montaigne's advice to high-stool sitters!

A veteran baseball historian, David Q. Voigt is currently working on Volume IV of his American Baseball series.
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Author:Voigt, David Q.
Publication:The Baseball Research Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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