What in baseball’s history can we look at and say, “that changed everything”? It’s an important question as Miller and I look at pioneers and executives. In many cases, they are the people who brought about those changes. Not always, but more often than you’d think. Baseball isn’t just a game played on the field; it’s a whole sport. Let’s take a stroll through history to identify those most important moments.
1869: The first overtly professional baseball club, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, barnstorm the country ripping off victory after victory. It’s a huge moment for a game that was hidebound by a tradition of amateur play (though the reality hardly matched the ideal). The Reds lasted just two years, but their success on the field spurred other teams to form and join together into the first pro league, the National Association.
A League…Not an Association
1876: The National Association was too loosely confederated to sustain profitability. It lacked central authority to schedule games, let alone enforce the rules. Bringing a central league structure to professional baseball created conditions where the game could thrive. Team owners could be recruited or vetted to see whether they were sufficiently capitalized and committed enough to run a ballclub and not dump and run like many NA teams had done. Even simple things such as a predictable schedule allowed for greater marketing opportunities, which helped fuel growth. Without an effective central structure, baseball would have collapsed in on itself.
1893: Moving the mound back to its current 60 feet six inches drastically changed the pitcher-hitter dynamic. What was a pitching- and baserunning-dominated game suddenly became a hitter’s game. Scoring went up by 50% practically overnight. But ultimately the 60’6” distance has weathered every trend in the game as it appears to allow the game to swing back and forth between pitcher’s eras and hitter’s eras as each adjusts to innovations of the other.
The American League
1901: The AL began play in 1901, and because its central leader was strong-willed and cunning, it didn’t merely hang around for a few years like the defunct American Association did in the 1880s. Instead the AL flourished, ultimately buoying the NL as well by creating the conditions for a true championship series, by eventually allowing for an All-Star game, and by giving fans of one league or the other someone to root for or against. Most important, it proved that baseball could expand carefully and effectively—something it would need to do again in sixty years.
Pretty Much Everything
1920: If you had to pick one year or a brief pocket of years where the whole baseball world turned upside down, it’s 1920 or the first half of the 1920s. Most obviously, Babe Ruth revolutionized baseball and increased the game’s drawing power by swinging for the fences. In light of Ray Chapman’s tragic hit-by-pitched-ball death, the spitball was eliminated and baseballs were replaced more frequently during games. The combination ended “scientific” or “inside” baseball as the game’s dominant mode, and today we still basically play the game that Ruth built. Meanwhile, in light of the Black Sox scandal, the owners created the role of Commissioner to provide stronger central governance. Commissioner 1.0 Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis threw out the baseball bums in the wake of the Black Sox scandal, cleansing the league of its seamy gambling underside. Branch Rickey bought his first minor league team in 1924 en route to creating the modern farm system. Even at the equipment level, the first webbed gloves were patented, ushering in a dramatic change in how teams aligned their defenses. Second basemen and third basemen began a process of switching places on the defensive spectrum as webbed gloves supported more double plays. That’s a lot of changes in a very, very short period of time.
1947: We all know that baseball’s integration relieved an awful social injustice. On the field, however, integration made baseball a superior product, immediately. In the first decade after integration, MLB teams introduced not only Jackie Robinson but Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, and a host of other star players. And the teams that integrated the fastest won the mostest (exception: Yankees). The game on the field benefited tremendously, and we know this because the NL integrated much faster than the AL, allowing it to dominate the junior circuit in All-Star games for about thirty years. (Back when those games were actually contested, mind you.) Of course, that’s not the end of it. Since that time, players of every shade have entered the game. Baseball’s talent search ripples out across the Caribbean, East Asia, and even Australia. “But Australia is full of white people,” you might say. Sure, but the process of fully opening talent markets that had been mostly closed due to the color of residents’ skin has made places like Australia more attractive both in the logistics of setting up new operations and in terms of understanding the benefits of doing so.
1965: All the draft changed about talent procurement was everything. As many have pointed out, the draft is socialist in nature. It gives the worst teams more support than the top teams. That’s probably as it should be, if baseball wants to survive. Some measure of parity is good for the game, whereas Yankees/Dodgers every October would get old, fast. Like in the 1950s. Thanks to the draft, the deep-pocket teams don’t scarf up all the best talent by ladling cash on them. See, the thing is that back in the old days, scouts would keep their favorite prospects secret, sign them quietly. After all they had to both assess the talent and outhustle other teams’ scouts. That’s cool, but in the modern world, with an internet and daily prospects coverage, there’s no such thing as secret anymore. Secrets are gone. But hustle is still rewarded. The draft gives the smaller-market teams access to top talent more often while also rewarding teams for scouting prospects more often (especially in the mid and lower rounds of the draft).
1976: Your granddad can probably remember the time before free agency. He’ll probably also grumble about how much players are making and how they aren’t loyal anymore. Well, gramps, players were never loyal, they were trapped. Free agency gave them some opportunity to change employers like we all can outside the sports world. The ending of another social-justice issue is a goodness, but the effect on the game is tremendous. Free agency’s most obvious benefit: your favorite team can acquire helpful or even great veteran players on a yearly basis. Retooling can accelerate quickly. But there are interesting downstream benefits. Teardown teams can deal soon to be free agents for prospects that accelerate their process. The trade deadline is a hot event that fans enjoy following. The Hot Stove League takes on additional interest with more happening and more speculation to make. All this helps grow interest in the game and keep things fresh for fans. Finally, the increased salary that comes with free agency attracts top athletes when baseball competes for their time and commitment.
2000: I could have labeled this earlier, but somehow the game didn’t really catch on until the early 2000s. Consider that in December of 2002, David Ortiz was released by the Twins. It’s easy to imagine Ortiz going the way of Roy Cullenbine whose walks-and-power game was underappreciated in the 1940s and led to his early exit from the game. But in the 2000s, there were organizations like the Twins who weren’t hip to analytics, and there were organizations like the Red Sox who embraced them. As a result: Big Papi. The Red Sox have won three World Series since. The Cardinals embraced analysis in combination with scouting and have visited the Fall Classic several times. The dominoes fell quickly. The hapless Pirates turned the entire franchise around when they started to incorporate data-driven decision making. Nearly fifteen years later, the notion that a team would operate without a strong analytics department is laughable. In fact, many observers laughed at Ruben Amaro, Jr. for his lack of analytical thinking. Now he’s gone. Even those Twins have an analytics department these days and so do the Giants who for a while there appeared to be old-school holdouts. As a result, we see changes. Things like shifting are the most obvious effects, but things as subtle as the rethinking of the value of defense-first players are possible because of analytics. Who knows what innovation will come next?
So as we roll out our pioneers/executives, you’ll see a lot of these big moments reflected. Not all, but most, as well as a number of other important innovations or successes along the way. But it’s good to be reminded of the big game-changing stuff.