Several weeks ago, I said in one of these Sunday pieces that for a sport that held the reputation of remaining the same through the years, baseball might be the most changed game played with a ball. That prompted a few readers who enjoy putting their friends on the spot to ask, "OK, so the game is changed. But, is it better today, or not?"
A tough, many-sided question, one that probably doesn't have a definitive answer. That much said, I'll give one anyway. No, it is not being played better today. The feeling here is that the caliber of play isn't as good as it was, say, 30 years ago.
And, I say that while fully admitting that athletes of today are bigger, stronger, faster. Times and records substantiate that fact in most other sports, so why should baseball be an exception? There is no question that there are great players today who would have been great in any era. There are also good players who would have been good any time. And they keep themselves in better condition in the off-season, although those of bygone eras would have, too, if the money had been enough so they didn't have to work other jobs in the winter to make a living.
The equipment also is improved. Uniforms are lighter, providing more freedom. Shoes are lighter and better made. Gloves are much bigger, with better design. Fields probably are in better condition.
OK, if all that is true, why isn't the game itself better? I just don't think there is as much depth of quality players. Almost every team has four or five players who would never have gotten to the major leagues 30 or 40 years ago. You see many who jump to the majors now who aren't ready, who haven't been in the minors long enough to learn their trade. They have more natural ability than those on the major-league roster, so they are rushed before they are ready, and must be taught the finer points of the game while at the major-league level.
I recall Hank Bauer once saying that after two years in the minors, and four in service during World War II, he came back to hit .313 in Class AAA, with 16 home runs and 79 RBI. Here was a guy with speed, power, defense and hustle. He could do it all.
He wasn't even invited to spring training. The New York Yankees told him, "Go back and have a good year next year, and we'll bring you to training camp the following season." He did, and finally made it with the Yankees at the age of 27, eight years after being signed.
Rex Barney, Orioles public address announcer, and a former Brooklyn pitcher now in the Dodgers Hall of Fame, said the other day, "The established guys didn't even like you then if they thought you hadn't paid your dues. Because I could throw hard, I didn't spend much time in the minors. When I came up, I took the spot on the roster of Curt Davis, a veteran. Some of the older guys resented it, and let me know it, until I had proved myself."
There are a lot of reasons depth isn't as good today. No. 1, there were only 16 major-league teams then, instead of 26, with many more players available to stock them. In 1949 and 1950, when the minors were at their peak, there were 59 minor leagues, with as many as 452 teams. Today, there are 17 leagues, with 170 teams.
Colleges, with their expanded schedules, make up some of the difference, but you can't expect to man 10 more teams with that much difference in numbers and keep quality the same.
Some organizations, such as the Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals and Yankees, once had three Class AAA teams at the same time and, as Barney recalled, "The Dodgers had 26 farm teams when ......TC was with them. There would be 500 players at Vero Beach [Fla.] for spring training."
When baseball expands again by two teams, the quality of play will be further reduced, especially the pitching. In 1961, an expansion year, Jim Gentile hit .302, with 46 home runs and 141 RBI for the Orioles, and didn't win an individual league championship, because Roger Maris hit 61 home runs and Mickey Mantle 54, with Maris also knocking in 142 runs. Look for the outstanding players to set some records after the next expansion.
Why are there fewer minor-league teams and players today? For one thing, the televising of major-league games has reduced the demand for lower minors. Also, other sports have taken a toll. It used to be that all the best athletes went into baseball, because that was where the money and prestige was. Now, as much and in some cases more can be made in football, basketball, tennis, golf, boxing, etc.
Getting back to the original question, no, I don't think the overall quality of play is as good today as it used to be, but the game itself is more popular than ever. As long as there is good competition, with interesting races, and some individual standouts to watch, fans aren't too concerned with caliber of play, because baseball is still such a great game.
All of which is just one man's opinion, and doesn't have to be right.