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Author Topic: Were they really that great?
DemonWolf
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I was having a discussion about how todays athletes don't seem to be as great as the once were, and I thought of something. Over the years, science has improved training and diet regimins for most of today's athletes. Most of the old-time greats (Ruth, Williams, DiMaggio) rarely trained.
Could it be that today's athletes really are better, but are more evenly matched? Could it be that the "old-time greats" were actually not that great, but that their contemporaries sucked?
I can't play baseball worth a damn, but If I find a crappy enough pitcher, I could bat 1.000! Maybe they were big fish in a small pond, their skills making them seem so much better, while today's athletes, while being better trained, fasster, and stronger, are up again more opponents who have the same training, streignth and spped, giving them poorer stats than the old-timers.

What say you?

Demon "blasphemer" Wolf

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Jay Tea
The "Was on Sale" Song


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They were great, no doubt about it, to achieve despite the lack of technology and resources, to rise above with natural talent/prowess/strength.

It's one of the oldest pub arguments concerning sport - for example would the great Manchester United side of the 1960's be able to compete against the side from the 90's?

The answer is the 60s side would get played off the park physically - strength, speed and stamina have all increased dramatically from the days when the players would drop their fag butts into their cans of beer before running out to kick off.

Skill-wise there would be an even battle, perhaps even leaning towards the 60s side. Talent is as talent does, it's just these days careers last longer and training is more advanced, bringing the obvious advantages...

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When I see old videos of Pelé playing, I always ask "Why nobody is marking him?" the way the defender play nowadays is marking much closer than then, If we could put the 1970 Pelé with the 2005 Kaká or Ronaldinho to play together, I think Kaká and Ronaldinho would prove to be better, but history will remember Pelé as the best player.
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Jay Tea
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Also Pele never proved himself at the highest level of club football - which your aforementioned Brazilians are doing right now...

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steve s
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quote:
Originally posted by DemonWolf:
Could it be that today's athletes really are better, but are more evenly matched? Could it be that the "old-time greats" were actually not that great, but that their contemporaries sucked?

Demon "blasphemer" Wolf

About 20 years ago, Stephen Jay Gould wrote an article (for Discover magazine, if I'm not mistaken) in which he argued that today's average player is much better than the average player of yesteryear. Thus it was much easier back then for a really good player to rise above the crowd and become a "great" player.

Steve S.

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Johnny Slick
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quote:
Originally posted by DemonWolf:
[QB] I was having a discussion about how todays athletes don't seem to be as great as the once were, and I thought of something. Over the years, science has improved training and diet regimins for most of today's athletes. Most of the old-time greats (Ruth, Williams, DiMaggio) rarely trained.

I don't disagree with this, but I have heard people overstate this case. Many players did actually train back in the day. Ted Williams I believe had a whole host of things he did. Honus Wagner (a turn-of-the-century shortstop) lifted weights religiously. A couple of pictures of Ted Kluszewski will convince you that he worked out pretty hard, too.

quote:
Could it be that today's athletes really are better, but are more evenly matched? Could it be that the "old-time greats" were actually not that great, but that their contemporaries sucked?
That's essentially what Gould said (although I wouldn't go so far as to say he didn't think Ty Cobb et al were "not that great") in the article that steve s cited (which can be found in one of his essay collections). He uses pitcher's batting average, which has declined since the game began, as partial proof of this. The theory there is that, as the game has gone on, the skills of pitching and hitting, which are not related, have become so hard to master in their own right that nobody is asked to do both anymore. There hasn't been a pitcher in baseball cut in the last 60 years at least for an inability to hit. And as the game gets tougher and tougher to play, the worse a guy without a lot of training and talent is going to be when he goes up to bat.

quote:
I can't play baseball worth a damn, but If I find a crappy enough pitcher, I could bat 1.000!
Tangentially related... but one interesting thing you learn from reading about old-time baseball is that some pitchers were so much better than their competition that they could actually coast through a few innings, not throwing the ball as hard or, probably, tossing as many breaking pitches, where they were ahead without giving up the farm. Deadball era hurler Christy Mathewson actually chastised younger pitchers for not doing this in his book Pitching In A Pinch. His point was that you could never complete a whole season (back in those days, pitchers were expected to play the whole game) if you didn't take a few innings off every now and then.

quote:
Maybe they were big fish in a small pond, their skills making them seem so much better, while today's athletes, while being better trained, fasster, and stronger, are up again more opponents who have the same training, streignth and spped, giving them poorer stats than the old-timers.
There's also that argument that, if you adjust for the shoes they wore and the tracks they ran on, guys like Jesse Owens ran right about as fast as today's sprinters. My sense is that the game of baseball has evolved tremendously in the past 100 years. Note that the word evolution implies change, not growth. I do think that the game is played at a higher level now, but that is less pervasive and less interesting than the massive changes that have happened to the game even since the 1950s.

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firebraun
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It's steroids that make todays sports superstars great. Well, them and other "performance enhancers."

If Roger Maris had been using steroids, he wouldn't have hit the famous "61* home runs in '61," he'd have hit a hundred. The record books don't mean squat anymore. It's just not a fair comparison. These guys nowadays aren't "playing by the same rules" that they were back in the good ol' days...

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Pogue Ma-humbug
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quote:
Originally posted by DemonWolf:
I was having a discussion about how todays athletes don't seem to be as great as the once were, and I thought of something. Over the years, science has improved training and diet regimins for most of today's athletes. Most of the old-time greats (Ruth, Williams, DiMaggio) rarely trained.

As a whole, I would agree that today's athlete knows far more about training, diet and exercise. But I would disagree that great players of the past rarely trained: Williams and DiMaggio were both known for keeping in shape. Ruth, also, was in good shape for most of his career -- the overweight, bloated Babe we often hear about was the Babe of the late 1920s and early 30s, not the Babe of the teens and 20s.

Also, note that until the 1970s or so, players worked at regular jobs in the off-season -- many of them blue-collar, physically demanding jobs.

quote:
Could it be that today's athletes really are better, but are more evenly matched? Could it be that the "old-time greats" were actually not that great, but that their contemporaries sucked?
Well, in baseball at least, consider that until the 1950s, the talent pool was limited to white guys from the United States. Now, in addition to black athletes, and athletes from the Caribbean, baseball draws on a talent pool that includes all the great players in Japan, China and worldwide.

Pogue

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Johnny Slick
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quote:
Originally posted by firebraun:
It's steroids that make todays sports superstars great. Well, them and other "performance enhancers."

If Roger Maris had been using steroids, he wouldn't have hit the famous "61* home runs in '61," he'd have hit a hundred. The record books don't mean squat anymore. It's just not a fair comparison. These guys nowadays aren't "playing by the same rules" that they were back in the good ol' days...

Yes, because it's not like people were using performance enhancers in the 1960s. [Roll Eyes] Have you read "Ball Four"? 8 years after Maris, "greenies" (amphetamines) were all over the place. If you ask me, amphetamines provide a quicker and clearer advantage than steroids. Not that I'm condoning steroid use... it's just that performance enhancers are hardly a new thing.

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bruce in france
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One need only look at the recent comeback attempt by Martina Hingis to see how fast some sports evolve.
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Pogue Ma-humbug
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quote:
Originally posted by Johnny Slick:
Have you read "Ball Four"? 8 years after Maris, "greenies" (amphetamines) were all over the place. If you ask me, amphetamines provide a quicker and clearer advantage than steroids.

See Pete Rose. He wasn't called "Charlie Hustle" for nothing.

Pogue

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Johnny Slick
Angels Wii Have Heard on High


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Pogue, I thought all you journalist types were supposed to love and idolize Pete Rose. He ran to first base! He played every game as if it were his last! Whatever that means! He ran to first base!!!! [Wink]

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Pogue Ma-humbug
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quote:
Originally posted by Johnny Slick:
Pogue, I thought all you journalist types were supposed to love and idolize Pete Rose. He ran to first base! He played every game as if it were his last! Whatever that means! He ran to first base!!!! [Wink]

And Bud Harrelson kicked his ass!!!

Pogue

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Echinodermata Q. Taft
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I always figure you have to consider an athlete to some degree in the context of his era. My usual example is my own sports idol when I was growing up, Wilt Chamberlain. I don't think anyone else has ever dominated the sport of basketball the way he did in his prime (I mean, a season where he averaged over 50 points a game?). But the game has changed a lot since then. Put the mid-1960's Wilt on the court today, and he might be outclassed. But: If he had been born in 1980 or therabouts, so that he was just coming into his prime now, and had the same advantages of training and equipment as other contemporary players, and the same level of competition to learn against, who knows how great he might be?

So I think to some degree you have to give players credit for standing out in their own eras; there's just no fair way to compare them in between.

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Mr. Furious
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quote:
Originally posted by Johnny Slick:
If you ask me, amphetamines provide a quicker and clearer advantage than steroids.

I have to agree with you on that count. The advantages a baseball player gets with steroids are somewhat more subtle than the ones that amphetamines provide.

As many steroid apologists are quick to point out, steroids don't help your hand/eye coordination. I could take more steroids than Lyle Alzado and I'd still strike out on three pitches against any pitcher in the Major Leagues.

However, if you take a guy like Barry Bonds, who has a preternatural ability to hit the ball, and add an inordinate amount of strength, you get a guy who hits for the same high average, but with dramatically increased power.

Amphetamines provide a more obvious effect on the field. Because you have energy that you wouldn't otherwise have, you can make that defensive play that you otherwise couldn't. You can go from first to third in a case where you wouldn't have been able to drug-free. Your heightened awareness allows you to see pitches better, and defensively you get better breaks on balls hit in your direction.

I know that it sounds weird given the current climate, but the impact of steroids on a baseball player is somewhat more subtle than the impact of greenies.

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Mr. Furious
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quote:
Originally posted by Echinodermata Q. Taft:
My usual example is my own sports idol when I was growing up, Wilt Chamberlain.

To go in a different direction, how about George Mikan? Mikan was just plain bigger than everybody else, and had some athletic ability to go along with that size, which was very rare in his era.

Put Mikan in today's NBA and he'd be a slow, stiff, white power forward.

Or how about Bill Russell? Before I continue, I should point out that I'm a Celtics fan. [Smile]

Bill Russell was perhaps the most dominant defensive player in NBA history. He invented modern shot-blocking. As Bob Cousy said, before Russ, some big geek would occasionally knock a shot out of bounds, but that was about it. Russell was really the first guy who blocked shots and got his team the ball in doing so. Plus, he was the basketball equivalent of a shutdown corner. He drove Neil Johnston - a great 50s scorer - out of the league. He consistently shut Wilt down when it counted*. He was an ungodly rebounder.

He was also 6'9. Put him in today's NBA and he's Dennis Rodman without the tattoos and insanity. This is a guy who was voted the greatest player in NBA history in 1980.

Of course, he is also a very intelligent man, so it's entirely possible that he would've molded his amazing athletic abilities to the way the game is played today.

I think it's nearly impossible to compare athletes across eras, except in terms of how they dominated their particular era. Put Ty Cobb in the box against Mariano Rivera and he'd soil himself after he saw one cutter. Put Babe Ruth up against Randy Johnson and he'd be off eating hot dogs within 5 minutes. Astronauts would find baseballs on Mars if Barry Bonds hit against Cy Young. That doesn't change the fact that Cobb, Ruth, and Young are three of the greatest players in baseball history.

* What Russell did was to play Wilt tough when the game was still up for grabs, and then back off when the game was out of reach. Wilt would end the game with, say, 35 points and 25 rebounds, and really thought he had a great game, when most of those statistics were accrued when the game was out of reach.

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The Goof
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Jim Thorpe, I doubt there are many athletes today that could do as many different sports as well as he could.

ETA: http://www.cmgww.com/sports/thorpe/thorpe.html

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snopes
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quote:
Put Ty Cobb in the box against Mariano Rivera and he'd soil himself after he saw one cutter. Put Babe Ruth up against Randy Johnson and he'd be off eating hot dogs within 5 minutes. Astronauts would find baseballs on Mars if Barry Bonds hit against Cy Young.
You could also argue that if you put Barry Bonds up against the pitchers of Ty Cobb's time, who could take a ball that was dead to begin with and do practically anything (e.g., cut, scuff, spit on, rub mud all over, coat with tobacco juice) to it, he'd be out of the league in a week.

If Ty Cobb were in his prime today, I don't doubt that he could be a successful major league player, albeit not at the superlative level he achieved in his own era. But it's hard to imagine someone like, say, Willie Stargell or Mo Vaughan competing at even the high minor league level in Ty Cobb's time.

- snopes

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Four Kitties
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Reporter: "Mr. Cobb, how do you think you'd fare against today's pitchers?

Cobb: "I think I'd bat about .300."

Reporter: "But Mr. Cobb, you had a .366 average over a 24-year career. Why would you only go .300 against these guys?"

Cobb: "You've got to remember -- I'm seventy-three."

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STF
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quote:
Originally posted by Mr. Furious:
As many steroid apologists are quick to point out, steroids don't help your hand/eye coordination. I could take more steroids than Lyle Alzado and I'd still strike out on three pitches against any pitcher in the Major Leagues.

However, if you take a guy like Barry Bonds, who has a preternatural ability to hit the ball, and add an inordinate amount of strength, you get a guy who hits for the same high average, but with dramatically increased power.

Not only that, but you have to deal with the idea that these things could be giving guys an advantage when it comes to training and recovery. Chris Dimino from 790 the Zone here in Atlanta is a baseball guy who is very quick to point that out.

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Johnny Slick
Angels Wii Have Heard on High


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quote:
Originally posted by snopes:
quote:
Put Ty Cobb in the box against Mariano Rivera and he'd soil himself after he saw one cutter. Put Babe Ruth up against Randy Johnson and he'd be off eating hot dogs within 5 minutes. Astronauts would find baseballs on Mars if Barry Bonds hit against Cy Young.
You could also argue that if you put Barry Bonds up against the pitchers of Ty Cobb's time, who could take a ball that was dead to begin with and do practically anything (e.g., cut, scuff, spit on, rub mud all over, coat with tobacco juice) to it, he'd be out of the league in a week.

If Ty Cobb were in his prime today, I don't doubt that he could be a successful major league player, albeit not at the superlative level he achieved in his own era. But it's hard to imagine someone like, say, Willie Stargell or Mo Vaughan competing at even the high minor league level in Ty Cobb's time.

That's more of a question of how the game has changed, not how it's gotten better or worse. Actually, the two players you mentioned wouldn't have been able to compete at any level during Cobb's time because they were black, but that's another story altogether. Anyway, the Stargell comparison isn't terribly apt (he had decent speed early in his career; I see no reason why he wouldn't at least have been a Gavvy Cravath type), but the Mo Vaughn one "works" only because teams in the Dead Ball Era didn't prize strong guys who could uppercut the ball.

I think that too much is made of the heavily doctored ball thing during that period as well. Umpires didn't switch out baseballs as often as they do now, but they did switch them out fairly regularly. Towards the end of the era, too, power hitters could slam 20-25 homers a year, and I'd go so far as to say that the reason Ruth was the first guy to hit 50+ was that nobody else had tried to do what he did.

As for Bonds... no way he'd be out of the dead ball era in a week. He recently changed his body type, sure, but before 2000 the guy was basically everything his father was supposed to be - a deadly mixture of power, speed, hitting, plate discipline (well, Dad never had that, but you get the idea) and even fielding (Bonds was pretty much the only left fielder I have ever seen who flat-out deserved a lot of Gold Gloves). Put Barry Bonds in an environment where he can't hit homeruns and he turns into Shoeless Joe Jackson, I have no doubt. Again, with the caveat that his skin color would have meant that he never would have had a look from the majors.

quote:
Jim Thorpe, I doubt there are many athletes today that could do as many different sports as well as he could.
What do you mean? Thorpe was a great track star, a good football player, and a terrible baseball player. That's not terribly far off from Deion Sanders or Michael Bates. Bo Jackson was a FAR better baseball player than Thorpe. As for football... I'd have to say that they aren't even comparable. Thorpe played at a time in football history that's roughly analagous to, jeez, baseball in the 1870s or 1880s. The basic rules of the game were still by and large being hammered out. I think one can make an argument that, given today's rules, a good high school team could beat the 1920s Canton Bulldogs.

Then you've got Danny Ainge and Brian Jordan and a whole host of guys who could have done the multi-sport thing but chose to be truly great at one like Robin Yount, Dave Winfield, Jerome Bettis (well, to the extent that bowling is a sport), and Tom Brunansky...

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Don Gato
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quote:
Originally posted by snopes:
If Ty Cobb were in his prime today, I don't doubt that he could be a successful major league player, albeit not at the superlative level he achieved in his own era. But it's hard to imagine someone like, say, Willie Stargell or Mo Vaughan competing at even the high minor league level in Ty Cobb's time.

- snopes

If Ty Cobb were in his prime today, he'd be kicked out of the league faster than you can say, "John Rocker".

Don Gato

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snopes
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quote:
If Ty Cobb were in his prime today, he'd be kicked out of the league faster than you can say, "John Rocker".
I doubt it. Players are only "kicked out of the league" for betting on baseball, and that same rule was around in Ty Cobb's era.

- snopes

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Johnny Slick
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quote:
Originally posted by snopes:
quote:
If Ty Cobb were in his prime today, he'd be kicked out of the league faster than you can say, "John Rocker".
I doubt it. Players are only "kicked out of the league" for betting on baseball, and that same rule was around in Ty Cobb's era.
Cobb was quietly ushered out of the league in the late 1920s amid rumors that he conspired to throw games. I doubt that baseball would leave it at "amid rumors" nowadays; at the same time, of course, he didn't stick around the league when it looked for a while as if the Detroit Tigers would allow him to manage the team for a couple years. I do have to agree that running into the stands beating up a wheelchair-bound man for calling him a nigger weren't grounds for dismissal then and probably aren't now, either (actually, that's not far off from an incident involving Cesar Cedeno in the late 1970s). That's about as bad as Ty Cobb got IIRC. Mind you, he wasn't a nice guy, but if they kicked you out for being an a-hole the league would not have known Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams, Dick Allen, or Albert Belle either.

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snopes
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quote:
Cobb was quietly ushered out of the league in the late 1920s amid rumors that he conspired to throw games. I doubt that baseball would leave it at "amid rumors" nowadays; at the same time, of course, he didn't stick around the league when it looked for a while as if the Detroit Tigers would allow him to manage the team for a couple years.
No, Cobb was never "ushered out of the league," quietly or otherwise, and he had already been manager of the Detroit Tigers for several years when the "rumors" first surfaced.

During the 1926 season, one player (Dutch Leonard) who was nursing a grudge against both Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker claimed that the two men had participated in a scheme to throw and/or bet on a Detroit-Cleveland game in the latter days of the 1919 season. Neither the league nor the commissioner's office ever took any official action on the rumors.

Cobb, who had been managing the Tigers for the last six years, resigned at the end of the 1926 season (the Tigers' owner had long since decided to replace him anyway), but he remained in the league as a player (with the Philadelphia A's) for another two full years, even though he was over 40 years old. He finally left the major leagues for good only when his physical condition no longer allowed him to perform as a regular player.

- snopes

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