A Trip Back in Baseball Time

This is a little thought experiment: How would an MLB player do if he was transported back to the 1870s or 1880s and told to suit up for the local pro baseball team? How would an MLB manager/coach do, handling that team’s players? How would a reporter/columnist do if dispatched to one of the local papers to cover that team? How would a sabermetrician do if asked to analyze that team? Which would be the harder adjustment from 2013 to those years: the physical one, to a different kind of game played by a different type of player (I don’t mean racially different so much as athletically different), or the mental one, to a different culture with unfamiliar technologies and a very different way of living?

The point I’m making here is to wonder whether the physical circumstances of baseball have changed more in the last 130-odd years-that is, the rules of the game and the physical abilities of the players; or do the cultural and technological changes surrounding baseball in that time exceed the physical changes? Common wisdom has it that athletes today are in much better condition than athletes of the long-ago past, and I suppose that’s true. But if you took Miguel Cabrera back to 1885 and deprived him of his air travel, his millions of dollars, his entourage and most of the attention he gets, and the other trappings of being a modern MLB star, how would he respond?

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Published in: on August 8, 2013 at 9:39 am  Comments (2)  

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  1. I’m not sure you could get past the racial / cultural element, for one thing. A Latin-American player, not to mention an African-American player, would have more than a little difficulty “adjusting” to the 19th-century. As far as white players, I’d say that an old-timer entering today’s world might have a more difficult time adjusting than a modern player going back in time (however difficult that would probably be.) For one thing, a modern player would have a greater idea of what to expect, since recorded history informs us how things were different a hundred or so years ago. On the other hand, a player from the 19th century being plopped down in the 21st century would have no way to prepare for those enormous cultural and technological differences. They’d probably freak out in a New York minute.
    As much as the Game itself has changed, those changes are dwarfed by the social / cultural changes that have occurred over the past century or so.
    Interesting topic,
    Bill

  2. That is an interesting question. There’d be a great deal of culture shock no matter what race the player was…things were a lot different back then.

    Having said that, once the player adapted to both the different lifestyle (and he would) and the different rules of the day, he would absolutely feast on 19th Century pitchers or hitters. Any sport than can be accurately measured against past performances has shown the people playing it are far more athletic than their precedessors.

    Carter Capps of the Mariners is no better than mediocre at this point, but can anyone imagine him throwing that 100 mph heater from 45 feet away to hitters with far less athleticism than the average MLB player today? If he held up physically, he’d be right there with Cy Young as one of the all-time greats.

    As well, even a poor modern MLB hitter like Brendan Ryan would hit over .300 with power against pitchers who were slower, unable to throw the kind of breaking pitches common today and (for a good while) had to throw the ball where the batter wanted it.

    As Bill says, the cultural changes would be the most daunting thing a modern player transported back in timwe would have to face. But between the lines? It’d still be 90 feet between bases, there’d still be nine innings per game and it’d still be three strikes and you’re out. The game itself hasn’t changed THAT much that a Capps or Ryan couldn’t make the adjustment.


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