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A common theme in baseball commentary is how big and strong and fast and generally awesome the modern day baseball player is versus his predecessors. This was a common topic in the 1950's when I first started following baseball -- and is even more pervasive and exaggerated now. The huge media expenditures and costly tickets probably have a lot to do with it, because if the players now are only as good as the old-timers, what's the big deal? There would go the hype...
It's almost like the guys from, say, the 1920's were a bunch of relative weaklings with very limited talent -- except for a few giants like Babe Ruth.
To some degree, this perception superficially seems to be supported by statistical information. But this support is almost totally invalid.
Granted, the players were physically smaller in, say, 1925. Part of this was because the Deadball era, which put a premium on speed/coordination/agility, had just ended five years previously. Part of this was that people were smaller in general because of nutritional factors.
On the other hand, the case could be made that young men in the 1920's were much more rugged and likely to be involved in physically demanding manual labor (lack of labor-saving devices, smaller white collar class) and probably were just as strong or stronger on average. Also, the day-to-day playing of baseball was far more universal in the 1920's than it is today, where so many other sports and activities (including watching hundreds of HD TV channels, many of them with sports programming) compete for the time once spent actually playing the "National Pastime". And baseball may have been a more attractive career path then compared to now, with limited white collar opportunities in the 1920's for many and few if any sports effectively competing with baseball for athletes.
Most importantly, the home run "numbers" of the 1920's cannot be compared to todays' "numbers" since there was a huge variance from ballpark to ballpark in the ease of hitting homers -- and some of the parks had gargantuan dimensions that would be unconscionable in this age of "arena baseball". There were a number of parks in both leagues where home run hitting was so difficult that it would be illogical for players to even try to knock one out. For example, 15 homers (both sides) were hit in Cincinnati home games in 1925 and 29 in Boston (N.L.) in 1925 -- compared to say 146 in Philadelphia's Baker Bowl. Counting both home and away games, 26 of the 85 homers that the Reds and Braves hit were of the inside-the-park variety.
In the A.L., there were 26 homers hit in Washington (the A.L. champs) and 38 in Boston -- compared to say 146 in St.Louis' Sportsman Park.
Why this discrepancy? Well, for example, it was 424' down the LF line in Washington's Griffith Stadium in 1925, while only 328' to RF -- but with a 30' concrete wall!! Boston's Fenway Park was configured a bit differently in 1925 as well -- 321' down the LF line, but 550' to CF!! In Cincinnati's Redland Field (later renamed Crosley Field), it was 384' down the RF line and 420' to CF. Braves' Field featured a "friendly" 402' distance down the LF line, over 500' to CF, and 365' down the RF line!! And the Dodgers' Ebbets Field was not the bandbox of the 1950's, with a 419' LF foul line in 1925!
Back in those days, the occasional overflow crowd would fill these deep outfield pastures.
St. Louis' Sportsmans' Park is a very interesting "laboratory", the one configured most like the new breed of modern day "retro" ballparks. The LF foul line distance was a formidable but still reachable 356' feet, dead CF was 430', and the RF line was a mere 315'. Twelve-foot walls were found all around from LF foul pole to RF foul pole. Averaging the two foul lines, we have a 336' distance and a CF where home runs, while not frequent, were possible.
Sportsmans' Park is also statistically interesting since two teams played there until the 1950's -- the Cardinals and the Browns -- thereby any information from this stadium is more stable and applies to both leagues.
In 1925, there were 107 N.L. homers and 146 A.L. homers hit in Sportsmans', for an average of 127 -- a modern-looking albeit somewhat modest production, befitting the spacious LF and CF distances. Although the Browns' and Cards' HR production was further stifled by playing in road parks where homers might be impossible to attain, the Browns had a modern-looking six of their 8 starters hitting 10+ homers:
1B George Sisler 12HR/105RBI (20HR?)
2B Marty McManus 13HR/90RBI (16HR?)
3B Gene Robertson 14HR/76RBI (22HR?)
LF Harry Rice 11HR/47RBI in 354 at bats (16HR?)
CF Baby Doll Jacobson 15HR/76RBI (14HR?)
RF Ken Williams 25HR/105RBI in just 102 games (34HR?)
Also, part -time C Pinky Hargrave had 8HR/43RBI (12HR?) in just 67 games.
The St. Louis Cardinals featured four players with double-digit HR power:
1B Jim Bottomley 21HR/128RBI (32HR?)
2B Rogers Hornsby 39HR/143RBI (48HR?)
3B Les Bell 11HR/88RBI (8HR?)
RF Ray Blades 12HR/57RBI in 122 games (14HR?)
Another Cardinal OF, Ralph Shinners, had 7HR/36RBI in 251 at bats (8HR?).
Again, modest, but modern-enough looking. Also take a look at the home run estimates in parentheses that were calculated by just doubling the player's HRs in Sportsmans' park -- thereby eliminating the effect of the gargantuan dimensions of some of the non-modern-configuration road ballparks.
So, to repeat, we have an average of 127 homers hit in Sportsmans' Park by the two teams and their opponents in 1925. Let's fast forward now to 1966, the last year this stadium was in use, albeit renamed Busch Stadium, and only used by the Cards. The park dimensions were nearly identical, except that a) the walls were about 5' closer, i.e. easier to reach, than in 1925 from LF to CF to RF and b) the RF to RCF wall (out to the 354' mark) was 37' high rather than 12' high.
In this final 1966 season at the old park, the Cardinals and their opponents hit 112 homers (the Browns having moved to Baltimore in the 1950's) compared to the average of 127 in 1925. Given the RF screen (partly offset by the closer fences all around) let's just say -- no change from 1925 to 1966. No evidence in this data of the 1966 players being stronger, more powerful than the 1925 ones.
But maybe the Cards and Browns of 1925 were exceptionally hard-hitting squads, ahead of their time? The evidence clearly says no, as the number of away homers hit by the Cardinals (88) and Browns (63) in 1925 were unexceptional, average for the year.
(A case could also be made that in general a "home run swing" would be a bad habit in 1925 given all of the cavernous ballparks, deterring players from falling into this modern-day habit, and further depressing home run totals in the 1920's.)
The multi-purpose stadium that the Cardinals moved to in 1967 (also called Busch Stadium) was, like most other stadiums of its type, not particularly slugger-friendly because of deeper power alleys, in spite of foul line and CF dimensions that seem reasonable. Thus the number of homers hit at the new Busch Stadium was typically far below what was seen in Sportsmans' Park in 1925 (usually less than 100 homers per season) -- until, after a particularly anemic 1991 season, the team decided to move the fences in significantly.
In 1991, only 73 homers were hit in Busch Stadium (compared to 127 two-team average in 1925), and the Cards as a team hit only 68 home and away, with only Todd Zeile (11HR in 155 games) reaching double figures in circuit shots.
Today's players are bigger, faster, stronger?? Bigger, definitely. Faster... that's separate research. Stronger? Where's the real evidence?
Of course, the culmination of the recent power frenzy was Mark McGwire's 70 homers as a Cardinal in 1998. In fact, as many Cards that year had double-figures in homers in 1998 as on the Cards and Browns in 1925 -- five:
1B McGwire 70HR/147RBI
3B Gary Gaetti 11HR/43RBI in 308 at bats
LF Brian Jordan 25HR/91RBI
CF Ray Lankford 31HR/105RBI
RF Ron Gant 26HR/67RBI in 383 at bats
For three of the five players, these home run totals were career high levels, never surpassed before or after.
With mid-1990's to current home run statistics distorted by the new ultra-bandbox ballparks (e.g., Citizen's Bank), moved-in fences (U.S. Cellular the most egregious example), and complicated by questions about the possible widespread use of performance-enhancing chemicals, I am betting that a time machine shipment of 1925 ballplayers to modern baseball would include plenty of hard-hitting modern-day-type home run sluggers!!