David Justice has no idea what he's talking about
Another one infected by post-modern b.s.
Baseball history tells the story of America growing up from a dispersed and rural country to a modern, industrialized collection of powerful cities.
And just like they have done with American history, socialists have attempted to rewrite baseball history - or simply ignore it when inconvenient - to dissuade Americans from support for individualism and unhampered markets.
I stumbled across this tweeted interview of David Justice, a formerly fine outfielder for the Atlanta Braves 1990’s dynasty and now it looks he’s a hitting coach (I don’t really follow MLB anymore). In it, he starts by extolling the virtues of Japanese born two-way player Shohei Otani, but then is egged into a frivolous comparison of Otani versus Babe Ruth, as each of them were “two-way players.”
What comes next is instructive for freedom lovers in its totally common but utterly complete lack of understanding of both economics and racism in pre-World War II America.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way immediately. Literally every major league player today is far, far more skilled (i.e. better) than everyone who played 100 years ago. This isn’t some revolutionary insight. Bill James worked out a statistical representation of this phenomenon in his early Baseball Abstracts, whereby new players entering the game every year (except odd occurrences like war years and expansion) raised the level of competition more than the players who retired. He once wrote that the great Honus Wagner would be a light hitting, mediocre fielding shortstop if he were transported to the modern age, and I think he was being generous. The game gets tougher nearly every single year.
But, who cares? In 100 years, is someone going to be arguing that Shohei Otani couldn’t play in 2121? Of course, because the players will continue to get more skilled.
The interesting point in historical comparisons is by what amount did a player dominate his peers. This can be measured in many ways, but standard deviations from the normal distribution are superior. Babe Ruth was the most dominant player over his peers in any American sport. Everything else is nonsensical garbage for talk radio.
Did the Babe beat a bunch of farmers?
I don’t know what the heck Justice is talking about here. But I assume he’s under the spell of socialists that like to claim early American baseball players weren’t paid a “living wage.” This is a lie. The idea that Babe Ruth had to play a bunch of destitute men that farmed in the offseason and moonlighted as ballplayers is ridiculous and easily disprovable.
As early as the 1880’s, the major leagues could pay premium players insanely high salaries. Mike “King” Kelly signed a contract for $10,000 in 1886. 1886!!! That’s 500 ounces of gold (the US was on a gold standard in 1886 and $20 was convertible to an ounce of gold), or ~$907,000 in today’s gold prices.
Baseball players worked in the offseason because there were few leisure options and it was expected culturally. By the 1920’s, there were hardly any major league players that needed to work outside of baseball season, though nearly all of them did. It takes some understanding of history, which most people completely lack, to grok this. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, there was no Internet, no TV, barely any cars, no radio, no video games, no fancy maskless birthday bashes for worshipped former Presidents, I could go on and on. There were not as many leisure options.
More importantly, sitting around on your duff wasn’t seen as a heroic move yet. It took 60 years of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Covid panic to make that happen. Just a half century earlier than Babe Ruth, at the end of the Civil War, everyone had to work - including the children - or the family starved to death. The culture of the American work ethic did not immediately dissipate with the ushering in of prosperity from the Industrial Revolution. You were still expected to work all year long in the 1920’s, even if you didn’t have to.
By the start of the 20th century, nearly all professional baseball players made more during the baseball season than the average family earned in income for the entire year. The idea that players weren’t making a “living wage” is a complete fiction invented by socialists. If baseball players weren’t making a living wage, then hardly anyone was. The reason socialists get confused by this is because they can’t grok that true wealth comes from what a person can purchase in the satisfaction of wants with their available funds. It doesn’t really matter what the amount of funds is if there is little to buy. In the early 20th century, very little goods had been produced to satisfy wants when compared with the modern day. This meant that even baseball players making several times the average yearly family income had simpler lives than people today.
The salaries of most major league players is on their player page at Baseball-Reference. We can look them up. Here are the yearly salaries of Earle Combs, Babe Ruth’s teammate for many years. Combs was a fine centerfielder during the Yankees’ Murderer’s Row dynasty. But he was by no means a star compared to Ruth or Gehrig.
In 1930 alone, Combs earned more than four times the average yearly family income, which was between $2,500 - $3,000 depending how you calculate it, for half a year’s work.
It wasn’t just the top players either. Yankees fifth starter George Pipgras took home a salary of $12,000 in each year from 1929-1931. Pipgras was a classic fringe starter, whose league average numbers (100 ERA+ during that time) were masked by having a quality team inflating his win total.
And it’s not just the Yankees. The small market and perennial bottom-feeding St. Louis Browns even managed to pay most of their players more than the average yearly family income. Red Kress, their starting shortstop, earned salaries of $6,000 in 1930, $9,000 in 1931 and $8,000 in 1932. The Browns lost 90, 91 and 91 games respectively those years.
It’s a complete misunderstanding of history to think baseball players from 100 years ago weren’t professionals, simply because many of them continued to work in the offseason. They continued to work because working, which was expected by cultural norms, ranked higher on their value scales than leisure pursuits, of which there were far fewer options than we enjoy today.
The Babe only played whites
This is complete nonsense as well, but it’s much more perverse. The racist history of the major leagues has been so twisted that it’s now used to denigrate the entire pre-integration period (pre-1947 when Jackie Robinson crossed the color line), instead of celebrating the peaceful integration acheived by an unhampered market.
First of all, it’s not true that Babe Ruth only played whites. Several Native Americans competed in the Major Leagues. And the idea that baseball was less of a sport because Asians or Hispanics didn’t play in it is ludicrous. One hundred years ago, there wasn’t even a professional Japanese baseball league yet - the first professional games were just being played. Likewise, leagues in Central America were also far behind the United States. But Latin American ballplayers debuted in 1911 in MLB. It’s completely ignorant to imply that it was a whites only league.
The history of the Negro Leagues is fascinating and I love studying it. But it’s also not true to say that MLB players never played against Negro League players. Nearly every year, exhibition games were held between major league teams and Negro league teams. The stories from these games are how we can estimate the high quality of play of greats like Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Double Duty Radcliffe, and Josh Gibson. It was long evident that there were a number of excellent Negro League players that could be stars in the majors.
But this was an American cultural issue. The people who most loudly tell you how anti-racist they are today - which is the least controversial position a human can have in 2021 - would also be the most likely to want Negro players banned in 1921. They just go with the flow of the times.
The real reason Americans, indoctrinated on post-modernist b.s., have a negative view of pre-integration baseball is because socialist historians don’t want you to know that baseball - a largely unhampered market - ended racial segregation long before Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the government’s recognition of equal rights for blacks.
And baseball did it peacefully, without riots, without violent incidents.
Black baseball players still suffered segregation off the field, but how is that the fault of the owners and managers that took an entrepreneurial gamble to bring black stars into the game?
Baseball should be celebrated for the heroism it took to integrate black players at a time when it was not culturally acceptable. But that would require admitting that a largely unhampered market (i.e. a “free market”) was able to solve the problem of racism well before the government even cared about it.
And that’s something post-modernists and socialists would never be willing to admit.
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