Daily Archives: 8 September 2008

Baseball’s 1990s: Steroids and Strike Zones

The latest issue of NINE: A Journal of Baseball and Culture (Project MUSE subscription required) contains an article by Benjamin G. Rader and Kenneth J. Winkle, reexamining the reasons for Baseball’s Great Hitting Barrage of the 1990s (and Beyond).

In an article published in NINE in 2002, we examined what we called “Baseball’s Great Hitting Barrage of the 1990s.” In addition to offering statistical support for the claim that there was an unusual amount of offensive productivity in the 1994 through 1999 seasons, we also considered explanations for why the hitting revolution had occurred. With regard to the latter, we questioned some of the popular theories for the offensive outburst—namely the “juiced-ball” hypothesis, the belief that ballparks were cozier in the late 1990s than they had been earlier, and the role of league expansion in diluting the quality of pitching. But at the same time we lent support to the arguments that lighter bats, physically stronger hitters, and a new style of hitting (with the assistance of a smaller de facto strike zone) contributed significantly to the great hitting barrage of the late 1990s.

Now is an especially opportune time to reexamine and update our earlier findings. Not only do we presently enjoy the benefit of a longer historical perspective on the 1990s, but we are also able to extend our analysis from the 2000 through the 2007 seasons. Furthermore, recent disclosures of the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs by the players and Major League Baseball’s implementation of a drug-testing program in 2003 make it possible to employ statistics to better speculate about the effects of drugs on the great offensive barrage. Equally important to a reconsideration of the recent offensive outburst was the decision of Major League Baseball (beginning in 2001) to enlarge the de facto strike zone, determined by the umpires, and impose a more uniform strike zone on the umpires.

We reach three major conclusions. First, the great hitting barrage peaked during the 1999 and 2000 seasons. While remaining far above the two-divisional era in offensive productivity, the 2001 through 2007 seasons fell below the peak achieved in 1999 and 2000. Based on batting averages, runs per game, home runs per game, and on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, we posit three eras of offense in recent baseball history: (1) the two-divisional era of low productivity (1969–1993), (2) the great offensive barrage (1994–2000 seasons), and (3) the new equilibrium (2001–2007 seasons). Second, while it is impossible to offer quantifiably direct evidence of the relationship between drug use and the offensive explosion, we conclude that player use of performance-enhancing drugs did contribute to the hitting barrage. As the threat of exposure and then drug testing increased, some measures of offensive productivity began to decline, though not approaching the depths of the two-divisional era. Third, it is possible to offer more quantifiably direct evidence of the relationship between the strike zone and the offensive explosion than it is the relationship between drugs and offense. We conclude that the size of the de facto strike zone was an equal, and perhaps even more important, variable in explaining the hitting revolution as well as its modest decline after the 2000 season. When Major League Baseball decided to try to impose a more uniform strike zone on the umpires in the 2001 season, seasonal batting averages and runs per game (but not home runs) fell, though not back to earlier levels.

The same issue also contains a poem by Mary Herbert that Language Hat is sure to appreciate, Only Peggy Lee Could Sing of My Mets Misery.

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The Jackie Robinson of 1905?

Ten years ago in Harvard Magazine, Karl Lindholm briefly profiled Harvard graduate William Clarence Matthews, who some people at the time thought might be capable of breaking the color barrier in professional baseball by playing with the Boston Nationals.

Born in Selma, Alabama, and trained at Tuskegee Institute from 1893 to 1897, Matthews was a promising student and outstanding athlete who was sent north for further education, first to Phillips Andover and then to Harvard. From 1901 to 1905, he played shortstop on perhaps the best college team in the country (75 wins, 18 losses in his four years) at a time when baseball enjoyed singular appeal in the United States. It was not uncommon for players to walk off a college campus onto a major-league diamond: Christy Matthewson left Bucknell for John McGraw’s Giants, and two of Matthews’s teammates, Walter Clarkson and “Harvard Eddie” Grant, went on to play in the big leagues….

Unlike many other black players, he had options off the diamond. He had taken courses at Harvard Law School as a senior; now he earned an LL.B. at Boston University while working as an athletic instructor at Boston high schools. He passed the bar in 1908 and embarked on a legal and political career; in 1913, with the help of Booker T. Washington, he was appointed special assistant to the U.S. district attorney in Boston. From 1920 to 1923, he served as legal counsel to the black separatist Marcus Garvey.

Even while working with Garvey, he remained involved in Republican politics, and he played a major role in the 1924 presidential campaign. When Calvin Coolidge was elected with the help of a million black votes, Matthews was rewarded with a post in the Justice Department–but a list of “demands” for the “recognition of colored Republicans” that he presented to party leaders was ignored. Whatever else he might have accomplished was thwarted when he died of a perforated ulcer at 51. His death was reported in all the major East Coast newspapers: the Boston Globe called him “one of the most prominent Negro members of the bar in America.” The black press ran front-page headlines.

Matthews said in 1905, “A Negro is just as good as a white man and has just as much right to play ball.”

Now, ten years later, Karl Lindholm has published a fuller analysis of the public speculation at the time in the latest issue of NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture (Project MUSE subscription required). His article title, Rumors and Facts: William Clarence Matthews’s 1905 Challenge to Major League Baseball’s Color Barrier, indicates that the newspapers of that era, in particular the Boston Traveler, were often no more reliable than those of our day.

Rumors sometimes have a basis in fact, and sometimes rumors are pure fiction, made up, irresponsible, serving commercial, political, or personal ends. In 1905, one of baseball’s most compelling rumors involved the imminent entry into the major leagues of William Clarence Matthews, “Harvard’s famous colored shortstop.” This rumor, reported in the Boston Traveler in July 1905, was repeated in Sol White’s History of Colored Baseball (1907) and passed on to contemporary audiences by Robert Peterson in his seminal Only the Ball was White (1970).

There are inevitable questions about the rumor’s veracity. Is it possible that forty years before Jackie Robinson signed a contract with Brooklyn, someone in organized baseball was seriously considering adding a black man to a major league roster?

This essay addresses that question by examining the major players—the Boston Nationals’ player-manager Fred Tenney in particular—as well as the primary documents associated with the rumor of Matthews’s breakthrough, demonstrating the reasons Matthews might plausibly be considered for this role, while also raising the possibility that the Traveler conjured a patently false story in Boston’s overheated journalistic environment during the first decade of the twentieth century.

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