Top 10 Favorite Athletes

One of my friends, a former teaching colleague posted his list of his 10 favorite athletes. I did so too. Here they are from me.

  1. Muhammad Ali: Sat next to him at a fight in Madison Square Garden. Nicest guy ever. Sad what happened to him. I remember when he met the great but ancient Joe Louis who was in a wheelchair, drooling, nodding and mentally out of it. Ali said, “I will never become like that.” God has a vicious sense of humor doesn’t he? Ali wound up far, far worse.
  2. Joe DiMaggio: Kind of a family tradition. Met him at Yankee Stadium in 1953. Despite what authors have written about his aloofness, he shook my hand and talked to me about my (MY!) playing baseball. I was six years old and I remember the meeting clearly. So I am a die hard Yankee fan because of that meeting.
  3. Jackie Robinson: He’s in heaven now (if there is a heaven). Took a lot of crap and performed athletically and intellectually at the highest level. Not many men could have done what he did and done it brilliantly. Met him once at Ebbets Field. I was also a Dodgers fan until they moved to California.
  4. Oscar Robertson: The best of all time. I know, I know everyone thinks it is Jordan but Oscar is and was the man. His nemesis, Jerry West, was another great one but no one was Oscar.
  5. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson: Entwined together in my mind. The greatest rivalry in basketball of all time. Two of the top 10 greats in the sport.
  6. Sugar Ray Leonard: Just a shade below Sugar Ray Robinson, the fighter who was truly the greatest of all time. Leonard fought the best of his generation in some spectacular matches.
  7. Jesse Owens: Fuck you Hitler! An American who showed the truth about himself and the freedom to compete in a free society (well, not quite as free for some Americans). Of course, it has taken almost a hundred years of struggle but we are (I hope) moving in the right direction. Jesse Owens showed us that we can win.
  8. Lou Gehrig: One of the five greatest baseball players of all time. Courage and class all the way.
  9. Babe Ruth: A serious abuser of food and booze and cigars. Those three things should now be banned from sports because look what they did for “the Babe.”  An amazing hitter, an amazing pitcher, an amazing guy. His statistics topped many entire teams in his day and they are still a high standard to live up to.
  10. Willie Mays: One of the five best baseball players of all time. Brought joy to the game and was great to watch even when he was older.

(There you go. I do have my “don’t like” list too. Maybe someday I’ll post that. There is no football or other sports on my list since those aren’t in my vision.)

Are Today’s Baseball Players Better Than Those of the Past?


Breathe deeply baseball fans: Today’s baseball players, those who play the field, those who are designated hitters, those who pitch and those who are relief pitchers, are not – and let me emphasize that – not better than players of the past. In fact, players of the past might actually be better than today’s players!

My quest started simply enough. I was watching an excellent Jonathan Hock documentary titled Fastball. The film explores the combat between pitchers and hitters (batters) and how fast a fastball can be thrown and how talented and skilled a batter has to be to hit such a pitch.

The fastest fastball ever recorded and the one that is in the Guinness Book of World Records was supposedly thrown by Aroldis Chapman and clocked at 105.1 miles-per-hour in 2010.

In the past certain elite fastball pitchers were also timed.

Two of baseball’s greatest were Bob Feller (1936-1956) and Nolan Ryan (1966-1993). Note that these two pitchers cover seven decades for their combined careers and were supposedly the fastest pitchers of their times (at least the fastest ever recorded).

Feller was recorded at 98.6 miles-per-hour and Ryan was recorded at 100.9 miles-per-hour. It would appear that Chapman has wiped the floor with those two. But in truth, he hasn’t.

You see the method used to test both Feller and Ryan was different from the one that tested Chapman—and that difference creates a false comparison. Chapman’s fastball was clocked in the first 10 feet of his throw—some 50.6 feet away from home plate. Both Feller and Ryan’s tests were of the fastball as it came over the plate. In short, Feller and Ryan’s fastball was slowed down by the air it went through in those 50.6 feet of travel.

The Fastball documentary makers clocked Feller and Ryan’s fastballs using the same method used with Chapman, and guess what? Feller’s fastball came in at 107 miles-per-hour and Ryan’s came in at a remarkable 108.5 miles-per-hour! Both of these estimates leave Chapman in the dust.

Today, of course, all pitchers have their throws clocked on each and every pitch – and the speeds seem outrageously high; some are clocked at 95 to 102 miles per hour. (Chapman regularly throws this latter speed). Still these speeds are based on the modern 10-foot metric, not how fast the ball actually goes over plate.

What if we measured today’s pitchers using yesteryear’s metric? To do that, we reduce today’s speeds by 8 percent (combining Feller and Ryan’s increase in speed using the 10-foot rule). Today’s pitchers throwing 102 miles per hour are actually throwing 93.8 miles per hour and those throwing 95 miles per hour are actually throwing 87.4 miles-per-hour – as the ball crosses the plate. Those speeds are not record setting. The air influences them just as the air influenced Feller and Ryan.

That calculation started me thinking; perhaps today’s players are not as good as yesterday’s players or perhaps yesterday’s players are just as good as today’s.

The usual analysis of pitchers is their ERAs – earned run averages; that is, how many runs they give up in nine innings of pitching. Are the ERAs better today than in the past?

If we look at the team ERAs, we can see that teams from 1920 to 2017 have similar ERAs. That’s right. Even though today’s starting pitchers rarely pitch nine innings anymore, and relievers have become essential for modern teams, the total ERA of the entire team resembles the ERA of past teams.

Let me give you a few examples to prove this point.

  • The top five teams from 2016 had ERAs of 3.13, 3.53, 3.57, 3.64 and 3.71.
  • The top five teams from 1927 had ERAs of 3.20, 3.36, 3.54, 3.57 and 3.65.

Not much of a difference, although the ERAs from 1927 are somewhat better.

  • The best five teams from 2016 had ERAs of 5.09, 5.08, 4.91, 4.91 and 4.63.
  • The worst five teams from 1927 had ERAs of 5.36, 4.95, 4.72, 4.27 and 4.22.

Not much of a difference, although the ERAs from 1927 are still better.

Now what of the hitting? Were the hitters of the past as good as or better than the hitters of today?

Again, let me take 1927 versus 2016 and only strictly at batting averages.

  • In 1927, the major league batting average was 284.
  • In 2016, the major league batting average was 255.

So you have slightly better pitching and somewhat better batting averages in 1927 than you do in 2016.

Now, there are many records for many accomplishments, good and bad, in baseball. It is indeed a sport of statistics. You can argue that Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs were achieved with beer and hot dogs as performance enhancers while Bonds, McGwire and others allegedly achieved many of their records with steroid use.

I’ll leave it to you to argue the points.

Still, if you take a broad picture of “back then” and “right now” you discover that today’s players are not really superior to those of the past.

In my opinion, if we could transport the top players of yesteryear to today we would find that:

Joe DiMaggio would still be able to hit in 56 straight games.

Lou Gehrig would still be the hard-hitting “Iron Horse.”

Willie Mays would be, well, the incomparable Willie Mays.

And Babe Ruth? Babe Ruth would still be the best player in history based on his hitting, fielding and, yes folks, his amazing pitching!

To me, the baseball past is not dead. It’s just not appreciated.

Frank Scoblete’s latest books are I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, Confessions of a Wayward Catholic and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.