Going to Bat for Baseball's Old-Timers

CLEARING THE BASES: BASEBALL THEN AND NOW, by Bill Starr. New York: Michael Kesend. 168 pp. $18.95 HOW do today's athletes stack up against those of other times? The question can never be answered in any definitive sense, of course, but that doesn't stop people from trying.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, it was generally conceded that the edge went to the old-timers. How could our heroes possibly compare with such legendary figures as Babe Ruth, Red Grange, or Bill Tilden?

Now conventional wisdom has turned the other way. The superiority of today's athletes is clearly demonstrated in every sport where performance can be measured. Isn't it logical, therefore, to assume that this same superiority exists in all sports?

Not in baseball, says Bill Starr, in his intriguing book combining reminiscences with an array of information designed to support his contention that the players of the 1920s and '30s outperformed their modern counterparts.

Starr, who spent 60 years in the game as a major and minor league player, an owner, and a fan, provides anecdotes about Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lefty Grove, and other famous names. He also spins fascinating tales of his own minor-league days, such as the time he pinch-hit for Ted Williams (they needed a bunt), and the exploits of Herman (Old Folks) Pillette, an obscure pitcher who got away with some of the most outrageous rules violations imaginable.

The author also has some interesting observations about modern baseball, as in the chapter titled ``How Johnny Bench Ruined the Art of Catching.'' He calls Bench ``one of the best talents ever to play the game,'' but deplores Johnny's ``unsound'' one-handed catching style, which ``set a harmful example for other catchers who do not measure up to his ability.''

Where the book bogs down at times is in the repetitive argument intended to demonstrate that while the ``bigger, faster, stronger'' athletes of today may make better football or basketball players, the same doesn't apply to baseball.

Starr launches this debate with a quote from ``The Hidden Game of Baseball,'' by John Thorn and Pete Palmer, a book of which he is highly critical:

``It does violence to common sense to suppose that while athletes in every other sport today are measurably and vastly superior to those 50 to 75 years ago, in baseball alone the quality of play is stagnant or in decline.''

Starr goes to great lengths to demolish this theory, but the irony is that even after one wades through his heavily documented attempts at refutation, the quote still makes a lot of sense. Of course, reflexes and timing are the key to hitting. Of course, there are ``little guys'' like Joe Morgan who can hit home runs and imposing-looking big men who can't. But it is equally obvious that some big men also have good reflexes and timing, and that they are going to hit the ball farther on a more consistent basis.

Speed gets played down, too, on the theory that most baseball situations require quickness, alertness, and correct positioning rather than pure speed. Again, though, the author fails to consider that some players combine these attributes - and that there are more of them today than in the past.

Starr makes much of today's lower batting averages and rejects any suggestion that they are even partly attributable to better defense, the advent of relief pitching specialists, night baseball, travel disruptions, etc. But he doesn't do so very convincingly - at least for this reader.

Example: He mentions the larger gloves and even quotes Babe Herman, who played in the '20s and '30s, as saying, ``Today there are more diving catches in the outfield in one month than I saw in my entire career.'' But despite this evidence in his own book, Starr refuses to acknowledge that perhaps one reason batting averages are lower now is that it is tougher to get the ball past the fielders.

The author is on safer ground when he mentions such things as the diluting effect of expansion; the decline of the minor leagues; and the greater intensity of earlier players compared to the more easygoing approach of today's stars with their long-term, big-money contracts.

All-in-all, this is an interesting book with many readable segments, but one that tries a little too hard - and a bit too one-sidedly - to prove its points.

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