January 03, 2003
Baseball, the international game

A bunch of interesting baseball articles out there right now. We'll start with Dr. Manhattan's look at how the breaking of the racial barrier in baseball was not just the correction of a grievous moral failing, but also an opportunity for smart franchises to gain a competitive advantage:

All this was, or should have been, understood at the time by those whose primary priority was to win. While Branch Rickey certainly deserves tremendous moral credit for providing the means for Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the major leagues, he was just as undoubtedly interested in the competitive advantage his team would derive. When the Dodgers combined black players such as Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcome and Junior Gilliam with white players like Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo, the result was a team that won six pennants in Robinson’s ten seasons. As Adam Smith might have predicted, the Dodgers’ self-interest was a moral force.

The National League generally followed the Dodgers’ example to a greater extent than the American League did, with the expected result: according to Bill James’ Win Shares method, there were 11 National League players in 1963 that were better than any American League player that year. (The contrast is especially stark because Mickey Mantle was injured for most of that season, but the general point remains true.). Probably not coincidentally, the National League dominated the All-Star Game in that era.

Dr. Manhattan goes on to tie the slothfulness of the Red Sox and the Yankees in scouting and signing black and Latino players to their respective woes in the post-Jackie Robinson era (it took awhile for the Yankees to feel this effect, but feel it they did from 1965-1975). David Pinto and Eric McErlain also have some thoughts on this. McErlain makes the following point:

Simply put, the Yankees lead in acquiring talent over the rest of the Major Leagues was so great, that their opponents in the National League had little choice but to stock their rosters with talented African-Americans. In the end, they really had no other option if they wanted to close the yawning talent gap with the most successful franchise in baseball history.

Once the Yankees fell out of contention for that decade-long stretch, the American League teams that were the most successful were the Orioles (who featured Paul Blair, Frank Robinson, and Mike Cuellar) and the Oakland A's (with Vida Blue, Bert Campanaris, and of course a fellow named Reggie). The Yankees have learned their lesson with a vengeance, pursuing Japanese and Latino players with all the usual Steinbrennerian vigor and money. They may get Irabued on occasion, but signing an Alfonso Soriano more than makes up for it.

In a way, with the lack of a worldwide draft, getting a leg up in finding talent today is similar to how it was back in the days of DiMaggio and Mantle. Joe DiMaggio was purchased from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, which served as a nearly-major league for people on the wrong coast in the pre-TV days. He was already a hot commodity thanks to a record-breaking hitting streak (62 games). Mickey Mantle was signed by a scout who saw him play a game in high school in tiny Commerce, Oklahoma. It's safe to say that no one had ever heard of him at the time of his signing. As it is now, a combination of buying established stars from other leagues and getting lucky with out-of-nowhere phenoms is a pretty good road map to success.

Where will the next untapped talent source be? According to David Pinto, it could be Malaysia. You can bet that the Yankees will monitor this closely.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 03, 2003 to Baseball | TrackBack