Over at Bill James Online (or the Bill James Online, as Bill calls it, kind of like the Ohio State University), they've been kicking around the question Was 19th century baseball "major league"?
Bill says no -- the game back then possessed virtually none of the characteristics of a true major league.
In the 1890s there were two plays in which a ball hit into the outfield got stuck in a discarded tin can, and the outfielder threw the tin can back into the infield with the ball still stuck in the can. Two runners were tagged out at home plate with a tin can. One runner was called out; the other (years later) was ruled safe because the umpire said there was no rule that said a runner could be called out if he was tagged with a tomato can.
I'm not doing his argument justice by quoting that tiny slice of it, but does that sound like "major league baseball" to you? Me, neither. Baseball was in the midst of a rapid evolution in the period up to 1925, Bill says, which then gave way to a brand of baseball that could more reasonably be described as "major league."
If you were to list the 100 best players born since 1931 (Mays/Mantle), you're going to find about 35%-40% of those players would not have been in MLB if the color-line had persisted. So, even 1919-1945 MLB would have an incomplete claim to "major league" ... I find that 1931-born players is a watershed line, for whatever it's worth.
Right. ... or we could say that "modern" major league baseball begins in 1947. The modern record for batting average in a season is .390, by George Brett in 1980. The modern record for innings pitched is 376, by Wilbur Wood and Mickey Lolich.
Which got me wondering: What are some other "modern" major league records? Nobody's going to challenge Cy Young's 511 wins, or Owen Wilson's single-season triples record (36). But given the quality of today's competition, not to mention the smaller outfields, isn't Curtis Granderson's 23 triples in 2007 more impressive? Does anyone really believe Cy Young, transported a hundred years into the future, could pitch with Randy Johnson, or even Randy Wells? I sure don't.
So maybe it's worth knowing what the modern records are.
Batting Average, Single-Season
Old record: Napoleon Lajoie, .427, 1901
Modern record: George Brett, .390, 1980
Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941, of course. The rule I decided to use is, players like Williams and Musial, whose careers straddled Bill's (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) cut-off for "modern" major league baseball, are eligible for modern career records, but only their post-1946 seasons count toward single-season records.
Batting Average, Career
Old: Ty Cobb, .366
Modern: Tony Gwynn, .338
Runs Batted In, Single-Season
Old: Hack Wilson, 191, 1930
Modern: Manny Ramirez, 165, 1999
Hank Aaron is the career RBI leader, with 2297. And Barry Bonds holds the single-season and career records for walks and home runs. Unless you're Bob Costas, in which case, NONE OF THAT EVER HAPPENED. YOU HEAR ME?
Runs Scored, Single-Season
Rickey Henderson is the career Runs Scored leader, with 2295.
Old: Earl Webb, 67, 1931
Modern: Todd Helton, 59, 2000
Earl Webb never hit more than 30 doubles in any other season during his short career.
Old: Tris Speaker, 792
Modern: Pete Rose, 746
Old: "Chief" Wilson, 36, 1912
Modern: Curtis Granderson, 23, 2007
Old: Sam Crawford, 309
Modern: Stan Musial, 177
Musial hit most of his triples after 1947. If you want someone whose entire career falls squarely in the modern era, Roberto Clemente's your man (166).
Earned-Run Average, Single-Season
Old: Tim Keefe, 0.86, 1880
Modern: Bob Gibson, 1.12, 1968
Here's an example of where people have already accounted for the differences between the modern game and "evolutionary baseball." No one thinks of Tim Keefe as the holder of the ERA record, and for good reason. In the 1880s, the rules governing how many balls were in a walk, or strikes in a strikeout, changed from year to year. The pitching rubber was still just 50 feet from home plate. And, of course, all the pitchers threw underhand. It. Was. Different.
Earned Run Average, Career
Old: Ed Walsh, 1.82
Modern: Mariano Rivera, 2.22
Among starters, Whitey Ford (2.75) has the lowest career ERA in the modern era. He's behind about 80 pre-modern pitchers.
Old: Hoss Radbourn, 59, 1884
Modern: Denny McLain, 31, 1968
Old: Cy Young, 511
Modern: Warren Spahn, 363
If you want to take away the games Spahn won before 1947, then he's tied with Greg Maddux with 355 wins. If you add postseason wins, Maddux and Roger Clemens are tied at 366. See? I told you this would be fun.