Are Modern Players Better?

In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons argues that modern basketball players are substantially better than their historical predecessors.  This view is common across sports.  In baseball, Bill James has been known to advocate a weak version of the thesis, and anyone who listens much to sports talk radio can hear its football-based proponents weekly.  But is it true?  Here, the key is defining the question carefully?  What precisely do we mean by saying that modern players either are or are not better than players that have gone before?  We need to dig into this question in all of its permutations before we can begin to give it a satisfying answer.

Claim #1: Modern leagues are better at getting the best players to the big leagues.

This claim is simply true. Reason #1 is integration. A league that excluded all members of non-white races is not getting the same amount of talent as an integrated league. In the NHL and NBA, leagues that allow European players are drawing from a substantially larger talent pool than leagues that do not. Other reasons also abound. In baseball the decline of the minor leagues as separate sources of baseball power increased the quality of play in the major leagues. As an example, Joe McGinnity won 246 games in the major leagues in only 10 seasons. He then moved to the minor leagues and won another 207 games. The National League without McGinnity was not as good as the National League with him.

Response #1: The claim does not prove as much as it seems like it would.

Just because the current leagues are better in aggregate, because they funnel talent more efficiently, does not mean that individual players are better. Old ballplayers, it is likely, have inflated stats because they get to spend more time playing against weaker players. That says nothing about raw talent, though it does form an important part of evaluating statistics.

Claim #2: Players today are bigger, faster, and stronger.

This claim is trickier. In one sense it is clearly true. Compare two left tackles, Jonathan Ogden and Forrest Gregg. Ogden was listed at 6’9″, 340 lbs., making him one of the largest players ever to play in the NFL. Gregg, one of the largest players of the 1960s, was 6’4″, 249. The discrepancy is astounding. As a matter of fact, the discrepancy is so astounding as to undermine the point of the claim.

Response #2: Players are bigger, faster, and stronger, yet they do not possess appreciably more natural talent.

Gregg was 6’4″ and weighed 249 lbs. Nate Newton was 6’3″, 318. Walter Jones was 6’5″, 315. The change is in weight. Did Newton have extra talent that helped him gain 70 more pounds? Of course not. Instead, Newton had better weight training, nutrition, and supplements. Gregg did not have access to the wonders of BALCO, protein shakes, and regular weight training. To get at the question of talent, imagine time travel. What happens if Walter Jones was transported to 1962? He begins by dominating, and then he would shrink. I mean that literally. Walter Jones, upon losing access to modern weight training and nutrition would literally watch the pounds fall off him. Gregg comes forward? Watch the pounds get added to his frame. What would Lebron James look like in the early 1960’s? Probably a lot like Elgin Baylor. The changes cannot be ascribed to something internal to the player, and because of that they cannot be ascribed to talent differences.

Claim #3: Modern players have better stats.

This claim is only sporadically true. Modern quarterbacks have substantially better statistics than their older counterparts. Fielders in baseball commit half of the errors of players a century ago in more games.

Response #3: Stats do not exist in a vacuum.

Why do modern quarterbacks have better stats? They play with laxer passing rules during seasons with more games. Why do fielders commit fewer errors? They play on carefully manicured fields. The 1924 World Series was decided by a ball that took a funny bounce off a rock. That would not happen today. Along with these changes, some older players did have better stats. Consider Wilt Chamberlain or Cy Young as the obvious examples here.

These are three possible ways to answer the question posed in the title. I think #1 is the strongest point. Nevertheless, I don’t think that modern players are more talented. They simply have more favorable circumstances. What are other possible ways of interpreting the claim? Do you think the question is true in any sense?

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4 Comments on “Are Modern Players Better?”

  1. Millsy Says:

    This is always a fun question to ponder. I think it depends on how you really define talent. We can never know the true answer to “What would happen if today’s MLB All-Star Team played the one in 1927?” But I’m willing to bet today’s team would win a majority of those matchups. Like you say, not necessarily because of ‘natural talent’ (whatever that may mean), but because they’re more physically able, given the circumstances, as you say.

    In football, I think the above is more obvious. In basketball, I’m not so sure what would happen. I can’t remember the name of the guy, but he was one of the biggest and scariest linemen back in the 50’s/60’s, and he was posed the question, “If you played the guys today with your team back then, what do you think would happen?” His response, “They would absolutely crush us.”

    I don’t know if he’s right. Like I said, the question comes down to what we consider talent, whether it be innate ability or actual ability given the circumstances. Economists interested in labor and education will tell you these things aren’t as easy to parse as one might think. For example, when doing twins studies, it’s important to note that parnets often favor one twin, some twins are more dominant (they are usually the ‘favored’ ones), etc. etc. But the innate talent and ‘who would win’ question is one of the most debated in sports, and always will be.

    On another note, I think over time people have become larger and taller overall. Whether this is evolutionary, or resistance to disease and better nutrition, I’m not sure. But that argument could be made for #2.

  2. sportsphd Says:

    I agree that the question of talent is intensely tricky. In the past, I have argued against the idea of a true talent level as something so nebulous as to be not worth discussing. In this post I take a step back, but I am not sure that is the correct step. Your point about differences in identical twins is one element of that. Similarly, when discussing players getting bigger, faster, and stronger over time, questions of nutrition, greater affluence, child labor laws, and better antibiotics are all parts of the picture.

    Behind my question there is another lingering concern: Do modern players deserve any credit for their advantages? That question, I am convinced in every case except for integration, deserves to be answered in the negative. To move briefly to the stuff I actually study in grad school, these things are all accidents of birth. In particular, they are accidents of birth year even more than they are accidents of genetic parentage. Because of that, I think it is worth remembering just how good old players really were.

  3. verdun2 Says:

    It’s not exactly a talent difference, but the size of paychecks makes a difference too. Back when players had to work in the offseason at non-sports related jobs just to make ends meet. I emember a number of old baseball cards detailing the player’s offseason job. If you’re working in the insurance business, there’s not a lot of time to work on strength training or swinging the bat in a cage. Surely time spent on the sport in the offseason has increased and that should improve the quality of play.
    v

  4. Millsy Says:

    Verdun,

    Excellent point!

    (that’s all I’ve got)


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