Over at Baseball: Past and Present, they did a thing. Isn’t that interesting? But wait, there’s more! Said thing was a project to collect the best potential sandlot team of players of all time. A few hundred votes were solicited from ballplayers, sports bloggers, and interested onlookers, and they were tallied, and the results are here, complete with pretty pictures and nice little blurbs. Interesting stuff; you should check it out.
But that’s as may be. What I’m here to talk about is racism, or, as they call it on the internet: RACISM!!! If you’re a bit sharp — and if you actually read the thing back when I told you to — you’ve likely noticed the long sad-sack rant entitled "a note on the absence of black players." Long story short: eight of the nine players chosen are white, this is because all of us fuckhead voters are racist assholes, and so they asked the president of the Negro League Museum to please forgive us for being such horrible people. Let’s talk about why this is stupid.
First off, here’s the all-time dream team, as selected by a bunch of awful racists like me:
You’ll forgive me if I fail to see which of these horrible white guys is hopelessly out of place on this list. And that’s the rub, innit? You can’t say that this list should have more black players without saying it should have fewer white players. No black player deserves to be on this list unless one of those white players doesn’t. So which one is it? Let’s take a look, shall we?
First of all, I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of any great black catchers or third basemen. Well, okay, Roy Campanella was pretty good, but had half of Johnny Bench’s career rWAR — 36.2 to 71.3. Not really in the same category of "greatness," and that’s even before you consider the many ways in which Johnny Bench changed the way his position is played. Which I guess you really shouldn’t for a list like this. So never mind that part.
Here’s a list from Fangraphs of all catchers ever, sorted by career fWAR. Whose name is on top? Oh. Is it particularly close? Oh. Does the top of that list look very heavy on black players? I guess not, huh. How did the balloting turn out, I hear you wondering? Johnny Bench’s closest competitor was Josh Gibson, who got 123 votes, beat out Yogi Berra and Mike Piazza, and never ever actually played in the Majors. That’s right, food friends: a Negro League catcher finished second in balloting, and we’re all racist fucks because a white guy who actually played in the Majors beat him.
Okay, so never mind catcher. What about my rash claim that there aren’t many great black third basemen? Knock yourself out. You have to go all the way down to, what, Adrian Beltre to find a black player? And he’s from the Dominican Republic, and we all know what Torii Hunter thinks about those people. For pity’s sake, there weren’t even any black players on the list we picked from during balloting. So maybe we can get a pass on third base too.
What about pitchers? Surely there have been some great black pitchers. What about Pedro Martinez? I mean, he finished third in the balloting. Or Bob Gibson? He finished fourth. Hell, Satchel Paige made the top ten, and he only pitched 476 innings in his entire career! All three of these men finished higher than Roger Clemens, Warren Spahn, Christy Matthewson, and even Jack Morris (thank you so much, troll who wrote Morris in).
At first base, honestly, Gehrig and Pujols are so great that they got almost all the votes between just the two of them. Is that where we went wrong? Willie McCovey, Frank Thomas, and Hank Greenberg are all obviously better players than, um, Albert Pujols and Lou Gehrig, and we just didn’t pick them because we’re shitheads? By fWAR:
Lou Gehrig: 125.9
Albert Pujols: 87.7 (not retired or killed yet)
Willie McCovey: 75.8
Frank Thomas: 76.2
Hank Greenberg: 68.2
The injustice is what now? We should have ignored the huge difference in value and voted for the black guy? Hmm.
Second base is where you have the best shot at claiming funny business. Not because Rogers Hornsby wasn’t all-time great — because he was — but because one Joseph Leonard Morgan was also made of liquid brilliance. Fangraphs gives a big lead to Hornsby, though, with 134.9 career fWAR to Morgan’s 108. BR has a smaller gap, but still puts Hornsby in front. Bill James picked Morgan over Hornsby. The point is: they’re both great. And, to be sure, they finished 1-2 at the top of the pack. Where’s the racism? It’s not like Morgan finished behind Darwin Barney.
Shortstops. Let’s get this out of the way: the best black shortstop of all time is Derek Jeter. Sorry, fans of not being fans of Derek Jeter; it’s just the case. But even Captain Baseball has a problem, which is: the unreasonable complete dominance of the game of baseball exhibited by Honus Wagner. Jeter is in the "best shortstops ever" discussion, no problem. But Wagner makes the list of "best three or four baseball players ever, at all, ever." He has 149.8 fWAR. That’s a silly, cartoon number. It is, thanks to God having a sense of humour even as regards His son Derek, exactly twice Derek Jeter’s career fWAR. So if you platooned a second Derek Jeter right next to the first one — maybe like a mirror image, so that one could get stuff to his left — you’d have Honus Wagner. But think how black he would be!
Yeah, okay, you can make an argument for Barry Bonds over Ted Williams. I agree. I’d probably even agree with you (I voted for Bonds). Fangraphs has Bonds ahead of Williams by almost thirty WAR — 168.2 to 139.8. So: racism, then? Or can you think of some other reason why Barry Bonds might miss out on votes? Hmm. Hmmmmm. Further research: Roger Clemens got only 23 votes. I’m assuming that’s because he was black also.
Right field: you’re having a laugh. Yes, I agree, Hank Aaron was crazy great. But you’re still having a laugh.
So where is the racial prejudice, then? Which of those selections is a horrible injustice? You can’t just say we need more black people on the list without excluding some of those white players who, based on objective data, appear to be better. Oh, and, incidentally? Ty Cobb beats Willie Mays in both fWAR and rWAR. What do you suppose the reaction would be if I wrote an article complaining that only racism could explain why this list isn’t 100% white guys?
This knee-jerk calling of racism is not only intellectually lazy, it’s also exactly in opposition to what we profess to believe in when we claim to be in support of statistical analysis. Given all the time we spend telling people that, no, Brandon Inge’s hustle and determination are not enough — Miguel Cabrera is the better player, how can we just turn around and say, hey, clearly this whole policy of evaluating results dispassionately is bullshit since it didn’t put the players on top who we wanted to see on top? That’s awful. Awful thinking. The fact is, to the best of our ability to judge, reality has refused to conform to the politically-correct narrative. It just so happens that the very very best players at each position have, to date, predominantly been white. To refuse to recognise that because it doesn’t fit our prearranged conclusion is to betray the entire sabermetric ideal, and also pretty goddamn racist itself if you think about it for ten goddamn seconds.
I have enough respect for the 600-or-so voters on this project that I won’t just assume they all looked at these lists and said GET THESE GODDAMN DARKIES OUT OF MY BASEBALL ALREADY! Does the guy who wrote this really not agree? He really thinks we all just hate black people, and that’s why we think Babe Ruth is good? We need to get beyond this insane collectivist fantasy. You can’t say this list was influenced by racism without saying that the people who voted made their judgments based on race. They are joined at the hip. Another way in which collectivism has ruined your brain: if you assume that there should be equal representation of whites and blacks on this list, you’re mad. Baseball is not played by collectivist abstractions; it’s played by individuals with different skillsets. There’s no reason to believe that, in such a tiny, tiny sample, you’ll have some type of racial homogeneity, especially when you consider how we actually evaluate players.
All sophisticated methods of player evaluation evaluate players relative to their peers. So when we say that Babe Ruth was worth 177.7 wins above replacement, what is "replacement?" Replacement is, in this context, the value contributed by the player Ruth would have been replaced with if he suddenly got eaten by a terrifying bog monster. In a modern context, that would mean the average value of a AAA player at the proper position; in the olden days, the structure was less formal, but the concept holds. So what are we not saying? We’re not saying that if Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds were both suddenly sucked out of time and forced to play a one-on-one game against each other (assuming there were such a thing), Ruth would be the clear winner. We don’t know that. Can’t know that.
There’s no way to separate their achievements from context.
Why does this matter? Because baseball has grown substantially. We now know a lot more about how to become a good baseball player, and about how to select good baseball players for teams. Major League teams are no longer full of dudes who were picked up playing on sandlots in Iowa and then handed a ball and told to go start the game. In other words: the playing field is a lot more level these days, which means — and this is important! — it is much harder to be way, way better than your peers than it was a hundred years ago. So it should be no surprise that the majority of the best numbers come from ancient times, when the average level of play was much lower than it is now.
And no black players were allowed in the league back then. So no black players had the chance to put up the same kind of gaudy numbers relative to such a low standard. This doesn’t require either analysts or math to be horribly racist and awful; it’s just the logical consequence of what actually happened in history. Trying to pretend it is otherwise doesn’t make you look like a really with-it, racially-tolerant dude; it makes you look like a complete goofball.
Oh, and. I’m not finished yet. Is it to anybody’s credit to perpetuate this stupid, simplistic, white-black view of race? Honus Wagner wasn’t called the Dutchman because he wasn’t Dutch, after all. Lou Gehrig was the son of German immigrants. But they’re just exactly the same, right? And so are all the others? And this is progress. I see.