“In other sports, like basketball and football, everyone admits the modern player is better than the old-timer. And in track it’s obvious. How many four-minute miles were run before 1915? Before 1950, for that matter?”Al Bridwell, in Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times

In 1936, Babe Ruth was out of baseball. Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. He ran the 100-meter dash in 10.3 seconds to tie the world record. He set Olympic record in the long jump at 26’5″ and a quarter, and in the 200-meter dash at 20.7 seconds. Owens’ leg of the 400m relay set records as well.

Jump to this summer, and the 2004 Olympics in Athens. In the 100m, all seven of the runners finishing ran under 10.3 seconds–10.1 was the most it took to cross the finish line. Tim Montgomery holds the world record of 9.78s. All seven of the finishing runners in the 200m final finished under 20.7 seconds. Michael Johnson holds the world record of 19.32 seconds.

Track and field provides an instructive parallel. While there’s some money in being a world-class athlete, there are far more baseball games on television than track meets. Or basketball games, or football games–heck, if you have cable you can probably see more trampoline basketball than decathlons. Where I grew up, track coaches didn’t have to deal with hordes of people trying out to do the shot put, but the football and basketball coaches got to take their pick of the litter. Unlike other activities, such as debate, where the smart and/or argumentative find the team, there were almost certainly cases where the best person for a track and field event was sitting at home, scratching their butt.

So did Michael Johnson run better than Jesse Owens? Clearly, he did.

Is Michael Johnson a better runner than Jesse Owens was? Now, here’s the interesting question.

To take Owens’ side: He ran against entirely different competition, and didn’t have the kind of training, medical support, or even nutritional information that Johnson did.

To take Johnson’s side: 9.78 seconds to run 100 meters.

To take Owens’ side again: if Lewis ran a 10.3 in 1936, we can assume that if he’d had the advantages Johnson did, he’d certainly have posted the lowest time.

To take Johnson’s again: Maybe he could have, but you don’t know that. Johnson ran 100 meters in 9.78 seconds, and that’s the fastest recorded, valid, competition time over that distance in the history of humanity.

This is an argument that doesn’t seem easily resolvable. This is why when I say things like “Barry Bonds is the greatest hitter in baseball history” I can respect the contention that Babe Ruth was better.

It’s wrong, though. Why do track records fall? Why do records in almost all sports fall? Is it entirely training, and nutrition, and medical care?

It is all of those things, but it also a game of numbers, and I’ll get back to medical care in a minute.

The population of the U.S. was 128 million people in 1936. 80 million were between 15 and 64, and looking at the demographic charts I’m just going to chop 25% of that off (which is probably too low) to try and get at realistic ballplaying ages. So 60 million people at the right age in the U.S. About 48.5% were women, figure about 10% weren’t white and so couldn’t play because of the color line. If you’re curious, I’m getting these portions out of the 1930 census.

Twenty-seven million baseball players in the U.S. in 1936.

In 1936, there were eight teams in the American League and eight in the National League, and a ton of other leagues and associations drifting in and out of solvency.

Sixteen teams to divvy up that 27 million players. That’s 1.7m/team.

Now other factors enter into this: baseball was considered a low-class profession by many, and not an honest way to make your mark in the world. Early baseball history is filled with stories of talent recruitment that seem crazy to us. Coaches would swing by a local game and if they saw a catcher they liked, they’d sign him and ask him if he knew any good outfielders–and then sign the guy the kid recommended. While locals might tip off a team if there was someone worth noticing, if you were out of a job and could pick it, you could just as well walk up to the coach before a game and get a tryout on the spot.

Today we can argue over whether there’s such a thing as a Quadruple-A pitcher, a guy with stuff enough for the International League but not the majors, but that’s about the limit of the grey area in baseball stratification. We recognize that guys in rookie ball can’t compete with the guys in Double-A. Few players advance even from high-A ball to the majors. Baseball has organized stats and scouting, and even today good baseball players end up playing in the independent leagues before they’re noticed and signed to a major-league organization. During Ruth’s career, we began to see the rise of a minor-league system as built by Branch Rickey to support his St. Louis Cardinals, and even that was opposed by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Now factor in medicine. Of that potential pool of 27 million players, many would get diseases like tuberculosis, which wasn’t treatable (well, effectively) until after World War II. Pitchers went down with “dead arms” and never came back. The kind of ligament tears we can repair today ended careers then. Training and injury prevention were nowhere near as good as they are today.

So here’s what we have: the potential pool of players was small; even an estimate of 27 million is probably too large. There was not the great incentive to enter into professional baseball there is today. The ability of teams to recognize and recruit talent was extremely limited. Of those who could play, many had their careers cut short or their talent limited by injuries that we could prevent or heal today.

Today there are 294 million people in the United States. There are about 32 million in Canada, and they play a little baseball. There are 104 million people in Mexico, almost nine million in the Dominican Republic. We’re recruiting players out of Japan now, and there are 127 million people in Japan. Then there are other countries, like South Korea, China and Australia, where baseball is not as big a sport, but from where we’re still getting some players.

Just those big ones, though: 566 million people. People of all skin colors and origins can play now. Even if we cut out women, and make the same age cut, there are 280 million potential baseball players in the world, or 9.3 million potential male baseball players per team. And these potential players are motivated to take up baseball as a living. Baseball teams can better locate and recruit them, and once they’re playing they’ll be better protected from career-ending injury than at any other time in baseball’s history.

How can it be possible that baseball is diluted? Compared to what?

Even if you don’t believe that, there’s another way to look at this.

Imagine the genetic lottery as a giant pachinko machine, where balls are fed in at the top and randomly hit evenly spaced pegs until they fall into bins at the bottom. Given any sufficient number of balls, they’ll form the familiar bell curve shape.

Figure that baseball tries to recruit out of the far-left hand side and then takes as many as it has to from each bin as it moves right until rosters are filled out.

Put in 27 million balls and you’ll get a nearly-perfect curve, just as you will with 280 million balls. However, in each bin, you’ll get ten times as many balls.

If you figure there’s a one-in-a-million chance to have a baseball player that’s of talent level “A” then there should be about 27 in 1936, or about 1.7 per major league team. Today there would be 280, or enough to give every major league team nine with a couple left over. The 1936 teams then have to recruit almost all of their players out of bin “B” while a modern team has a much smaller portion.

Or even look at this in an entirely different way: label each year’s balls and dump them all into the machine at once. No matter how far out you go on the scale, a ball landing in a particular bin is ten times more likely to be labeled “2004” than it is “1936”. A ball could land in the one-in-a-billion bin… but without looking at it, the smart bet is that it’s a recent year. When you think of players of a certain talent level, there are far more of them today than there were then.

This is true of athletes of any sport: it’s not just that there happen to be more sprinters running the 100 meters in under ten seconds, it’s also that there are more people in the world who could possibly, given the proper training, food and conditions, run that fast.

Babe Ruth changed the game and was no doubt one of the most influential players in history.

Only the competitive, head-to-head nature of baseball prevents this recognition that today’s players as a group are the best to ever play, and that those who dominate this level of competition must be recognized as the greatest ever to play. Michael Johnson set world records running against the best trained and prepared runners in the world, drawn from a much larger population. His raw times and his performance against an improved peer group make it clear he should be recognized as the best ever to run the 200 meters. And Barry Bonds, competing directly against the best group of fielding and pitching talent baseball has ever known, has been one of the best hitters in baseball since his third year in Pittsburgh, has come to dominate the league, and too should be recognized as the best hitter baseball has ever seen.