Full House

Full House by Stephen Jay Gould

Book: Full House by Stephen Jay Gould Read Free Book Online
Authors: Stephen Jay Gould
Tags: nonfiction
directly with the same measures of modern performers. No wonder, then, that the largest organization of scholarly fans, the Society for American Baseball Research, is so numerically minded, and has contributed, through its acronym, a new word to our language: sabermetrics, for the statistical study of sporting records.
    Humans, as I have argued, are trend-seeking creatures (perhaps I should say "storytelling animals," for what we really love is a good tale— and, for reasons both cultural and intrinsic, we view trends as stories of the best sort). We are therefore driven to scan the charts of baseball records for apparent trends—and then to devise stories for their causes. Remember that our cultural legends include two canonical modes for trending: advances to something better as reasons for celebration, and declines to an abyss as sources of lamentation (and hankering after a mythical golden age of "good old days"). Since 0.400 hitting is both so noticeable and so justly celebrated, and since its pattern of decline and disappearance so clearly embodies the second of our canonical legends, no other trend in baseball’s statistical history has attracted such notoriety and engendered such lamentation.
    The problem seems so obvious in outline: something terrific, the apogee of batting performance, was once reasonably common and has now disappeared. Therefore, something profoundly negative has happened to hitting in baseball. I mean, how else could you possibly read the evidence? The best is gone, and therefore something has gotten worse. I devote this chapter to the paradoxical claim that extinction of 0.400 hitting really measures the general improvement of play in professional baseball. Such a claim cannot even be conceived while we remain stuck in our usual Platonic mode of viewing 0.400 hitting as a "thing" or "entity" in itself—for the extinction of good items must mean that something has turned sour. I must therefore convince you that this basic conceptualization is erroneous, and that you should not view 0.400 hitting as a thing at all, but rather as the right tail in a full house of variation.

    Conventional Explanations
    More ink has been spilled on the disappearance of 0.400 hitting than on any other statistical trend in baseball’s history. The particular explanations have been as varied as their authors, but all agree on one underlying proposition: that the extinction of 0.400 hitting measures the worsening of something in baseball, and that the problem will therefore be solved when we determine what has gone wrong.
    This chorus of woe may be divided into two subchoirs, the first singing a foolish tune that need not long detain us, the second more worthy of our respect as an interesting error reflecting the deeper mistake that made this book necessary. The first explanation invokes the usual mythology about good old days versus modern mollycoddling, Nintendo, power lines, high taxes, rampant vegetarianism, or whatever contemporary ill you favor for explaining the morally wretched state of our current lives. In the good old days, when men were men, chewed tobacco, and tormented homosexuals with no fear of rebuke, players were tough and fully concentrated. They did nothing but think baseball, play baseball, and live baseball. Just look at Ty Cobb, sliding into third, spikes high (and directed at the fielder’s flesh). How could any modern player, with his high salary and interminable distractions, possibly match this lost devotion? I call this version the Genesis Myth to honor the appropriate biblical passage about wondrous early times: "There were giants in the earth in those days" (Genesis 6:4). I don’t think that we need to take such fulminations seriously (I shall give my reasons a bit later). For salaries in millions that can last for only a few years of physical prime and be lost forever in a careless moment, modern players can muster quite ferocious dedication to their craft; modern ballplayers

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