Just a little bit of history repeating

What’s troubling baseball, though, is a fear: People may admire good pitching, but how long will they pay to see it? – Joseph Durso, The New York Times, May 1968

Managers have come up with new strategic concepts. The main difference is that they now platoon their pitchers… Fresh pitchers keep streaming in. Once upon a time a hitter could adjust to a pitcher after he’d come to bat a couple of times and the pitcher was beginning to tire. Now they get no chance to tire and the hitter has no opportunity to adjust. The game has become one-sided. – Former Yankees All-Star shortstop Tony Kubek, July 1968

Wait, I messed that up. This is where the big reveal of the date is supposed to go. Like hey, guess what, these aren’t today’s hot-take columnist and today’s curmudgeonly old ballplayer even though the issues sound quite modern. Hey look, what we think is a crisis today is actually the same thing people have said before.

But I think that’s been spoiled by the attribution, and anyway, that’s a hackish technique used by hacks who can’t figure out how to start a story.

But we already knew how nineteen-sixty-eight-ish baseball is feeling today. The 1968 season is referred to as “The Year of the Pitcher,” but just like in modernity, it was hardly a singular event. It was part of a decade-long trend of declining scoring that had the power to make a great game fall somewhere on the alarmism scale from slightly diminished to dying.

So in the 1968-69 offseason, Major League Baseball did something about it. Actually they did two things.

“Hitters got help in two places,” the UPI recap read on the day after the general managers’ meetings in San Francisco, December 4, 1968. “On the mound and in the strike zone—while the pitchers got it in the neck.”

Fun, colorful language aside, the article referred to the lowering of the mound from 15 inches to 10, the more well known of the changes, and the shrinking of the strike zone from its rule book definition of shoulders to knees to the slightly amended armpits to the top of the knees.

That’s not the only thing that made the 1968-69 offseason so influential, and that’s not the only reason it’s interesting to look back on today. Yes, it was a time of great change in baseball, with the new rules to try to boost the scoring environment, and also with the implementation of divisional play thanks to the addition of four new expansion teams—which historically has had the same effect on offense.

But where the parallels really lie with today is that the 1968-69 offseason was in baseball, like it was in the rest of America, a time for experimentation.

That offseason can be considered almost as notable for the things that were brought up and not acted upon and the things that were tested in spring training but not implemented in the regular season. It wasn’t top-down experimentation like it is today with Rob Manfred’s throwing blades of grass in the air on things like banning the defensive shift, which has gone nowhere since that one strange weekend morning. But it came from the rules committee, and it came from individuals around the game whose proposals would be weighed by said committee.

And if you’re looking for a takeaway from history that we may be doomed/destined to repeat, it’s that proposals that are rejected or banished to something less high profile like the minor leagues or spring training tend to hang around.

There was actually a third proposal specifically to help the hitters that the rules committee considered.

They also called for enforcement of an existing rule. It had always been on the books that pitchers couldn’t doctor the ball with a liquid such as saliva or with abrasives. But after the 1968 season, for the further benefit of the hitters, they wanted to put in a clause that a player could be ejected for doctoring the ball. While the committee called for enforcement of the rule clarified in March of 1968 that legislated a ball be called for infractions, they stopped short of the full bans leading to ejections that can be found today.

The chatter and spring training experimentation of the 1968-69 offseason was also instrumental in furthering the evolution that would lead to the designated hitter rule in the American League four years later.

December’s general manager’s meetings came and went with no official action taken on the proposal to, according to the New York Times, add the “long-discussed wild-card pinch-hitter for pitchers.” However, in the ensuing months, it was decided that there would be an experiment in spring training pioneered by the American League.

“During spring training, the American League will allow a far freer use of pinch-hitters and pinch-runners,” the Times wrote in February as teams headed to camp. “They may be sent into games twice without replacing the regular men in the line-up—who normally would have to leave.”

This was accompanied by regular season changes in some of the top minor leagues, just like the pitch clock’s trial implementation this year.

The International League came closest to nailing the DH as it would come to be, missing by only the name in calling it the “designated pinch-hitter.” The Eastern League experimented with a similar rule in which the pitchers could bat in some of their appearances and get pinch-hit for in others without having to leave the game.

The Texas League and the New York-Penn League’s experiments probably went a bit too far. The former let a pinch-hitter replace a different hitter in the lineup each inning, while the latter let a “pinch-hitting specialist bat twice for any player without that player having to leave.

In the end, the rule looked a lot more like the first two, but that’s the benefit of more experiments, it would seem.

Other topics discussed in the 1968-69 offseason that were not implemented included a 20-second limit on pitchers (sounds familiar) and a rule such that the pitching team only has to tell the umpire that they want to intentionally walk the batter rather than throw four pitches out of the strike zone. Ideas tend to hang around.

When Rob Manfred first took office in January, he responded to two perceived problems—the lack of scoring and the slow pace of games—by throwing ideas at it. Some will happen right away. Some will happen in a few years after study. Some will not happen at all. None of this is new.

“The important thing, most baseball people agree, is not whether batters get four strikes or pinch-hitters get four trips to the plate. The important thing is that sparks are flying from 680 Fifth Avenue as the old ball game marks its centennial.” – Joseph Durso, The New York Times, February 1969

Sources: Archives of the New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune and this Grantland piece.