Classic card of the week

During some unspecified year of my childhood, I was given or purchased a set/pack of cards called “Baseball’s All-Time Greats.” As if part of some baseball-themed cliché of Americana, I distinctly remember flipping through these cards in the back seat of my dad’s Chevy on the way home from a Little League game. The cards were actually very informative, educating me about players of yore during a time sans the Internet, and bringing to life the names I had heard my dad, grandfather, and various baseball announcers utter in reverential tones. As a collector of baseball cards, however, they were somewhat infuriating. They were made to resemble old-timey cards that, if original, would be worth some serious moolah. In actuality, they were modern reprints produced by some unknown entity and sold at Quick Check. Still, I hoped that if I held onto these cards, the confused future would just split the difference, and I’d at least have something to show for it. I do not.

I’m not sure why no one had a picture of Walter Johnson for this particular card. This set features cards of players from the same exact era (Tris Speaker, for example) that have pictures, so I’m uncertain why we had to settle for an artist’s rendition here. I also do not know if this is some sort of famous portrait of Johnson, or if this unspecified company just threw something together. If the former, this is exquisite art, maybe?; if the latter, I like how his shoulders are represented with two squiggly pencil lines. Take away those lines and Walter Johnson’s head is floating in space. It also appears as though he’s wearing eye shadow. Boom, roasted, anonymous head artist. You, sir (or ma’am), are no detailer of Diamond Kings.

(Side bar: Why are all portraits of old-timey people so depressingly sad? Walter Johnson prolly just tossed 17 innings of one-hit ball and he looks like his dog just died; Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and won a war and built his own log cabin and was like, “This sucks;” Napoleon is taking over the world and he’s all depressed while trying to feel himself up. Relatively speaking, Mona Lisa is downright giddy. Maybe it's because they had to sit still for three weeks in order to get a much worse and less realistic result than we can get on our iPhone in one second? I guess that would make me sad, too. Nevermind, forget I said anything.)

So Walter Johnson was one of the greatest pitchers ever, which is indisputable. Looking at his stats, however, has called to mind for me the sheer absurdity of old-time statistics. Try this one on for size:

He had seven consecutive seasons (1910-16) with 25 wins or more. In 1913 his pitching record was 36-7, with a 1.09 ERA.

That’s not even a real thing, what you just read. Granted, in 1913 there were only three baseball teams, none of which included minorities, and every player had twelve nicknames, which boosted confidence, and everyone's limbs were, apparently, indestructible. However, pitchers had to pitch until both games of the double-header were over or until they died (from pitching or typhoid). And everyone was drunk the whole time, which kinda worked both ways, I guess. During the offseason, most of the players worked in oil fields or something. And that is not a joke, particularly in Walter Johnson’s case. These are the things I have learned from following baseball for many years, and hearing old people talk about stuff on TV.

"But Mike," you say, "those are just stupid surface statistics! Surely Walter Johnson was no more adept than current Major League Baseball person, Justin Verlander!" Well then, let us check advanced statistics, shall we? During that year of 1913, Johnson posted a 13.8 WAR. Last year, during his Cy Young/MVP season, one of the greatest pitching performances of the modern era, Verlander’s WAR was … 8.5. The difference between those two WAR (5.3) almost accounts for that of 2010 NL MVP, Joey Votto (5.9). And, Johnson’s 13.8 is still higher than Barry Bonds’ ridonk 12.5 WAR of 2001, which was, to be fair, done without even one nickname.

Walter Johnson, 1913, ERA + 259
Justin Verlander, 2011, ERA+ 172

There are factors, then and now, which simply cannot be accounted for, but I am unsure they transcend the simple fact that all baseball players throughout history have played the same game, baseball, against other humans.

(For what it's worth, Pedro's 2000 ERA+ was 291 (!!!). His WAR was *only* 10.1. God, I love baseball.)

And that's what these cards, gimmicky as they were, embedded in me: a love of baseball. It was over 20 years ago I sat in my dad's car, at some point coming across this floating head. Man, if this card were just worth something ... At some point I flipped it over. He did WHAT? ... And now here I am, on the Internet, reaffirming that man's awesomeness with modern stats. I hope Walter Johnson was happier in real life than he appears here. He should have been--he played baseball, and he was awesome at it.


troy said…
Really nice job with this. And thanks a ton for not making me go look up Pedro's WAR. (I'm a Sox fan, I didn't need to look up his ERA+.)
mkenny59 said…
Hey, thanks, Troy! As you know I'm a Yankee fan -- maybe it's BECAUSE I'm a Yankee fan -- and I maintain that Pedro is the greatest pitcher I have seen in my lifetime.