Diamond Mind Online® allows team owners to pit players from throughout baseball history against each other. In order to do so, it was necessary for us to make certain judgments about how players would have performed in settings different from those in which they actually played: different parks, different eras, different leagues, etc. For more information click on Normalization.
Our starting premise was that a player who was a star relative to his contemporaries also would be a star in alternate settings. Like the proverbial “big fish in a small pond”, however, a star player in a weak league is going to amass more impressive numbers, relative to that league, than the same player would in a stronger league. Apart from the question of the inherent athleticism of players of the 19th Century compared to those of today, there were times when the level of competitiveness in the “major leagues” was weaker than at other times. In fact, even the term “major league” must be used advisedly, since some leagues that laid claim to “major league” status clearly were weaker than others in existence at the same time. (And some teams and leagues, comprised of players barred by race from playing in the majors, were worthy rivals of their white contemporaries.)
Two particular factors that affect the level of competitiveness – the “strength” or “weakness” – of a league, are the concentration or dilution of talent in the league, and the evenness of distribution of that talent. The more uneven the distribution of talent in a league, the greater the opportunity for aggregations of better players to “get fat” against inferior teams. And the more “major league” teams there are at any given time, the greater the dilution of “major league” talent.
Bill James created an Index of Competitive Balance that tracks the evenness of competition in the major leagues. Essentially the Index measures the extent to which the stronger teams consistently dominated the weaker teams. It is expressed as a percentage, with a higher percentage indicating greater competitiveness. The least competitive decade of major league baseball was the 1870’s (21%), followed by the 1880’s (24%) and the 1890’s (27%). (The Competitive Index for the 1900’s was 30% and for the following decade 36%, which was the highest figure until the 1960’s.)
Given the low level of competitiveness, as well as the fact that the game was in its infancy, the National League in the 1870’s is treated as the weakest “major league” (other than the Union Association in 1884), with the quality of National League play gradually increasing throughout the remainder of the century.
The advancement of the sport and increased competitiveness of the 1880’s was offset by a series of challenges to the hegemony of the National League, which resulted in the dilution of major league talent. The first challenger to the title of the National League as sole major league was the American Association in 1882. Although American Association rosters during the years of its existence (1882-91) included many outstanding 19th Century players, the standard of the league was somewhat inferior to the National League.
The next challenge came from the Union Association in 1884. The UA attracted relatively little major league caliber talent (much of which was concentrated in the St Louis franchise of the league’s founder, Henry Lucas, which went 94-19). In fact, Bill James has argued that the UA should not be treated as a “major league” at all. The UA did dilute somewhat the overall level of talent in the National League and American Association in its sole season of existence.
Reacting to the introduction of the reserve clause in player contracts and consequent abuses by team owners, in 1890 the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players formed their own Players League to compete with the National League. Unlike the Union Association, the Players League was a much stronger aggregation, with most top players defecting from their National League teams. The American Association was hardest hit of all, losing talent to both the Players League and the National League.
The Players League collapsed after a single season and the weakened American Association followed suit one year later. The eight-team National League added the four strongest American Association franchises and from 1892 until the appearance of the American League was the sole major league.
In 1900 the National League contracted from 12 to 8 teams. Ban Johnson stepped into the resulting vacuum, claiming major league status for his fledgling American League in 1901. Although arguments could be made that the American League initially was weaker than the National, and that the expanded number of major league teams diluted talent generally, we have chosen to treat major league competitiveness beginning in 1901 as equivalent to the present, with two exceptions.
During the seasons of 1914-15, the Federal League challenged organized baseball’s control of the sport. Although well below the level of the National and American Leagues, the Federal League did attract a reasonable number of their players. The temporary dilution of talent was evident in the unusually even 1914 National League race, with the perennial second-division Boston Braves coming from last place on July 4 to capture the pennant, and then sweep Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s in the World Series.
The second exception is the 1943-45 seasons, during which major league rosters progressively were weakened by calls to military service. Although some have argued that too little credit has been given for major league performances during these seasons, only one-third of the major league regulars in 1945 played as many as 100 games in 1946.
When you are searching for players in our database, you should keep the foregoing in mind. Normalized statistics measure the performance of players relative to the leagues and seasons in which they played, not to other leagues and other seasons. In leagues and seasons of lesser competitiveness those normalized figures are exaggerated … in some cases (such as for the Union Association in 1884) quite substantially.
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