Enlivening the Mid-1970s:  Part One

The baseball in use in the major leagues was a little bit dead from 1974 through 1976.

Now, I can’t prove that. And I assure you, nearly every time when assertions about “juiced baseballs” come up, I’m firmly in the highly skeptical camp. But this is one time that I’m pretty close to 100% convinced that there was something hinky going on with the ball.

Here’s the thing:

- Home runs, and power hitting in general, dramatically dropped across both leagues from 1973 to 1974. The power game remained inhibited in 1975 and 1976, and then rebounded sharply in 1977.

- MLB’s official baseball supplier, Spalding, shifted its ball-sewing operation to a plant in Haiti beginning in 1974. In 1977, the sport changed to a new supplier, Rawlings, which manufactured its ball elsewhere.

Coincidence, you say? Well, of course, it might be. But the notion that there was something different about the balls beginning in 1974 was widely noted at the time, and in 1977 with the rejuvenation of hitting and scoring the connection between the changes in baseball production sites and suppliers was just as widely noted.

It seemed pretty obviously true to me as an intense fan of the game at the time, and frankly nothing I’ve observed since—all the various changes in game conditions and home run and scoring rates—has caused me to seriously doubt that it was true.

Assuming it was, what was the effect the mid-1970s Dead Ball had on the statistics put up by the game’s most prominent hitters? How might our impressions of them then, and our recollections and assessments of them now, have been impacted?

What follows is an attempt to recast the numbers of 1974 through 1976 under the assumption that the same quality of baseball had been in use in those seasons as was in use in the seasons surrounding them.

Methodology

To get a handle on this, I’ve employed the same approach I used to see past the lowered-offense phases of the 1910s and the 1960s. We take the seasons immediately surrounding 1974-76 (we use 1973 and 1977, ’78, and ’79; we don’t use 1971-72 because the lack of the Designated Hitter in the American League in those seasons makes the comparison overly problematic), and compute the aggregate rates of offensive production: runs, hits, doubles, triples, homers, walks, and strikeouts. We find that in comparison to its neighboring seasons, the three mid-70s years experienced a 2% reduction in hits, with doubles down by 7%, triples by 5%, and home runs by a whopping 18%. Walk and strikeout rates were only moderately different, but the reduction in run production was 5%.

So, the stats of each batter for the seasons of 1974, 1975, and 1976 (presented below in blue) are adjusted such that the aggregate averages of those seasons is equal to the aggregate total of 1973-77-78-79. For the precise adjustment factors, please see the References and Resources section below.

A Trio of Three-True-Outcomes Gods

Gene Tenace

Yes, that’s right: this is a guy who was primarily a catcher who also routinely put up an OPS of at least .800. The mid-70s Dead Ball cost him a couple of 30-homer years; putting up such a number might have been the thing that got more folks to notice just what an outstanding player he was.

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  26   510    83   132    18     2    24    84   101    94  .259  .387  .443   .830
  1974  27   486    74   104    18     1    32    77   108   106  .214  .357  .452   .809
  1975  28   500    87   129    18     0    35    91   104   128  .259  .386  .508   .894
  1976  29   419    67   106    20     1    27    69    80    92  .253  .372  .499   .872
  1977  30   437    66   102    24     4    15    61   125   119  .233  .415  .410   .825
  1978  31   401    60    90    18     4    16    61   101    98  .224  .392  .409   .801
  1979  32   463    61   122    16     4    20    67   105   106  .263  .403  .445   .848

Jim Wynn

The Toy Cannon was appreciated as a star, though not nearly to the degree he would have been had he been playing his home games in his prime years in pretty much any stadium other than the Astrodome.

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  31   481    90   106    14     5    20    55    91   102  .220  .347  .395   .742
  1974  32   538   109   148    18     4    39   113   106   105  .275  .394  .543   .937
  1975  33   414    84   104    17     0    22    61   108    78  .251  .406  .452   .858
  1976  34   451    79    95    20     1    21    69   125   112  .210  .382  .399   .780
  1977  35   194    17    34     5     2     1    13    32    47  .175  .289  .237   .526

Darrell Evans

Evans was always a very patient hitter, of course. But he noticeably changed his approach in mid-career: following his dreadful early-season slump of 1976, after being traded to the Giants Evans shifted from a closed to an open stance, took some of the uppercut out of his swing, and was more contact-oriented. His reduction in home run frequency after leaving the Braves was mostly a function of leaving The Launching Pad, but it was also a deliberate modification in style. Later in his career, Evans would revert to the big pull-hitting swing.

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  26   595   114   167    25     8    41   104   124   104  .281  .403  .556   .959
  1974  27   574   104   140    23     3    31    83   124    89  .243  .378  .454   .831
  1975  28   570    86   141    24     2    27    77   103   107  .247  .362  .437   .800
  1976  29   398    56    83    10     1    13    48    71    72  .208  .327  .339   .666
  1977  30   461    64   117    18     3    17    72    69    50  .254  .351  .416   .767
  1978  31   547    82   133    24     2    20    78   105    64  .243  .360  .404   .764
  1979  32   562    68   142    23     2    17    70    91    80  .253  .356  .391   .747

The Underrateds

For one reason or another, none of these guys was fully appreciated at the time for the terrific player he truly was.

Roy White

In White’s case, it was a function of being pretty good at everything, but excellent at nothing (a common issue with underrated players), as well as having raw stats that were inhibited by the conditions of his ballpark, his league, and his era, and as well as spending the peak of his career in the Yankees’ lost-in-the-wildnerness period in between their early-60s and mid-70s dynasties. A superficial glance at White (either his stats or his actual figure on the field) wouldn’t grab you, but the closer you look, the more impressive he becomes.

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  29   639    88   157    22     3    18    60    78    81  .246  .329  .374   .703
  1974  30   475    71   132    20     8     9    45    66    44  .279  .366  .411   .778
  1975  31   559    85   164    34     5    15    62    71    50  .293  .373  .453   .826
  1976  32   629   109   182    31     3    17    68    82    52  .290  .371  .431   .802
  1977  33   519    72   139    25     2    14    52    75    58  .268  .358  .405   .763
  1978  34   346    44    93    13     3     8    43    42    35  .269  .349  .393   .742
  1979  35   205    24    44     6     0     3    27    23    21  .215  .290  .288   .578

Bobby Grich

Grich was prone to back trouble from 1977 forward, but that’s really about the only mark against him. He combined defensive excellence with a broad-based offensive contribution.

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  24   581    82   146    29     7    12    50   107    91  .251  .373  .387   .760
  1974  25   585    97   156    31     6    23    86    89   118  .266  .363  .461   .824
  1975  26   527    85   139    28     4    16    60   105    89  .263  .386  .423   .809
  1976  27   521    98   141    33     4    16    57    85   100  .270  .372  .442   .814
  1977  28   181    24    44     6     0     7    23    37    40  .243  .369  .392   .761
  1978  29   487    68   122    16     2     6    42    75    83  .251  .357  .329   .686
  1979  30   534    78   157    30     5    30   101    59    84  .294  .365  .537   .902

Ken Singleton

Quite slow, and not a good defensive outfielder, Singleton displayed “old player’s skills” at a young age. Subsequent sabermetric analysis has come to demonstrate that such players often don’t age well, but it’s probably giving the Mets and the Expos of the 1970s far more credit than they deserve to invoke that as a reason why both organizations all-too-quickly let the young Singleton go. In any case, he was an on-base machine with very good power, and such players produce a whole lot of runs. For what it’s worth, Singleton would age quite nicely, remaining highly productive into his mid-30s.

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  26   560   100   169    26     2    23   103   123    91  .302  .425  .479   .904
  1974  27   514    71   144    22     2    11    78    91    85  .280  .389  .394   .783
  1975  28   589    92   179    40     4    18    58   116    83  .304  .419  .480   .898
  1976  29   547    65   154    27     2    16    73    78    77  .281  .371  .425   .796
  1977  30   536    90   176    24     0    24    99   107   101  .328  .438  .507   .945
  1978  31   502    67   147    21     2    20    81    98    94  .293  .409  .462   .871
  1979  32   570    93   168    29     1    35   111   109   118  .295  .405  .533   .938

Bobby Bonds

Everyone marveled at Bonds’ combination of outstanding power and breathtaking speed. His problem was that for too long, his overall skill set (which also included great defense, but a propensity to strike out a lot) wasn’t appreciated for what it was, but was instead held up in comparison with what it wasn’t: the skill set of none other than Willie Mays, whose place Bonds was “supposed” to take as the Giants’ reigning superstar. Finally deciding that this seven-eighths-full glass of water was half-empty, the Giants traded Bonds away, and from that point on every other GM in baseball seemed to line up, impatient to take his turn to do the same. Bonds thus was never allowed to stay anywhere long enough to make the impression he might have, though, to be fair, his fast-living personality probably didn’t help in that regard.

It added up to an odd combination of great achievement with little sense of fulfillment. Finally in the 1990s, Bonds would achieve a genuine rapprochement with his megastar eldest son, and be welcomed back and warmly regarded by the Giants’ organization, where he would serve as a popular coach. But even this happy ending would be cut short by the ghastly illness of lung cancer, and death at the age of 57, adding the final sad note to one of baseball’s more star-crossed careers.

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  27   643   131   182    34     4    39    96    87   148  .283  .370  .530   .900
  1974  28   570   102   148    24     8    26    74    93   135  .259  .364  .466   .829
  1975  29   532    98   146    28     3    39    89    88   138  .274  .377  .559   .936
  1976  30   380    50   102    11     3    12    57    40    91  .268  .338  .410   .748
  1977  31   592   103   156    23     9    37   115    74   141  .264  .342  .520   .862
  1978  32   565    93   151    19     4    31    90    79   120  .267  .355  .480   .835
  1979  33   538    93   148    24     1    25    85    74   135  .275  .367  .463   .830

Reggie Smith

So here’s the package:

- A switch-hitter who consistently hits right around .300
- With excellent power
- With good strike zone judgment
- A good defensive outfielder with a very strong arm
- Decent speed

And for good measure:

- A good-looking, intelligent, well-spoken guy

Why the heck wasn’t he a superstar, a fan and media darling?

There’s a practical reason why not: Smith was prone to frequent, nagging injuries. He played in as many as 150 games only once in his career after the age of 23, and he generally missed 20-40 games per season. This limited his counting stats, keeping him well behind the league leaders in homers and RBIs, and generally kept him out of MVP contention.

But it was more than that; it was also the reputation Smith gained in his Red Sox years as something of a grumpy malcontent, a reputation that almost certainly had far more to do with the deep-seated racism of the Boston organization and sports media than it genuinely did with Smith. In any case, he would be traded twice while still in his prime, and Smith would never really catch the national spotlight that regularly shone on players quite his inferior.

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  28   423    79   128    23     2    21    69    68    49  .303  .398  .515   .913
  1974  29   520    83   163    28    10    28   105    70    71  .313  .395  .566   .961
  1975  30   480    70   147    28     3    23    80    62    59  .306  .385  .523   .908
  1976  31   397    58   102    16     5    22    51    31    71  .257  .311  .490   .802
  1977  32   488   104   150    27     4    32    87   104    76  .307  .427  .576  1.003
  1978  33   447    82   132    27     2    29    93    70    90  .295  .382  .559   .941
  1979  34   234    41    64    13     1    10    32    31    50  .274  .359  .466   .825
Models of Consistency

Al Oliver

Mr. Scoop was a glib and quotable guy, but was incapable of defining the term “off year.”

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  26   654    90   191    38     7    20    99    22    52  .292  .316  .463   .779
  1974  27   621   101   202    41    13    13    89    32    58  .325  .358  .497   .855
  1975  28   631    94   179    42     8    22    88    25    74  .284  .311  .482   .793
  1976  29   446    65   146    24     5    15    64    26    29  .327  .363  .502   .866
  1977  30   568    75   175    29     6    19    82    40    38  .308  .353  .481   .834
  1978  31   525    65   170    35     5    14    89    31    41  .324  .358  .490   .848
  1979  32   492    69   159    28     4    12    76    34    34  .323  .367  .470   .837

Ron Cey

He never gained close to the celebrity of several of his Dodger Blue teammates (and manager), and what attention he did gain seemed usually to focus on his odd short-legged build, but The Penguin was one terrific player, year in and year out.

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  25   507    60   124    18     4    15    80    74    77  .245  .338  .385   .723
  1974  26   580    92   154    22     2    22   102    75    69  .265  .349  .424   .773
  1975  27   569    76   163    31     2    31   106    77    75  .286  .371  .510   .881
  1976  28   505    72   142    19     3    28    84    88    75  .281  .387  .499   .886
  1977  29   564    77   136    22     3    30   110    93   106  .241  .347  .450   .797
  1978  30   555    84   150    32     0    23    84    96    96  .270  .380  .452   .832
  1979  31   487    77   137    20     1    28    81    86    85  .281  .389  .499   .888

Graig Nettles

Nettles’ defense was what everyone raved about, but his bat was extremely reliable as well, and would remain so until he was in his 40s.

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  28   552    65   129    18     0    22    81    78    76  .234  .334  .386   .720
  1974  29   569    78   142    23     1    27    79    58    76  .249  .319  .434   .753
  1975  30   584    74   158    26     4    26    95    50    89  .270  .328  .461   .789
  1976  31   586    92   151    31     2    39    98    61    95  .257  .327  .518   .846
  1977  32   589    99   150    23     4    37   107    68    79  .255  .333  .496   .829
  1978  33   587    81   162    23     2    27    93    59    69  .276  .343  .460   .803
  1979  34   521    71   132    15     1    20    73    59    53  .253  .325  .401   .726

Tony Perez

Perez was more celebrated than his own play merited, simply because he was on such great Big Red Machine teams. But he was in fact a key element of the success of those teams; Perez wasn’t a great hitter, but he was a very good one, highly dependable and durable. His Hall of Fame election was pretty silly, of course, but this quality and type of player is an essential ingredient of historically great teams, in just the way the steady, familiar character actor is an essential ingredient of historically great movies.

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  31   564    73   177    33     3    27   101    74   117  .314  .393  .527   .920
  1974  32   599    85   161    30     2    34   106    60   113  .269  .335  .498   .833
  1975  33   514    78   147    30     3    24   114    53   102  .286  .353  .499   .852
  1976  34   530    81   140    34     6    23    95    49    89  .264  .326  .484   .810
  1977  35   559    71   158    32     6    19    91    63   111  .283  .352  .463   .815
  1978  36   544    63   158    38     3    14    78    38   104  .290  .336  .449   .785
  1979  37   489    58   132    29     4    13    73    38    82  .270  .322  .425   .747

Steve Garvey

Garvey’s self-inflicted plunge from media-darling superstar to endorsement-poison punchline was extraordinary, rivaled in modern history only by a few others (Pete Rose and Kirby Puckett come to mind). Lost in all the folderol seems always to have been a clear-headed assessment of Garvey the ballplayer: he was never, of course, the elite talent he was made out to be during his career, but neither does he deserve the guffawing dismissal he too often draws in retrospect.

Yes, Garvey’s power was good but not great, and yes, he drew walks far less frequently than middle-of-the-lineup guys should. But taking everything into account, the bottom line is that Garvey delivered outstanding value, in the package of run production, sure-handed defense, and exceptional durability and consistency.

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  24   349    37   106    17     3     8    50    11    42  .304  .328  .438   .766
  1974  25   646   100   204    34     3    26   116    30    67  .316  .346  .498   .844
  1975  26   663    89   214    41     6    22   100    32    67  .323  .354  .503   .857
  1976  27   635    89   204    40     4    16    84    49    70  .321  .370  .472   .842
  1977  28   646    91   192    25     3    33   115    38    90  .297  .335  .498   .833
  1978  29   639    89   202    36     9    21   113    40    70  .316  .353  .499   .852
  1979  30   648    92   204    32     1    28   110    37    59  .315  .351  .497   .848
Studies in Inconsistency

Here are four fellows who shared four traits:

(1) Enormous strength
(2) Periodic difficulty in controlling weight
(3) Tremendous hot streaks and appalling slumps
(4) A lingering sense of unfulfilled potential

George Scott

Scott’s offensive implosion of 1968 was perhaps the most severe and shocking in baseball history. To his credit, Scott stoically and steadfastly worked to reconstruct his swing; it took him a few years, but he got back to where he had been. But where he had been was as a 23-year-old with tremendous ability, and far greater heights had seemed within his reach. Scott would spend the early-to-mid-1970s on the threshold of superstardom, but his every step forward was followed by a step back.

Boomer’s last hurrah was upon his return to the Red Sox in 1977. At the age of 33, he surged to 25 homers and 68 RBIs through July 10th, but then the agonizing slump bugaboo overtook him; he would manage just 8 dingers and 27 ribbies the rest of the way, and his days as a productive hitter would prove to be finished.

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  29   604    98   185    30     4    24   107    61    94  .306  .370  .488   .858
  1974  30   607    78   173    39     2    21    86    58    91  .285  .348  .459   .806
  1975  31   620    90   179    28     4    44   114    50    98  .289  .342  .561   .903
  1976  32   609    77   169    23     5    22    81    52   119  .278  .335  .440   .775
  1977  33   584   103   157    26     5    33    95    57   112  .269  .337  .500   .837
  1978  34   412    51    96    16     4    12    54    44    86  .233  .305  .379   .684
  1979  35   346    46    88    20     4     6    49    31    61  .254  .317  .387   .704

Jeff Burroughs

Burroughs’s 1974 MVP award is sometimes laughingly derided, but the fact is he had a terrific year, and at the age of 23 no one anticipated the manner in which he would immediately regress. But he seemed to have gotten it going again with the Braves a few years later, only to flop again, this time even harder. After the second fall, he would never get up.

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  22   526    71   147    17     1    30    85    67    88  .279  .355  .487   .842
  1974  23   557    88   170    36     2    31   124    89   105  .305  .401  .541   .943
  1975  24   587    85   134    22     0    35    99    78   156  .229  .319  .447   .766
  1976  25   607    74   146    24     2    22    90    68    94  .240  .317  .395   .712
  1977  26   579    91   157    19     1    41   114    86   126  .271  .362  .520   .882
  1978  27   488    72   147    30     6    23    77   117    92  .301  .432  .529   .961
  1979  28   397    49    89    14     1    11    47    73    75  .224  .347  .348   .695

Greg Luzinski

Luzinski’s career perhaps represents the most vivid illustration of the very fine line treaded by a young player of immense bulk. The slightest deterioration in flexibility, the smallest reduction in bat speed, can quickly render a devastating slugger into a common journeyman.

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  22   610    76   174    26     4    29    97    51   135  .285  .346  .484   .830
  1974  23   304    30    84    15     1     9    50    29    77  .275  .337  .416   .754
  1975  24   599    89   182    38     3    42   126    88   152  .304  .393  .586   .979
  1976  25   536    78   165    30     1    26   100    49   108  .308  .366  .512   .878
  1977  26   554    99   171    35     3    39   130    80   140  .309  .394  .594   .988
  1978  27   540    85   143    32     2    35   101   100   135  .265  .388  .526   .914
  1979  28   452    47   114    23     1    18    81    56   103  .252  .343  .427   .770

John Mayberry

Mayberry was truly a great young hitter, clearly the most talented of this quartet. The career he sacrificed to cocaine and who-knows-what-all may very well have been of Hall of Fame quality.

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  24   510    87   142    20     2    26   100   122    79  .278  .417  .478   .895
  1974  25   429    66   102    14     1    27    72    76    73  .238  .352  .463   .815
  1975  26   557   100   164    41     1    42   111   117    74  .294  .417  .596  1.012
  1976  27   597    80   141    24     2    16   100    81    74  .236  .327  .362   .689
  1977  28   543    73   125    22     1    23    82    83    86  .230  .336  .401   .737
  1978  29   515    51   129    15     2    22    70    60    57  .250  .329  .416   .745
  1979  30   464    61   127    22     1    21    74    69    60  .274  .372  .461   .833
The Kong Stands Alone

Dave Kingman

We did our best to attempt to explain this bizarre phenomenon here, but if I hadn’t witnessed it with my own eyes I would be strongly inclined to wonder, as Bill James memorably did with regard to Hal Chase, as to whether Kingman truly ever existed at all, or if he was instead just a macabre invention of the darkest fiction.

  Year Age    AB     R     H    2B    3B    HR   RBI    BB    SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
  1973  24   305    54    62    10     1    24    55    41   122  .203  .300  .479   .779
  1974  25   351    43    79    19     2    22    58    36   126  .226  .299  .481   .780
  1975  26   504    68   118    24     1    44    92    33   154  .234  .282  .547   .829
  1976  27   476    73   115    15     1    45    90    28   136  .242  .283  .563   .846
  1977  28   439    47    97    20     0    26    78    28   143  .221  .276  .444   .720
  1978  29   395    65   105    17     4    28    79    39   111  .266  .336  .542   .878
  1979  30   532    97   153    19     5    48   115    45   131  .288  .343  .613   .956

Next Time

We’ll examine the livened-up performances of the very best players in baseball in the mid-1970s.

References & Resources
Equalizing the average rates of 1974-75-76 with those of 1973-77-78-79 is achieved by using the following multipliers:

Runs: 1.0493
Hits: 1.0187
Doubles: 1.0774
Triples: 1.0572
Home Runs: 1.2221
Walks: 0.9834
Strikeouts: 1.0078

An impact of a greater rate of hits is an increase in at-bats, of course. I use a simple method to increase at-bats: every batter’s at-bats are increased by his number of increased hits. Outs are constant, of course, and I assume as well a constant rate of double plays and baserunning outs—probably not exactly proper assumptions, but close enough for our purposes.

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