A baseball fan of good conscience wrote to me this week in what can only be called a state of moral agony.
It had come to the attention of Bill Jayne that Al Oliver had just passed Lou Gehrig on the all-time hit list (2,721).
This was the last straw.
"I am not a crank who constantly denigrates baseball's present and glorifies the past," Jayne wrote, before incanting a litany of statistical atrocities that have become all too familiar.
Nolan Ryan (239-217 and currently on an eight-game losing streak) will go down in history as the top strikeout pitcher of all time. He's at 4,052 -- far beyond Walter Johnson -- and climbing.
Next month Phil Niekro, age 46, probably will win his 300th game. Thus he'll become the 18th pitcher (and only the seventh whose career began after 1920) to do so. Perhaps Niekro's real distinction is that only two men who pitched exclusively in the 20th century have lost more games. And one of those was Gaylord Perry, another of our recent and somewhat dubious applicants for permanent glory.
Not long after Niekro, Don Sutton, who has had only one 20-win season in his life, also will become a 300-game winner. He needs only eight more wins.
Reggie Jackson already this season has passed Mel Ott, Ernie Banks, Eddie Mathews, Willie McCovey and, heaven forbid, Ted Williams, on the home run list. Jackson has 523, stands eighth in history and has Jimmie Foxx and Mickey Mantle in his sights. Will Jackson, the only man to strike out 2,000 times, be one of the half-dozen top sluggers in history?
Far more ignominous is news that Dave Kingman has hit his 400th home run. This gives pause because every man who has hit 400 homers either has, or probably will, get into the Hall of Fame. If Kingman gets in, the place should be quarantined. Even Jackson can't touch Kingman's 28.5 percent strikeout rate. Kingman's .238 average, his awful defense and his sour disposition have made him the definition of a losing ballplayer in his own era. The man's only 36 and the American League has the designated hitter. What's going to keep him from 500? Conscience?
Our new friend Jayne, and perhaps many more, wish to protest. "Players who, over the years, have shown themselves to be one-dimensional and, often, of little value to their teams, are climbing to the top rungs of career statistical achievement," writes Jayne. "Rod Carew's 3,000 hits marginally qualifies for inclusion in this category. Although I believe Pete Rose is 'sui generis,' it's obvious he's not the all-around ballplayer Ty Cobb was."
"Are (such) players essentially statistical asterisks?" asks Jayne.
There we have it. Outrage in the heartland. When Al Oliver's name is "mentioned in the same breath" with Lou Gehrig, Fairfax, Va., gets mad.
So, coach, whatda we do?
Al Kaline got 3,000 hits without batting .300. Then Lou Brock did it batting .293. Carl Yastrzemski's career average was .285, for crying out loud, and there he stands, seventh in history in both hits and total bases.
We need a system to weed out the frauds and reward the righteous.
Every baseball fan knows that it's inherently impossible to compare players across eras. The sport Cobb played in 1905 and the one Rose engages in now are just a tiny bit different.
We need a simple system to cut through all the variables and distinctions. Not a perfect yardstick, to be sure, but something which is macroscopically appealing, putting the proper players into the proper groups: great, very good, good, fair and fake.
This can be done.
Since we can't travel through time, let's try to measure a man's dominance within his own time. The easiest way to do this is to count how many important titles -- i.e., batting championships or ERA crowns -- he won.
It sounds too simple. But the results are appealing and revealing.
For hitters, let's count how many times a player leads his league in hits, doubles, triples, homers, home-run percentage, runs, RBI, walks, steals, batting average and slugging average.
Babe Ruth had 64 offensive titles, followed by Cobb with 51. Then come Williams (44), Rogers Hornsby (43), Stan Musial (40) and Honus Wagner (38). Below them are Mike Schmidt (25), Gehrig (24), Hank Aaron (23), Mantle (22), Ralph Kiner (22), Harmon Killebrew (22), Willie Mays (21) and -- with a nice comfortable 14th-place notch -- Rose (19).
What's appealing here is the general groupings, not nit-picking over why Mays isn't higher or Kiner lower. (Maybe we should add Gold Gloves, too?)
How do our new immortals fare?
Yastrzemski had 18 titles, so let's leave the man alone. Jackson and Carew have a respectable, but not spectacular total of 13 titles. So does Brock, although eight of his were for steals. Tris Speaker had 14, Frank Robinson 12 and George Brett 11, so it's a nice neighborhood.
The fellows who get embarrassed in the total title count are Kaline with 4, Oliver (5), Kingman (6) and Roberto Clemente (7). These gentlemen are ripe for punishment: each also has only two 100-RBI seasons. Killebrew had more 100-RBI years (9) than all four combined.
Titles aren't easy to come by. Ask Dave Winfield. In 13 years, he has one.
Now, let's check out the pitchers. We'll count wins, win percentage, ERA, complete games, innings, strikeouts and shutouts for starters.
We know in our hearts that Walter Johnson should pitch to Ruth in heaven. That's how it works out. The Big Train has 43 titles, followed by Grover Cleveland Alexander (37), Warren Spahn (32), Lefty Grove (31), Bob Feller (26), Christy Mathewson (23), Cy Young (22), Sandy Koufax (21) and Steve Carlton (20).
It's nice to see Feller, who might well have won 350 games, instead of 266, if it weren't for World War II, rated so high.
Rounding out our pitching top 10, tied with Robin Roberts with 18 titles, is our newest 300-game winner, Tom Seaver.
On the surface, Niekro and Ryan fare better than we might have thought. Each has 13 titles, the same as Whitey Ford and Jim Palmer. The difference is that Niekro and Ryan are lopsided chaps. If Niekro's eight titles for complete games and innings count for him, then shouldn't his nine negative titles -- for losses, walks and allowing hits -- also count? If we allow Ryan his seven strikeout titles, shouldn't we factor in his nine titles for walks and losses?
Yes, we should. Most great pitchers, like Seaver, Palmer or Ford, never "won" any negative titles.
With Seaver, Carew, Rose, Jackson, Ryan, Kingman, Niekro and Sutton all in the headlines virtually at once, baseball's traditional statistical monuments will come under closer scrutiny than ever.
Making tough distinctions always is good practice. If we check the Title Tally before hurrying these gents to Cooperstown, we'll make fewer errors.