By Patrick F Cannon
The history of baseball is full of chicanery. Foreign substances on the ball; cork in the bats; juice in the veins; and eagle eyes stealing signs. And like most sports, the odd game thrown for cash.
Absent any of this, the basics of the game haven’t changed much. The bat is still wood, and the ball in recent years has been pretty consistent. The rules have been tinkered with, and there is no doubt that today’s players are generally in better physical condition. Pitcher’s throw harder and are changed more often. Batters tend to swing for the fences; strike out more; and have generally lower batting averages. But the fan of 1920 would recognize today’s game, even if appalled at the price of admission.
Ditto football (and what we call “soccer” too). The ball is much the same as it’s been for decades. Like baseball, the physical condition and size of the players has changed. When I played high school football in the 1950s, it was rare to have a lineman who weighed as much as 250 pounds. Now, it’s common to have 300 pounders, even in high school. Because of the size, strength and speed of today’s players, protective equipment is far better. And although the basic game is the same, rules on penalties have changed, mainly to protect the players, especially the cherished quarterbacks. When I played, “unnecessary roughness” really had to be egregious.
Although not a hockey fan, there hasn’t seemed to be much change in the game since the introduction of the curved stick decades ago. And although it has become more popular with a younger crowd, Julius Caesar would probably recognize bocce as the same pastime the Legion lads played when they weren’t conquering all of Gaul.
Now, I gave up football in my early 30s when I broke some ribs playing touch football against younger fellows in Albert Lea, Minnesota. Pick up baseball games were a feature of our family reunions until it moved to venues without playing fields. In the mid-seventies, I installed a basketball backboard and hoop on the garage. That was several houses ago, and don’t believe I’ve shot any hoops since.
The only sport I still play regularly is golf, in which the equipment has changed more than in any other sport – and not for the better. The equipment I use today – clubs and balls – have been transformed by technology. TaylorMade introduced the first “metal” wood in 1979 (a classic oxymoron still used today). In 1980, the average driving distance on the PGA Tour was 257 yards. In 2020, it was 296. Last year, Bryson DeChambeau averaged 314.5 yards per drive. Sixteen of his fellow swingers averaged more than 300. In 2003, only two did.
What’s wrong with this, you say? For one thing, once-famous golf courses either had to be dropped from tournament golf or redesigned and lengthened to suit today’s long hitters. It has also become meaningless to try to compare today’s golfer with the legends of the past. Bobby Jones played with forged-steel irons and real-wood woods, usually persimmon. Steel shafts became common after 1925, but that was pretty much it until 1979. Metal woods have gone from steel to aluminum to various alloys to titanium to the latest innovation – miracle metal with carbon fiber faces. If you want the latest thing – and golfers are goofy about this – the driver alone can set you back $600 or more.
Of course, you need more than a driver to play a round of golf. A quick check of top-of-the-line clubs yields a cost of about $2,500 to put you on the first tee. And if you’re truly goofy, when fabulous new clubs come out in two years, you’ll rush to order them! Of course, the chances of my readers even being golfers is slim. Added to the cost of equipment – good balls, by the way, cost about $50 a dozen – is the cost of actually playing, which can easily run $50 at a public course. No wonder the Pickle Ball courts are full.
Anyway, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the Royal and Ancient, which set the rules of golf, should dial back the technology and set standards for clubs and balls that would permit comparisons of golfers from different eras. I would opt for real wood, with drivers reduced to a size somewhere between the past and present, say 350 cc for drivers, and 250 for fairway woods. The heads of irons should be one piece, forged from steel only, and limited in size. Balls could have reasonable limits in compression, etc.
None of this is going to happen, and most of you don’t care anyway. You probably agree with Mark Twain, who is quoted as saying “golf is a good walk spoiled.”
Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon