Another Theory For Boxing’s Decline

There have been many good explanations for the decline of boxing’s popularity in American popular culture. (I say in popular culture, as many big fights continue to draw big crowds and make big bucks). The usual and well-founded ones range along the lines of…

  • General sleaziness (which is not a new thing-an amusing example of this is how even by the 1960s, the sport’s reputation had shrunk to the point where new strips in the Joe Palooka comic didn’t actually show him boxing).
  • The division of the sport into many rival fiefdoms, from the “alphabet soup” sanctioning organizations to promotions and confusing weight divisions.
  • The sport being confined to niche premium television (it’s a chicken-egg question whether this was a mistake that walled off its customer base or a reasonable solution because its base and relationship with network television was declining anyway).
  • Competition from other sports, not just in terms of viewers but also in terms of what athletically talented people want to pursue. Just look at the career paths of Ken Norton Senior and Junior. This has also affected the other major American classic sport, baseball. Tom Brady was a talented baseball player in high school who was drafted by the Expos and Patrick Mahomes’ father was an MLB pitcher.
  • Because of the first three points and a fairly unique obsession with perfect records, an abundance of noncompetitive squashes, with actual quality fights hard to set up.

The last point leads into a new theory I saw floating around the internet-which is that the mass of lopsided fights leads to lopsided odds that are neither competitive nor fun. A big favorite gets the winner very little money (especially once one considers sportsbook limits) and big losses if their opponent does pull a Buster Douglas. A big underdog is highly unlikely to win.

This is an especially tough problem in a sport that has been closely tied to gambling for its entire existence. Boxing isn’t as fused to betting as, say, horse racing is (In my personal, albeit limited experience, the only people who care about non-Triple Crown races are gamblers), but I’d say it’s definitely more so than the other major sports. While I don’t think poor odds are the only reason it’s fallen out of favor, it certainly doesn’t help.

A Thousand Words: Action PC Baseball

Action PC Baseball

I think my favorite sports simulator of all time is Action PC Baseball. Of all the (worthy) baseball sims I’ve tried, this hits the “just right” level of simplicity and depth. Instead of being a “tycoon” game, it’s a single season replay/simulator that requires a lot of manual setup. It’s also an individual game simulation that’s pretty easy and relaxing to play, with a game able to be finished in minutes with the right settings.

This seems like Jekyll and Hyde, but these elements actually complement each other well. If I’m in the mood for some relaxing time-passing, I can just fire up a single game controlling both teams and enjoy it for that. If I have the time and energy for creating massive “what-ifs”, I can focus on building the rosters (which is frequently very fun). Though simple and a little hard to get into, the UI is very smooth once figured out.

In short, this simulator is one that has given me many, many hours of fun, and different varieties no less.

The GWRBI

Baseball is a sport full of statistics, and there’s one weird footnote of a stat that was, from 1980 to 1988, elevated to prominence. This was the Game Winning Run Batted In. Defined simply as “The RBI that gives a club the lead it never relinquishes” , it existed but never felt that prominent. The career leader in GWRBIs during this period was Keith Hernandez.

“Normal” RBIs were one of the first stats that sabermetricians slammed, and with good reason. The stat is simply too context-dependent and reliant on how good at getting on base the players batting before the RBI hitter are. Rickey Henderson didn’t have that many RBIs because he was always a leadoff hitter, so the bases were either empty or he appeared after the team’s worst hitters. GWRBIs have that and the same “reliant on the other half off the inning” issue as pitcher wins. And while meant to embody the likes of Bill Mazeroski’s famous home run, the definition of a GWRBI means that a marginal player singling in the first run early in an 11-0 squash is also credited with it.

So few people mourned the stat when it was discontinued. Yet I have a strange affection for it, for while near-useless for evaluating players, it reveals a little about the paths of individual games.

The Big Baseball Business What-If

There’s an underappreciated what-if concerning the business of baseball that I’ve considered worth exploring. Too much sports alternate history simply shuffles players, teams, and outcomes around. It feels both obvious and unsatisfying to me, the equivalent of the Red Sox unloading not just Babe Ruth but the entire core of what would become the 1923 champions on the Yankees or the A’s “Mustache Gang” all leaving in free agency when they got the chance. This is something different and could have changed the entire business model to be more like what’s in our time a vastly different type of sports.

In the 1950s, the Dodgers were intrigued by a company called Skiatron, offering pay-TV services. The technology did exist at the time but was very rudimentary. The possiblities were obvious. After all, even at a dollar per game, a six figure audience could translate to that much every home game, a huge sum at the time.

In OTL, this did not come to pass in this form. Besides the obvious ferocious opposition from the existing broadcasting industry, Skiatron’s technology and finances just weren’t viable at the time. But if something like that could be done (and I don’t know the exact plausibility-I’m not that kind of technical expert), it would be, no pun intended, a game changer. The obvious is that there’d be a big jolt of money, getting the historical broadcast windfall in earlier.

There are easy ramifications. There’d be more money in the sport, which would increase the pressure by players to get more of the growing pie for themselves. A historically unsuccessful team that used this to its advantage would result in the championship races being different. But there’s also more thoughtful ones.

One on-the-field change I could see resulting from this could be in pitcher usage. Here I’m kind of extrapolating from the “overworked for the sake of attendance” policy of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych (which may have contributed to his severe injury). I’m also extrapolating from boxing and MMA, which historically have leaned the most on PPVs. Put simply, more people have been willing to pay to see Connor McGregor than to see Valentina Shevchenko. And I’d bet more people would be more willing to see Sandy Koufax than Ned Garver.

Another, sleazier one is the notion of small-market/poor team owners simply giving up and advertising the players on the opposing team for the PPV spectacle. “Hey, [Small City], do you want to see the Yankees? The Dodgers? The [other good team with an exciting player]?” There are possibilities here.

You Can’t Have George Ruth Without George Smith

Yesterday 91 years ago, the first inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame were announced. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson went in. While the Hall arguments have become rather… divisive, it’s hard to argue with any of those choices.

And then there’s George Smith, a pitcher in the 1920s who was a rare concrete example of a “replacement-level” player. Smith’s most notable career feat was giving up a really long home run to Babe Ruth in spring training. Then there’s another George Smith, another pitcher in the 1920s who was also replacement-level, although this George Smith was primarily a reliever (and a wild pitcher, as his walk rate even by the high standards of the time shows).

While the ceiling and the basement can draw interest, the most fascinating historical players for me are those in the so-called “Hall of Very Good”, the kind that make the Hall ballot, get single-digit support at best, yet still had excellent careers by “normal” standards. In some way it’s unfair to them, as some of them do, to actually make the Hall of Fame, as they go from “great player” to “bad Hall of Famers”.

Different Sports What-Ifs

Of all the theorized “what if this successful and physically talented athlete played a different sport” questions, the most interesting, in my eyes, is American football. This is because that sport involves a wide array of roles that each require a different physical quality and skill set.

The least satisfying is baseball, because the skill sets there are not immediately obvious. Yet you can argue that baseball is interesting because it has the most definite stats. Jim Thorpe and Bo Jackson were incredibly strong physically, but neither was more than decent as a baseball player. Looking at Jackson’s batting stats and just his batting stats, you’d see power but a ton of strikeouts and few walks-the sort of numbers you’d associate more with a Dave Kingman-style lummox over a wall-jumping acrobat.

Then there’s Brian Jordan, who was also a football-turned baseball player and was also a low-walk slugger, but didn’t strike out as often as Jackson did. However, there was an aspiring football running back who ended up playing baseball instead. And he was one of the best walk-drawers (and baserunnners, and players in general) of all time. I speak of Rickey Henderson. So I want to say that, for any obviously talented player in another sport, the likeliest path for them in baseball is the “low-walk slugger” approach, but Henderson’s path means you never know.

Sabermetric Roy Hobbs

What would a more “plausible” Roy Hobbs resemble? A part of me wants to say Bob Thurman or Chuck Hostetler. Those were two players who entered the big leagues past the point where most players retire as position players. Of course, neither matches Hobbs’ “shot and returned with thunderous flash much later” story. Thurman was kept out of the major leagues by segregation while Hostetler only got a spot due to the World War II roster crunch.

Hostetler hit for more average, with no home runs (although that could be due in part to the materially deader ball of the wartime period). Thurman hit for more power with a lower average. Hostetler had slightly more stolen bases. Both were pinch hitters/backup corner outfielders. Hostetler had a degree of infamy for failing on the bases in Game 6 of the 1945 World Series and costing the Tigers the win-yet with ultimately few hard feelings or remembrances as they won Game 7 anyway (this would have been the fate of Bill Buckner had the Red Sox won in 1986).

Could you make a book about a fictional version of someone like one of those two, a old low-list role player either hit (Thurman) or helped (Hostetler) by circumstance? Of course. And, in my opinion, such an unusual but not overly powerful standout would arguably be more interesting than a super-player who dominates the league until his character lets him down.

Review: The Natural

The Natural

Sports fiction strangely suffers from the exact same problem that political fiction does. Because there’s so much available in the true world, both past and present, fiction has to be either an obviously forced and exaggerated version or often come across as feeling simply redundant. While success is not impossible, it’s an uphill climb.

One of the classic sports novels is Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, famous for its enduring reputation and movie version that sits alongside Starship Troopers in the field of “movies completely different from the book”. Having read the original book, I have to say: I don’t like it.

There’s one big problem with this book about baseball, which is that Malamud didn’t know that much about the sport. While others have gone into more detail, I’ll say this. There’s some errors like talk of a past World Series between the A’s and White Sox (two AL teams), but the bigger issue is simple. Hobbs comes across as what someone who doesn’t know that much about baseball would think a great player is.

Hobbs is good (unless the plot calls for him not to be) and good in a very boring way, simply hitting and hitting and hitting, not even rising to the level of classic Paul Bunyan baseball stories like how Cool Papa Bell supposedly got hit in the back by his own line drive simply because he ran so fast. Nope, it’s just four home runs in a game and “wondrous averages”. This isn’t a John Rourke or Blaine McCracken of the diamond, it’s a guy skilled in the baseball equivalent of “Special Forces, Ranger, SEAL, and gutter-fighting”.

Without that frame of reference, a lot of it is just references to various baseball legends-Babe Ruth, in the form of the Whammer. Fred Merkle’s baserunning fail, in the form of Fisher’s Flop, the Black Sox (in the form of the ending), and so much more (as the Gerry O’Connor article points out). A modern version would incorporate versions of Bill Buckner, Steve Bartman, and the 2004 lunar eclipse, to give you an idea of how blatant it all is to anyone who knows the slightest bit about early 20th century baseball.

So why am I suddenly so hard on realism and accuracy, when I’m clearly not when it comes to other books? Because the book is self-serious, for one. It’s like trying to write a literary novel about the life of a man who was a soldier, making the battle scenes right out of a stereotypical John Wayne movie, and sometimes descending to Ian Slater levels of technical inaccuracy. Would that interfere with the tone? Definitely.

Especially since, with the benefit of hindsight, this just looks like an exaggerated version (remember the introduction) of the Capital N Narrative approach to sportswriting, the clumsy and inaccurate reduction of a game into a tale of personal morality and internal struggle, applied constantly to real games by sportswriters of dubious quality (sometimes with extra crass humor).

Finally, the prose simply isn’t very good. It’s blocky, incredibly “lush”, and everything is either overdescribed or underdescribed. None of the characters are particularly interesting. And to be honest, in many ways the book feels just as shallow as the movie, only with a different morality. Give me saccharine goo that knows it’s saccharine goo over pretentiousness that doesn’t know its own subject any time.