Tragic Nonsense of History, or Ted Lilly Meets Old Hoss Radbourn on a Baseball Card

"Chasing History" is a decent conceit for a back-of-the-baseball-card factoid. It's better if that history is viewed in context, though.
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Not pictured: Keith Law.

Image via Wikipedia.

In the weeks before Opening Day during my early adolescence, I would stalk my local Wal-Mart. At some point in those slow-warming weeks, that year’s Topps baseball card set would arrive, and I hoarded my allowance money in anticipation. At the height of my collecting, which lasted roughly until Topps replaced its unchewable sticks of pink gum with shiny insert cards inlaid with scraps of player-used bats and jerseys, I kept this vigil. When the cards arrived, I would bike home with unopened boxes of wax packs that I’d rip through in search of members of my beloved hometown St. Louis Cardinals. Even now, I still purchase a few packs of Topps each year in late March as a way of gearing up for the long season ahead, still hoping to pull a few Redbirds from these increasingly expensive purchases.

Enticing wired preadolescents to spend some inflation-adjusted number of dollars on rectangular pieces of jock-adorned cardboard seems a hard sell nowadays, but Topps, as always, has tried to keep pace with youngsters’ ever-changing interests. In 1955, with television sweeping the nation, Topps released a line of baseball cards framed, as the bottom of each overtly states, by a wooden “color TV.”

Since then, the company has released 3-D cards, talking cards (you’ll need a computer or a record player), holographic cards, 22-karat-gold cards, and, of course, digital baseball cards. None of these, to be fair, are as strange as whatever Donruss Studio was supposed to be, but the trend-chasing is irrefutable; if the format and idea are eternal, the aesthetics and specifics are constantly in flux. The point is to lure people into buying the cards, and Topps, to its credit, will put on its cards whatever it thinks a notional card-buyer might want. In years past that might have been wood-paneling or puffy ’70s fonts. This year, it’s quasi-historical information that’s mostly nonsense. To each era what it wants.

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For 2013, Topps has focused on the indistinct theme of “Chasing History,” which is puffed-up enough to indulge baseball’s self-important tendencies and vague enough to mean more or less anything. In this case, it refers primarily to the career chase line printed on the back of every card in the 2013 Topps set that indicates how closely a player is to breaking an iconic major league record.

Derek Jeter’s card, for instance, includes the following: “With 3,304 hits, Jeter is 952 away from the all-time record of 4,256” (The omission of Pete Rose’s name is deliberate, as Topps and MLB decided that Rose’s lifetime ban disqualifies him from being mentioned on baseball cards, complicated history notwithstanding.) After pulling this card from a pack, I quickly calculated that if Jeter averages 191 hits over the next five years, he’ll surpass Rose as baseball's all-time hits king. Of course, Jeter will be 44 years old by this time, and few baseball players fare well in their forties; Rose, for one, never amassed more than 172 hits after turning 40. Nevertheless, this fun factoid made me realize for the first time that Jeter’s pursuit of Rose’s record, no matter how unlikely, is at least within the realm of possibility. It’s interesting, and a nice addition to the usual rote statistical columns. The problem is that, as any Yankees fan will tell you (even if you don’t bring it up), there is only one Derek Jeter.

For nearly every player besides Jeter, these career chase blurbs inadvertently underline either his greenness—“With 0 strikeouts, [Dylan] Bundy is 5,714 away from Nolan Ryan’s all-time record of 5,714”—or his irredeemable ordinariness. Take Ted Lilly, a former Jeter teammate if not quite Jeter’s opposite, in this case.

Lilly has labored, lucratively and more successfully than not, for six teams over big league 13 seasons, and finds himself at the tail end of a respectable but unspectacular career. He’s good enough at age 37 to earn a spot on a Major League roster—although where he fits in the Dodgers’ overstocked starting rotation upon his return from the DL is anyone’s guess—but in no danger of threatening any league records. Nevertheless, according to the “career chase” line on his 2013 Topps card, Lilly’s 130 wins put him only “381 away from Cy Young’s all-time record of 511.”

To put that in perspective, Lilly captured his first win on April 28, 2001, and then accumulated 129 more over the following 11 years. At that pace, Lilly would need to pitch 44 more seasons to surpass Cy Young’s wins record, a feat he would celebrate at age 81, shattering the record for longevity along the way, provided Jamie Moyer doesn’t mount another comeback.

And so we see, in this brutal contextualizing of Lilly’s solid-enough career, the problem with Topps’ “Chasing History” concept. Beyond Jeter’s pursuit of Rose’s hits record and, rehab-schedule and any future MLB disciplinary action pending, Alex Rodriguez’s joyless crawl toward Barry Bonds’s home run record (115 shy) and Hank Aaron’s RBI record (347 short), there really isn’t that much history to be chased right now, especially for starting pitchers. Not only are no active pitchers even halfway to Cy Young’s 511 wins—fortysomething Andy Pettitte leads the way with 245—but nobody has come within 100 wins of that unassailable record since Walter Johnson retired with 417 victories in 1927. Hurlers hoping to encroach on the single-season wins record are similarly out of luck: the 59 wins that 19th-century ace and authentic Twitter hero Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn of the Providence Grays tallied in 1887 is considered so unassailable that it is rarely ever referenced, more a quirky artifact of a bygone era than an attainable accomplishment. No big leaguer will start much more than half those 59 games this year, or any year in the foreseeable future.

There’s more to it than that, though. From 1883-84, Radbourn won 107 games, tossed 141 complete games and 1,311 total innings, and struck out 756 batters. In other words, he essentially matched Ted Lilly’s entire career over the course of two years. Radbourn faced hitters from a distance of 50 feet, and not from a raised mound but a six-by-four foot rectangular box, from which he was allowed a running or jumping start and the opportunity to smear, scuff, and slather the baseball as he saw fit. He was one of two starting pitchers on his team. Radbourn would’ve had to issue seven balls to walk a batter in 1883, and six in ’84. Foul balls were not counted as strikes. You get it. This isn’t just a losing chase. It’s not a chase at all.

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What would it even mean to catch this history? When Radbourn’s fellow starter Charlie Sweeney was suspended in 1884, Radbourn vowed, according to Edward Achorn’s meticulously researched and entertaining book Fifty-Nine in ’84,to “start every Grays game until the pennant was safely won.” From Sweeney’s departure until the Grays secured the pennant on September 26thover the Boston Beaneaters, Radbourn won 31 of the Grays’ 40 games, and at one point started and completed 22 consecutive contests. He ended the 1884 season with 59 wins, 2 saves, 441 strikeouts, and a 1.38 earned run average. He started and won all three games of that year’s inaugural World Series, although two were called because of darkness.

Radbourn’s punishing workload that season clearly caught up with him. Despite having won 48 games in 1883 and 59 in 1884, Radbourn never again tallied more than 28 wins. (However, as Achorn points out, Radbourn did become the first documented individual to flip off the camera when he unmistakably flashed his middle finger in a team photo on Opening Day in 1886.) He retired seven years later at the age of 36 and then died six short years afterward from syphilis. Which, maybe, brings us back to ordinary old Ted Lilly.

Ted Lilly isn’t going to challenge Old Hoss or Cy Young, and neither is anyone else. Mentioning that is, maybe, a nice reminder of how outsized and different the game was during the deadball era, but it also doesn’t do much to contextualize anything. It certainly doesn’t do anything to make baseball’s fickle relationship with its own history—manufacturing golden boys and golden eras, then tearing them down in later generations or forgetting about them altogether—any more comprehensible or sensible. A little context on the back of a baseball card isn’t a bad thing, just as more context in the way we talk about baseball would improve that conversation.

While Lilly may be laughably far from Cy Young’s record, he is halfway to becoming the all-time wins leader for a pitcher with the initials T.L. If Topps really wants to give Lilly something to shoot for, the back of his 2014 baseball card could read: “With 130 wins, Lilly is 130 away from Ted Lyons’s all-time record of 260 for pitchers with the initials T.L.” Barring a late-career resurgence to rival that of the aforementioned Moyer, who won 151 games after his 37th birthday—second only to Phil Niekro’s 187 and another great back-of-the-card factoid—Ted Lilly will likely fall short of this record as well. But at least the chase would make some sense.


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