The 5 Biggest What If's in Baseball History
One of my favorite questions. They are literally infinite, and the answers can be infinite as well.
In this article, I tried to focus on what if's that almost happened, rather than what if something simply didn't.
I also looked for topics that affected not just one player or one season, but all of baseball history. So no, "What if Tony Conigliaro was never hit by a pitch," or "What if World War II never happened."
Can you think of a better one? As extensively as I researched this article, I am sure there is a story tucked away somewhere I didn't find, and I would love to hear a "what if" that you think belongs on this list.
In 1973, the American League owners voted eight to four in favor of using the designated hitter for a three year trial.
However, this wasn't the first time the DH had been talked about. The first person to recommend the DH was William Chase Temple, who was president of the Pittsburgh Pirstes. He called it "ten-man baseball."
It was first referenced in a December 1891 Sporting News article. That next March, National League owners voted seven to five against adding the DH.
In 1906, Connie Mack revived the idea, and in 1928, NL president John Heydler advocated the DH. In a 1929 vote, the National League voted in favor of the idea, but the American League voted against it, and the idea was forgotten. That was the final time the DH was brought up until 1973.
What if the National League approved the DH in 1892?
When the American League came around in 1901, the DH would have already been used for nine years, and would have been considered the norm. The AL would have included the DH and it would be used by both leagues.
Imagine if players such as Frank Howard, Eddie Yost, Jim Bottomley and "Marvelous Marv" Throneberry were able to just hit instead of also pretending to be fielders. They would have extended their careers and been more valuable to their teams.
The bunt wasn't common until the 1880's, and wasn't part of baseball strategy until the 20th century. If the DH had been added in 1892, it would be traditional, and the traditionalists would scoff at the idea of any team that allowed its pitchers to hit.
Babe Ruth to the White Sox?
In 1919, Harry Frazee was in a tough situation. His young star Babe Ruth had always been a discipline problem, jumping the team several times and spending many late nights drinking.
Now he was demanding a $20,000 salary, double his salary the previous year. Frazee decided that the team would be better off trading him.
At the time, the American League was still run by iron-fisted Ban Johnson, and the league had split into two factions. The Red Sox, Yankees and White Sox formed one faction, "The Insurrectos," and the Athletics, Browns (Orioles), Indians, Senators (Twins) and Tigers formed the "Loyal Five."
Due to this split, the Red Sox could only trade with the Yankees and White Sox. Both teams made an offer.
The Yankees offered $125,000, in addition to a $300,000 loan with Fenway Park as collateral. The White Sox offered $60,000 and "Shoeless Joe" Jackson. Frazee accepted the Yankees offer and gave this explanation:
"I should have preferred to take players in exchange for Ruth, but no club could have given me the equivalent in men without wrecking itself, and so the deal had to be made on a cash basis. No other club could afford to give me the amount the Yankees have paid for him, and I don't mind saying I think they are taking a gamble. With this money the Boston club can now go into the market and buy other players and have a stronger and better team in all respects than we would have had if Ruth had remained with us."
Another reason Frazee may have been reluctant to trade for Jackson was the rumor of his involvement in the Black Sox Scandal.
What if Harry Frazee accepted the White Sox offer?
In Boston, Shoeless Joe would have a great year in 1920 before he was banned from baseball, leaving the Red Sox with only the $60,000.
Ruth would have had to negotiate his contract demands with the notoriously cheap Charles Comiskey. It is very possible that Ruth would have left baseball and gone on to be a boxer or actor, as he planned to do when holding out with the Red Sox. The world may have never seen Ruth play again.
For the sake of argument, let's pretend Ruth agreed to Comiskey's demands and played for the White Sox.
In 1920, the White Sox finished two games behind the Indians for the pennant. Using fangraphs wins above replacement (WAR) it can be estimated that the White Sox would have finished three games ahead of Cleveland and won the pennant.
The Indians beat the Dodgers five game to two, and it is likely the White Sox would have done so as well.
The eight players would then be banned, and the White Sox would drift back, but would finish in fifth rather than seventh.
Would a World Series victory and an estimated 78-78 (rather than 68-92) post-scandal team convince Comiskey to keep improving the team, rather than making little attempt to replace the expelled players?
Would the Yankees still form a dynasty?
Would Babe Ruth be the legend he is today?
Would the dead ball era have ended without Ruth's dramatic counterexample?
We will never know.
American League Folds?
After the 1920 season ended, baseball was dealing with the Black Sox scandal. Cubs owner Albert Lasker proposed a plan to replace the ineffective National Commission with a new "civilian tribunal."
The commission consisted of the presidents of both leagues, in addition to a mediator, and the tribunal would have three citizens with no financial interest in baseball.
All eight National League teams agreed to the plan, in addition to "The Insurrectos" (Red Sox, Yankees and White Sox).
The 11 teams gave an ultimatum to the other five teams, saying that if they did not agree to the plan, they would form the New National League and give a 12th spot to whichever of the "Loyal Five" applied first. If no team joined, an expansion team would be placed in Detroit.
After tense negotiations, both sides agreed on the current commissioner system and selected Kenesaw Landis as the first commissioner.
What if the two sides did not come to a new agreement?
In all likelihood, one of the Loyal Five would have opted to join the New National League. That league would have much better financial security, and at least one team would opt to leave for greener pastures.
The four remaining franchises would continue the American League. AL president Ban Johnson would replace the four teams that deserted with new teams in the same city, as he promised before the agreement.
The league would have struggled with half of the franchises being expansion teams, and would have either folded or become more of a minor league.
Baseball would go back to the one league system. The World Series had proved to be very popular and profitable, so the owners would have made the series between the first and second place teams.
As the national population grew, the league would have to expand. Eventually these teams would have to split into divisions, and the Major League Baseball division structure may look more like other major sports leagues, with less separation between the two leagues.
Baseball might still be using the civilian tribunal, and the other major sports leagues may have followed suit.
Integration in 1938?
Late in 1937, Pittsburgh Pirates manager Pie Traynor received a telegraph from local writer Chester Washington:
KNOW YOUR CLUB NEEDS PLAYERS STOP HAVE ANSWER TO YOUR PRAYERS RIGHT HERE IN PITTSBURGH STOP JOSH GIBSON CATCHER FIRST BASE B. LEONARD AND RAY BROWN PITCHER OF HOMESTEAD GRAYS AND S. PAIGE PITCHER COOL PAPA BELL OF PITTSBURGH CRAWFORDS ALL AVAILABLE AT REASONABLE FIGURES STOP WOULD MAKE PIRATES FORMIDABLE PENNANT CONTENDERS STOP WHAT IS YOUR ATTITUDE? STOP WIRE ANSWER
Basically, Washington was asking Traynor what he thought of integrating the team. Traynor never responded and the Pirates went on to lose the 1938 pennant by two games, thanks to a late season collapse.
What if the Pirates added Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige and Ray Brown to a roster that already included Arky Vaughan and Paul and Lloyd Waner?
Using WAR and Major League comparables, I estimate the Pirates would have been one of the best teams in baseball history. Even using conservative numbers, the Pirates jump from being an 86 win team to more of a 105-110 win team.
Imagine the World Series that would have followed against the Yankees: Buck Leonard, the "Black Lou Gehrig," against Lou Gehrig himself. Josh Gibson against Joe DiMaggio, Satchel Paige and Ray Brown against Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing. The series would have included 14 Hall of Famers.
One question would be, is this even possible? For this to work, the owner, manager, players, commissioner and American people would all have to be willing to accept the new Pirates roster.
The Pirates owner at the time was Bill Benswanger. In the mid 1940s it was rumored that Benswanger tried to sign Gibson to a contract, but he was unsuccessful.
The Pirates manager was Pie Traynor. Traynor was the man who never responded to the telegraph, but it isn't fair to say he was a racist.
After the 1938 season Traynor was quoted as saying, "It is a known fact that there are plenty of Negroes capable of playing in the big leagues."
So it is likely there was another reason he never responded. He was very well respected in Pittsburgh, and could have helped support the new players.
The players may have balked at the idea, but Pie Traynor was well respected, and could have made a similar ultimatum to the one Leo Durocher made to the 1947 Dodgers:
"I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a [explicit] zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What's more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded."
The commissioner of baseball at the time was Kenesaw Landis. He was a known racist and blocked attempts to integrate baseball, including Bill Benswanger's attempt to sign Gibson in the mid 1940s.
Jackie Robinson was first contacted by Branch Rickey less than a year after Landis' death. So Landis' presence is what would have held up the plan.
Finally comes the American People. There really was no ideal time to integrate baseball (or anything for that matter), but America made major strides during the course of World War II. Integration would have been tougher in the 1930s, but with five players together, rather than just one, they would have managed it.
No Free Agency?
In December of 1975, after a long legal battle, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of the MLB Players Association and granted free agency. This was a turning point not just in baseball history, but sports history as well.
What if Seitz ruled in favor of the owners?
Salaries, not to mention tickets, concessions, souveniers and pretty much everything else would be a lot cheaper. Every team would be on a level playing ground too.
There would have to be some system to at least give players better salaries than they were getting, but so many teams would still have great players that they ended up losing to free agency.
Think of all the players who either left via free agency or were traded because of impending free agency.
The Mariners could have kept Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson. The A's might have kept Reggie Jackson, Jason Giambi, Catfish Hunter and Mark McGwire. Manny Ramirez and CC Sabathia could have stayed in Cleveland. Barry Bonds would have stayed in Pittsburgh. And that's just to name a few.
Then look at the other leagues. Without a precedent from baseball, would the other leagues have free agency? Would the Cavaliers still have LeBron? Would the Falcons have kept Deion Sanders? Would Shaq have played out his career in Orlando? Would Zdeno Chara still be in Ottowa?
Of course, free agency probably would have come in a different way, but it's fun to speculate.