Biggest 'What Ifs' That Would Have Changed the Course of Baseball History

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterMay 9, 2013

Biggest 'What Ifs' That Would Have Changed the Course of Baseball History

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    "What if...?"

    It's the start of a question that's meant to engender conversation and debate.

    It's supposed to challenge us and make us think.

    Sometimes, it's just plain old fun.

    With that in mind, let's ask that question about a handful of baseball topics that should lead to plenty of conversation, debate, thought and fun. All at the same time, if we're lucky.

    What follows are five "What if...?" scenarios that would have dramatically altered not just one player or one team or even one season, but the course of America's pastime.

What If Babe Ruth Wasn't Traded to the Yankees?

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    What Happened: Sure, it's a bit of a cliche, but it's just wrong to ignore or overlook the possibility of what would have happened had the Boston Red Sox not traded George Herman "Babe" Ruth (pictured) to the New York Yankees.

    You're familiar with this, of course, but the trade—or purchase, as it's classified—occurred on Jan. 3, 1920, when the Yanks essentially bought Ruth for $100,000 from Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, who was looking for money to finance a Broadway show.

    The rest? History. Ruth went on to become arguably the best player ever, finishing with a then-record 714 home runs, helping the Yankees to seven World Series appearances and four championships—their first four.

    The Red Sox, meanwhile, had won three titles with Ruth on their roster from 1914-19, but after the one in 1918, they would have to wait another 86 years. And so was born the "Curse of the Bambino," one of baseball's greatest pieces of lore, as well as the intense and dramatic rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox that was cultivated over decades and across centuries.

    What Could Have Happened: Had Ruth stayed in Boston and on the same career path, it's likely the Red Sox would have continued winning World Series into the 1920s and been the dominant team in the sport over the first quarter-century of the 1900s. All those years of self-loathing, Red Sox fans? Poof.

    The Yankees, on the other hand, may have been the ones to wait for a title. Remember, they hadn't even been to the World Series in the first 20 years of their existence, and they had finished under .500 in six of the eight seasons prior to acquiring Ruth in 1920.

    The rivalry between the two teams still may have happened, since they did play in the same league and later the same division, although certainly nowhere near the level reached when it basically took on a life of its own.

    The big question, though? Would Jay-Z still rap about the Yankees?

What If Major League Baseball Was Never Segregated?

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    What Happened: Until Jackie Robinson's debut on April 15, 1947, no African-American player had played Major League Baseball in the modern era.

    Baseball, like all of the United States, was divided by color and racism, and it took just the right man at just the right time to overcome a tumultuous time in the sport's—and the nation's—history.

    Upon Robinson's immediate success with the Brooklyn Dodgers, as he won the first-ever Rookie of the Year award, not only was the color line gone, but the road was paved for more black players to follow in Robinson's footsteps, albeit almost 50 years after Major League Baseball as we know it began.

    What Could Have Happened: If baseball had been integrated from the start, so much would be different that it's almost impossible to know where to begin.

    Certainly, Major League Baseball's level of competition would have been much higher, as the best black players in the country, like power-hitting catcher Josh Gibson (pictured), fastest-man-you-ever-saw Cool Papa Bell and hard-throwing right-hander Satchel Paige, would have been some of the best in the game. Period.

    Pennants and titles would have been won and lost based on how players both black and white were able to coexist and succeed at a time when the rest of the United States was unable to do so.

    Some minor drawbacks—and don't mistake these for reasons baseball was better off segregated—are that the Negro Leagues likely never would have been created, and we wouldn't have the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

    Plus, because they would have played in the major leagues, we would never get to speculate in endless wonderment about just how many homers Gibson would have hit compared to Babe Ruth, how many bases Bell would have swiped compared to Ty Cobb or how many games Paige would have won compared to Walter Johnson.

What If Curt Flood Hadn't Challenged Major League Baseball's Reserve Clause?

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    What Happened: A three-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove winner, Curt Flood (pictured) was a good baseball player. But it's what he did off the field that ignited change within the sport forever.

    After the 1969 season, Flood was traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies, but he refused to accept the deal, claiming he should have the right, at some point in his career, to choose which team to play for.

    At the time, Major League Baseball still operated under the decades-old reserve clause, which essentially bound players to the team they originally signed with for their entire career (unless traded or released). As a free citizen of the United States, Flood felt this was unfair and unjust, and he said as much to commissioner Bowie Kuhn in a letter:

    After twelve years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the sovereign States.

    Backed by Marvin Miller, head of the Players Association, Flood brought a lawsuit against baseball, one that eventually reached the Supreme Court. While the decision did not go in Flood's favor, he had done enough to garner solidarity and support among his fellow players, who, with the help of Miller and the players' union, ushered in the start of free agency in 1975.

    From there, everything changed, and mostly for the better—from player salaries to attendance figures to owners' profits.

    What Could Have Happened: Given how much fans enjoy the hot stove offseason, it's difficult to imagine baseball existing in a non-free market. Yet that was the case not even 40 years ago, and if Flood had simply accepted the trade from the Cardinals to the Phillies, who knows when—or even if—that would have changed.

    In all likelihood, some other player, or perhaps even Miller himself, would have challenged Major League Baseball on the reserve clause. Eventually.

    The circumstances, though, would have been different, and thus, the outcome could have been, too. And remember, Flood didn't even win his lawsuit—the real win came as he was gaining support from other players, which brought a strength-in-numbers mentality to the cause.

    Had the advent of free agency been pushed back even a few more years, who's to say the booming, multi-billion-dollar industry of baseball is doing as well as it is today?

What If Performance-Enhancing Drug Testing Had Started Sooner?

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    What Happened: You know the story all too well by now. In need of something to spark interest in the game again after the 1994 strike, baseball as a whole pretty much turned a blind eye to the ever-growing issue of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs.

    The Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase of 1998 is often cited as a key factor in bringing fans back, but it turned out that all of that good will—and all of those homers—came under very questionable pretenses.

    Steroids, human growth hormone and other performance-enhancing drugs weren't exactly new to the game in the late 1990s, but that's when everything in that previously underground world started bubbling to the surface.

    Soon, home run records were falling left and right, from McGwire's 70 in '98 to Barry Bonds' 73 in 2001 and then Bonds' 756 in 2007.

    By the time that last one happened, though, baseball had adopted a drug-testing policy with penalties for those who tested positive, taking full effect in 2004. The policy and penalties have become more stringent over the past several years, which has helped to clean up the sport, even if it's impossible to entirely eliminate the use of illegal performance-enhancers.

    What Could Have Happened: Whispers of steroids started back in the late 1980s, and players like Jose Canseco, who's heyday was that era, eventually admitted as much after the fact.

    There's no righteous, holier-than-thou finger-pointing here, because it was and is a sensitive subject with far-reaching ramifications, but if this had started being investigated sooner—and drug-testing with penalties had been enacted sooner—things would look a whole lot different.

    Mostly the record book. Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and others almost certainly never would have surpassed Roger Maris' single-season home run record. And Hank Aaron's 755 career homers (pictured) would still be the number to beat, instead of Bonds' 762.

    Player health and safety would also be better, as there have been studies proving that athletes who use steroids are more susceptible to injury, and even scarier, we don't know if certain performance-enhancing drugs have harmful long-term effects.

What If Steve Bartman Had Not Interfered in the 2003 NLCS?

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    What Happened: In short? This.

    Up three games to two on the Florida Marlins in the 2003 National League Championship Series, the Chicago Cubs were also winning Game 6 by a score of 3-0—and were just five outs from their first World Series appearance since 1945.

    Yes, the Lovable Losers, 95 years after their last title, were finally about to get another shot. Until everything fell apart in mere minutes.

    In just about everyone's eyes, it all started when Steve Bartman, a fan sitting in foul territory along the left field line, interfered with left fielder Moises Alou's attempt to catch a foul fly ball on the edge of the stands (pictured) off the bat of Luis Castillo.

    Mark Prior, one of the game's best pitchers that year, would eventually walk Castillo, and well, that's when the wheels fell off in a barrage of hits, errors and intentional walks. All told, the Cubs went from up 3-0 to down 8-3 and would go on to lose the game and the series, while the Marlins went all the way.

    As for Bartman? He may as well be public enemy No. 1 on the North Side.

    What Could Have Happened: It's sad—and perhaps more than a little crazy—to think that Bartman was to blame for yet another Cubs postseason disaster.

    So while it's fun to envision a world where the ball falls through Bartman's outstretched hands and into Alou's glove, thus saving both Bartman and the Cubs' World Series hopes, it's also problematic.

    First, there's the issue of whether Alou even would have made a catch that was not at all easy.

    Then the Cubs would still have had to get one more out in the eighth inning with a runner on second base, as well as three outs in the ninth—all while clinging to a small lead.

    And assuming the Cubs managed to win the NLCS in six, they would have gone on to face the New York Yankees in the World Series, and just because the Marlins took down the Yanks, it doesn't mean the Cubs would have done the same.

    In fact, knowing the Cubbies' history, it's entirely possible that something even more curse-crazed and heart-breaking would have happened at a bigger moment, on the biggest stage in baseball.

    Or, you know, maybe instead of staring at what currently stands at 105 straight championshipless seasons, the Cubs would have—at long last—won it all 10 years ago.

    What other "What Ifs" do you ruminate on? Break 'em out in the comments.