Thorstein Veblen, Ty Cobb, and the evolution of an institution.

Author:Peach, James
Position:Petco Park

A thorough examination of the by-laws of the Association for Evolutionary Economics revealed no prohibition against having a little fun during a presidential address. So, this is a perfect occasion to say a few words about two of my long-time intellectual passions: institutional economics and the institution of baseball. The professional careers and contributions of Thorstein Bunde Veblen and Tyrus Raymond Cobb are obvious choices to help structure these remarks.

Veblen and Cobb

Veblen (1857-1929) and Cobb (1886-1961) were professional contemporaries even though Cobb was born nearly three decades after Veblen. Cobb began his major league career in 1905, when Veblen was at the height of his career, and continued to play ball until 1928, the year before Veblen's death. Cobb has been described frequently as the all-time meanest man in baseball, and there is little evidence to contradict that assertion. Veblen had his own peculiarities. Cobb made a fortune from product endorsements, cotton futures, and Coca Cola stock. Veblen had a great deal to say about sports and the stock market.

Veblen's contributions need little or no elaboration for this audience. In one form or another, Veblen's evolutionary analysis of dynamic economic process is the distinguishing feature of institutionalism. The Association for Evolutionary Economics (AFEE) would have few members today if Veblen had not produced his convoluted prose and remarkably astute theoretical insights. Veblen wrote only a few pages on sports ([1899] 1953, 168-182), but his analysis of the topic reads well more than a century later.

Cobb, like Veblen, made extraordinary contributions to his profession. Biographies of Cobb by Al Stump (1994), Charles Alexander (1984), David McCallum (1975), Gene Schoor (1952), and Richard Bak (1994); his autobiography ghost written by Stump (1961); a novel titled Tyrus (Creevy 2002); and the statistical record document his achievements both on and off the field. When he retired in 1928, Cobb held forty-three major league records and atone time had set more than ninety records. Many of Cobb's records have since been surpassed, but not by a single player. His lifetime batting average of 0.367 over twenty-four years will not fall any time soon.

Between 1903 and 2002, the mean batting average in major league ball has been 0.261 with a standard deviation of 0.0391. (1) Cobb's record was 2.679 standard deviations from the mean. Nothing like this record has ever been seen. Among currently active players, Todd Helton (first base) of the Colorado Rockies has the highest lifetime batting average (0.337), and only once in his seven-year career (0.372 in 2000) has he had an average higher than Cobb's lifetime average (Major League Baseball). Helton would need to hit over 0.400 for the next six or seven years to top Cobb's 0.367 lifetime average, and no one has hit over 0.400 since Ted Williams (0.406) in 1941. Even if Helton could hit 0.400 for six or seven years, he would need to hit at least 0.367 for another decade to match Cobb's twenty-four-year batting average.

Dennis Clason, a statistician and colleague at New Mexico State University, commented that these numbers "imply that Cobb came from a different distribution--a different planet, if you prefer." The probability that a randomly selected ballplayer would have a batting average 2.679 standard deviations above the mean in a single year is 0.0037. Assuming that the player's batting average in a year is an independent event, the probability (2) of matching Cobb's record is 0.0037 raised to the 24th power, or 4.3 x [10.sup.59]. This calculation does not take into account the fact that only forty major league ballplayers (including Cobb) out of 15,816 who played between 1903 and 2002 played for twenty-four years or more.

Cobb would have been a fascinating economist. He understood economic power and once testified before the U.S. Congress on that topic. He understood clearly the difference between ceremonial and functional behavior. His record and his autobiography indicate a thorough understanding of Veblen's instinct of workmanship. Cobb was unconventional, analytical, thorough, and impatient with his colleagues. One description of Cobb labeled him "a creature without normal motivation, a ballplayer ... who goes about his business oblivious to the laws and customs of the society in which he lives" (Coffin 1971, 80). Compare this description with Robert Heilbroner's assessment of Veblen as one who "walked through life as if he had descended from another world" (1972, 211).

Cobb was also a bigot. Cobb's racism was never disguised and sometimes vicious. Veblen's often misunderstood discussions of dolicho-blonds and racial superiority suggested that racism lacked any scientific basis. "Cobb was particularly brutal to blacks; on at least two occasions he struck black women" (Rader 2002, 108). Bak (1994, 126) and others reported that Cobb probably belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Cobb was so aggressive and belligerent (he was often accused of sharpening his spikes with a file before games to intimidate opposing players) that many questioned his sanity. By the time of his death he had few friends, and only three major leaguers attended his funeral (Rader 2002, 109).

Veblen taught us about invidious distinctions, leisure class canons of waste, pecuniary pursuits, and predatory habits of thought based on what he called the emulative predatory propensity. Cobb personified these phenomena.

Baseball as an Institution

Veblen also taught us to examine the interaction of technology and institutions to gain a better understanding of dynamic economic processes. These investigations are, or should be, conducted from an evolutionary point of view. This point of view implies that the origins and implications of change should be central analytical questions. Wendell Gordon (Gordon and Adams 1989, 16), a serious and knowledgeable student of the game who may be better known for his other contributions to society, defined an institution as "groupings of people with common behavior patterns, the members having an awareness of the patterns." Organized baseball is an institution that has been shaped by the evolution and interaction of other institutions and technology.

Technological change has been a powerful influence on organized baseball, despite its remarkable stability as an institution. The railroad and the telegraph allowed baseball to become a national game and a big business by the late nineteenth century. Efficient air transportation was an essential ingredient in Walter O'Malley's decision to move the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and to Major League Baseball's expansion to thirty teams scattered across the continent. Radio, television, and more recently the Internet have played and continue to play critical roles in the development of the game. Other examples of the influence of technology on baseball are obvious, but with few exceptions (e.g., Astroturf), baseball has not been a source of technological change.

Baseball has been a remarkably stable institution-or so it seems. (3) The National League was established in 1876. The American Association went through various transformations in the 1890s before being firmly...

To continue reading