What Happened between 1977 and 1982?

Late in the season, I started messing around with the “Win Shares age” of current and past players. The idea behind Win Shares age is simple: you take each player’s age, multiply it by his Win Shares (a simple number that measures how much he contributed to his team), add them all up and divide by total Win Shares. What you get is the average age of a team or league, weighted by how much each player contributed.

Here’s a graph of the average major league Win Shares age beginning with 1876, the first year of the National League.


One little graph, so many stories! As you can see, major league baseball was originally a young man’s game. The all-time low age was 23 in 1878, a figure largely driven by 22-year-old Tommy Bond, who started 59 of Boston’s 60 games, went 40-19 with a 2.06 ERA and had 60 Win Shares. Baseball was a different game back then, wasn’t it?

Major league baseball expanded to three leagues in the 1880s, shrank in the 1890s as the National League enjoyed a monopoly, then expanded again in 1901 when the American League decided to compete directly with the National. During those years, the average major league age rose steadily as the leagues pulled in players from other clubs, and ballplayers found they could kinda sorta make a bit of money playing ball. In other words, playing ball became a real job, at least on a part-time basis. By 1906, the average major league age had risen to 28.5 years, six years older than it had been 30 years earlier.

The average age remained 28.5 in 1908 (perhaps the greatest baseball season ever), but in 1909 the average Win Shares age fell a full year, the biggest single-season change in modern baseball history. Several older players started to decline in 1909 (Honus Wagner, Mike Donlin), and a younger generation of 21- and 22-year-olds took center stage, including four players who now rank among the 12 highest on the all-time Win Shares totals list: Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Eddie Collins. In fact, 1909 may mark the greatest “generational shift” of baseball talent ever.

Taking it a step further, Speaker and Johnson’s age cohorts may also be the “greatest age group” in baseball history. In 1913, at the age of 25, they accounted for 16% of all major league Win Shares, the highest total of any age group in any year. The gang included Speaker (630 career Win Shares), Johnson (560), Zack Wheat (380), Harry Hooper (321), Bobby Veach (265), Del Pratt (242), Cy Williams (235), Donie Bush (232) and Hippo Vaughn (205).

The next significant aging blip occurred during the last two years of World War II, when young men went off to war and baseball was played by the old and one-armed. When players like Stan Musial returned from the war, the average age returned to its prewar level and then declined further as new generations took to the field and integration eventually increased the pool of available young talent.

The leagues expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, which helped keep the average age at a relatively low level as major league teams looked everywhere for talent. It’s also likely that the “baby boom” generation supplied a steady feed of young talent during those years. And then something happened around 1977. See that increase from 1977 to 1982? The average major leaguer aged a year in that time, one of the biggest shifts in history. When I noticed that blip last September, I wondered what could have aged the average major league player so much after so many years of stability…

After thinking about it and doing a bit of research, I think we can safely say that Andy Messersmith did it. The Messersmith ruling was in 1976, when arbitrator Peter Seitz declared that Messersmith and Dave McNally were free agents after sitting out for a year. As a result of this landmark ruling, 22 players never signed their 1976 contracts, and they became the first “free-agent class” in the offseason between 1976 and 1977. Here’s a list of some of the major contracts signed by that class:

Players            Age       Years        Total Value
Reggie Jackson      31         5          $3,000,000
Joe Rudi            30         5           2,090,000
Don Gullett         26         6           2,000,000
Gene Tenace         30         5           1,815,000
Bobby Grich         28         5           1,750,000
Rollie Fingers      30         6           1,600,000
Dave Cash           29         5           1,500,000
Sal Bando           33         5           1,400,000
Gary Matthews       26         5           1,200,000
Don Baylor          28         6           1,020,000
Bill Campbell       28         5           1,000,000
Wayne Garland       26        10           1,000,000
Campy Campaneris    35         5             950,000

Those figures look almost quaint by today’s standards, don’t they? I don’t know about you, but the length of the contracts really jump out at me. Giving five, six and 10-year contracts to players, let alone players in their 30s, is something you just don’t see outside of Toronto these days. As a result, the “cost of retirement” rose for players who would lose out on the last years of their contracts if they left the ballgame. Campaneris and Bando, as just two examples from this list, probably retired a couple of years later than they would have in the 1960s.

Even those who didn’t sign long-term contracts delayed hanging up their spikes; if you pay someone lots of money to do something, they’re likely to keep doing it. Three pitchers in particular, Phil Niekro, Jim Kaat and Gaylord Perry, set a record for most Win Shares by 43-year-olds (27 in 1982), a record that will probably be broken in 2006 if Roger Clemens returns to the mound.

Owners also started to figure out that they could hold back their young players from major league rosters in order to ensure that their major league time was productive and they could hold onto the players longer. In 1978, 21-year-olds contributed 169 Win Shares, led by Terry Puhl, Lou Whitaker and Carney Lansford (and, a little lower on the list, Paul Molitor and Bob Welch), but this was a last hurrah for players that young. There hasn’t been a group of 21-year-olds that totaled even 100 Win Shares since 1982.

Today, more top prospects are likely to go to college than they did 40 years ago, which also impacts the age of players making their major league debut. But I doubt that this trend had much impact between 1977 and 1982.

Between older players hanging on and younger players staying in the minors longer, the major league “age curve” shifted to the right during those five years:


After 1982, the Win Shares age remained steady, right around 28.5 years, for about a decade. In 1993, however, it rose to 28.7 from 28.4 the previous year and increased steadily until it reached 29.3 in 2004, the highest major league age of any year other than the mid-1940s. Obviously, the 1990s were influenced by ever-growing salaries, better training and conditioning techniques and, um, performance-enhancing drugs. It will be interesting to see how much the crackdown on steroids impacts Win Shares age calculations in the future.

Win Shares age actually declined slightly last year, to 29.27. Having Barry Bonds on the sidelines and Randy Johnson below peak performance were big factors. Plus, a couple of interesting age groups deserve mention for their 2005 contributions:

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And that’s what happened between 1977 and 1982, as near as I can figure. As an added bonus, I’ll leave you with this table of the number of Win Shares contributed by each age group in each of the last four full decades. The last column is the percent change from the 1960s to the 1990s.

  Age      1961-1970  1971-1980  1981-1990  1991-2000  % Diff
   18            24         11          0          0
   19           183         38         45         18    -90%
   20           375        431        189        146    -61%
   21         1,150      1,350        657        486    -58%
   22         2,087      2,270      1,546      1,324    -37%
   23         3,414      3,791      2,915      2,704    -21%
   24         4,021      5,075      4,436      4,217      5%
   25         5,102      5,888      5,744      5,150      1%
   26         5,256      6,131      6,478      6,342     21%
   27         5,104      5,915      6,221      6,345     24%
   28         4,382      5,508      5,649      6,518     49%
   29         3,987      4,907      5,139      6,050     52%
   30         3,457      4,461      4,455      5,579     61%
   31         2,796      3,573      3,713      5,278     89%
   32         2,355      3,038      3,219      4,079     73%
   33         1,963      2,211      2,732      3,308     69%
   34         1,555      1,723      2,173      2,593     67%
   35           987      1,262      1,638      1,976    100%
   36           615        849      1,346      1,415    130%
   37           367        574        853        949    159%
   38           275        375        578        453     65%
   39           129        233        450        322    150%
   40            97        143        282        241    148%

References & Resources
All ages were pulled from the Lahman database, which has been updated for the 2005 season. They are calculated as of July 1 of each season.

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